Sir: PD James did not say that only middle-class people were capable of making a moral choice. What she tried to say was that, in inner-city areas, it's damned hard and well-nigh impossible to do the right thing, even if you know what the right thing is to do. Sometimes you get no choice at all, if you want to live, or want to live any sort of life at all, which is why the most entertaining aspect of writing "hard-boiled" detective stories is that you get to describe admirable immorality and to try to explain those infinite shades of grey. More heinously, Phyllis James did suggest on air that only a well-educated person could make a moral choice to which her Dalgleish would say "What rubbish" and Mark Timlin's Sharman "What a load of bollocks!", and they'd both be right. It's like saying all humans speak but only this lot have a language. Notions of what is good and what is evil are as variable as our postcodes, but there are certain fundamental natural laws that are common to all rational beings, whether they write poetry in Middle England or walk the mean streets of Streatham. Unfortunately, most detective novels in the classic tradition do not describe, as Ms James insists, a mighty clash of good and evil but, rather, a cosy crush of conformity.
The writer is a former committee member of the Crime Writers' Association and Raymond Chandler Award winner 1994/5.Reuse content