Remembering P.D. James: When Crime Comes Calling, Good Luck Ignoring Its Knock

With the recent death of the doyenne of crime fiction P.D. James at age 94, I am reminded of a wondrous quote she made in 2011 that put my life and work into perspective. Speaking in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, she said: "I don't think that we necessarily choose our genre; the genre chooses us."

Hell yeah! I've tried on several occasions to write in a variety of genres yet each time they seem to morph back into the only genre I seem capable of writing and that is crime fiction, just like Ms. James, although not nearly as fabulously, of course.

From the Mouth of Babes

Take the first book I ever wrote (or, at least, pretend to, it never actually made it beyond my school-edition spiral notepad). I was an impressionable 13-year-old, locked away in a Sydney boarding school bursting with hormonally charged girls and humorless nuns. Desperate to experience the great mystery they called 'love', I picked up my pen and began to write a romance novel. As you do.

It was as much for my own benefit as the daily entertainment of several friends who leapt upon the pages like episodes of a soap, devouring the scribbled words faster than I could write them. It was a lot of fun, for a short period of time. With gusto, I created a sassy heroine, flung her in the musk-scented path of a handsome hero, set them both in a towering office block in New York City (where else?), and let the chips fall where they may.

It didn't take long for the chips to go soggy.

Much to my friends' dismay, by chapter five I had killed off the romance and produced a festering corpse (yep, you guessed it, hunky hero bit the dust). I couldn't help myself, it just made everything so much more interesting, for me at least.

Cashing in

Six years later, and now more desperate to travel through Europe than into a lover's arms, I approached Mills & Boon about writing a novel. I wanted to earn some quick cash and really, how hard could it be? I had heard how dowdy housewives everywhere were raking it in with the simplest of storylines and the scantest of skill. It'd be a cinch!

So, I outlined a rough plot, popped it in the mail to M&B head office, and hoped for the best. Within weeks M&B had replied, sending me their infamous 'How To' Template and asking me to get back to them with the first three chapters, pronto.

Overjoyed, and not a little smug, I sat down and began to write. Scratch that. I sat down and attempted to write. It was the hardest three chapters I had ever tried. And the strain must have been evident in the prose I produced because it didn't take long for M&B to return my three chapters with a curt cover note telling me thanks but no thanks. My writing, they explained, was simply "not convincing enough." My heart sank and my pride took a nosedive.

I knew exactly what they meant and I didn't blame them one bit. Of course it wasn't convincing and why would it be? I never read romance. Didn't even like the stuff, and no amazing plot (or unjustified ego) was going to change that. Through my own words I had exposed myself. I was a romance fraud and I should stay out of the genre for good! So I filed it into the 'Oh Well' basket and did what I should have done in the first place and got a waitressing job.

On the Booker Path

Fast forward to six years later, I had returned from my travels and decided it was time to write The Great Australian Novel. I was in my late twenties after all, so I knew everything there was to know about life. Peter Carey and his ilk could bloody well watch out!

Yet again, I sat down to write. And yet again, I was left with egg dripping from my shiny, unlined face. The book, while not a complete disaster, was as far from winning a Booker as I was from becoming Brad Pitt's wife (important to me at that stage if you must know). But here's the thing, little did I know, even after I finished the final draft and began searching for a publisher, that while I had not actually written The Great Australian Novel, not even close, I had pulled off a half-decent murder mystery.

[In case you're wondering, it was supposed to be the story of one woman's quest to find her true self in deepest, darkest Papua New Guinea but quickly turned into one woman's search to discover how her father was slaughtered and who exactly dunnit.]

Oops, I'd done it again!

You'll be relieved to hear, after 20-plus years of trying, I have finally given in to the light and accepted Ms. James' prophecy. I now focus exclusively on what I love to read myself and what I tend to write best, and that is (duh!) crime fiction. Sure, my tomes are not in the same league as Ms. James and her lot, but they're great fun to plot, easy enough to write and provide me with a lovely little income that ensures I live to kill another day, and then some.

Vale, Ms. James, and thanks for making crime fiction a genre worth pursuing, whether I wanted to or not.