Late this week, the sad news broke that one of the true icons of modern crime writing, Baroness James of Holland Park - better known as PD James - had passed away at her home, aged 94. I had the rare pleasure of interviewing PD James in the lead-up to her 90th birthday, for an article in Good Reading, an Australian books magazine. She was a wonderful interview - thoughtful, insightful, articulate, and wickedly funny. In her honour, today I make that article available online.
Murder, She Wrote
Literary legend PD James talks to Craig Sisterson about quality crime writing, inspirational settings, and whether we’ve seen the last of Adam Dalgliesh
“I think a detective story can often tell us more about the society and the time in which it was set, than more prestigious literature can,” says Baroness James of Holland Park, her polite voice resonating brightly down the phone from her London home. “If you want to know what it was like to work in an office in London between the wars, then Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise is absolutely wonderful. In that office, with those people, you learn an awful lot about life in the time that the book was written. If you want to know what it’s like to be a policeman in Edinburgh, read Ian Rankin. His books are very realistic, and I think that’s a great virtue in crime writing. They should be set in a real place, not a never-never land.”
Whether you agree with Baroness James or not (and I do), few are better placed to comment; she has been writing detective fiction for fifty years (her legions of fans worldwide know her as PD James), is a Fellow of the Royal Societies of Literature and Arts, has received several honorary Doctorates from British universities, been a Governor of the BBC, won writing awards around the world, and been Chair of the Booker Prize. Just last year she published Talking about Detective Fiction, which she humbly termed a “short personal account” looking at the history and craft of the genre. And that’s just a miniscule fraction of her impressive accomplishments.
Quite simply, Baroness James is a living legend.
So, perhaps understandably, I had a few nerves jangling about the place as I called in the lead-up to her 90th birthday celebrations last month. It’s not every day you get to interview a true literary icon. But Baroness James immediately put me at ease; gracious and down-to-earth, she laughs easily and often as we chat about all manner of things.
Talking more about the link between crime fiction and place, she reveals the original inspiration for most of her 18 novels, including her beloved series starring cerebral policeman and poet Adam Dalgliesh, was a particular setting. “The idea comes with the setting,” she says.” I’m thinking of a beach, or a house with a bloodstained history maybe. A community of people is particularly good for detective stories because people are thrown together, not always willingly, and all sorts of collisions can arise.” Her characters come out of the setting, followed by the details of the plot. Over the 48 years since Dalgliesh first appeared, the gentleman detective has investigated murders in a variety of intriguing ‘closed community’ locations, from a theological college (Death in Holy Orders) to barristerial chambers (A Certain Justice) to a posh private cosmetic surgery clinic (The Private Patient, released in 2008).
“What I’m trying to do, and all good crime writers do, is you’re trying to get some of the psychological complexity of a good novel, in a place that is really coming alive for the reader, with a coherent plot, and one that is based really on characterisation, and not merely on the puzzle,” she says.
Later, while we’re talking about her being a member of the House of Lords, I suggest that it could make a terrific setting for a murder mystery. “The House of Lords would be a marvellous setting,” she says. “But there are so many technical problems. Believe it or not, you’re not allowed to die in the Palace of Westminster, which is where the House of Lords are, and if you do die, then you’re put in an ambulance and everyone is told you died on the way to hospital.”
When she sat down in the mid 1950s to start writing what would become her Dalgliesh-introducing debut, Cover Her Face, it never occurred to her to write anything other than a detective story. “I think we don’t often choose our genre, the genre chooses us.” She’d enjoyed reading Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh and thought “If I can do this, then it will stand a good chance of being accepted because it’s a popular genre”. And so it proved. “I was very lucky because it was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to, which was marvellous,” she says with a chuckle. “So I’ve never had a rejection slip for a novel. I’m very admiring of people who do have rejection slips, and they just put the book away and revise it later, or start another book. I think that shows a lot of determination and a lot of courage.”
Baroness James admits she initially thought crime writing might be “an apprenticeship” to becoming “regarded as a good and serious novelist”, before realising there could be much more to the genre than mere whodunits. “As I continued in my craft, and got more and more fascinated with the construction of the detective story, I realised I could stay within the conventions of the genre - you know, the central mysterious death, the closed circle of suspects, the detective who comes in like an avenging deity, the solution from logical deduction - that I could stay within those and write a good novel, and that has always been my ambition.”
Not that she hasn’t occasionally strayed; in 1992 she published the dystopian novel Children of Men, which was later made into an acclaimed film starring Clive Owen. Although the basic storyline (the human race becomes infertile and begins to die out) and some dialogue remains from her novel, the film producers did make several alterations. Not that Baroness James minds. “I thought the direction and acting were wonderful. Sometimes people say ‘do you mind what they did to your book?’ and I say ‘well, they can’t do anything to my book, they can’t alter a single comma’. What they’ve done is make a film from my story... and I think it was a very, very good film.”
Baroness James has also seen her popular Dalgliesh series adapted, with 12 of the 14 murder mysteries gracing British television. Unfortunately due to cost-cutting at the BBC, there has been no move yet to televise the latest two novels, which does make her “very said... because the books are very successful ones”. In fact when pressed, Baroness James admits The Private Patient may in fact be her favourite book of all. “I so much enjoyed writing it,” she says. “I was in a convalescent hospital for the last third of the book, having had a heart attack, and it was ideal really, because I had a room of my own, and I had no telephone, and my secretary came down twice a week and took the dictation of the novel. So I’d get up, get my over-bed table, and get at it, working away in absolute peace... And it seemed to do very well.”
Unfortunately for fans, it may be the last we see of Dalgliesh; Baroness James hasn’t officially retired him, but is unsure whether she has the time and energy to dedicate to another tale. “I would hate to produce one that was not of the same high standard,” she says, noting a full-length novel usually takes her about three years to research and write. The thought of rushing a Dalgliesh novel to get it out, or worse, dying with it unfinished, appals her. “It would be terrible for me to have a reviewer say something like ‘considering that PD James was 95 when this book was finished, it is an astonishing achievement, but hardly up to vintage PD James’ - I’d hate that.” Not that she has ‘retired’ herself. “I’m now writing a much shorter book, one that’s entirely different and not to do with crime at all, because of course every writer wants to keep on writing.”
A true marvel, and a real pleasure to interview, before we said goodbye, Baroness James asked me to share one last thing: “Will you please extend my warmest wishes to all my fans in Australia. I’ve had very many happy visits, and I just want to say thank you for all the loyalty and support I’ve had from my fans there.”
You’re more than welcome Baroness James. And really, we should be thanking you.
Originally published in print in the August 2010 issue of Good Reading magazine.
Comments and your thoughts on PD James are most welcome.