“After I had progressed in my craft I came to believe that it is possible to write within the conventions of a classical detective story and still be regarded as a serious novelist and say something true about men and women and the society in which they live.”—P.D. James
Throughout her writing career P.D. James has produced mysteries that have transcended traditional molds. She maintains the elements of the classical detective story in her novels, yet at the same time she provides her readers with realistic characters and well-researched plots and settings.
Born Phyllis Dorothy James in Oxford, England in 1920, P.D. James did not begin her first novel until she was in her late thirties. Before that, she was an administrator for England’s National Health Service and later a principal administrator for the British Home Office’s criminal policy department. Both positions provided her with a wealth of knowledge which she later put to good use in her highly successful mystery novels.
In 1962 P.D. James’ first novel, Cover Her Face, was published. In that novel she introduced the sensitive, taciturn, and hardworking Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, a character who has since won her legions of fans around the world. She went on to feature Dalgliesh in twelve other novels, most of which have made the bestseller lists. In 1983 Anglia Television began successfully adapting the Dalgliesh novels for a television series starring the incomparable Roy Marsden, which quickly became a hit. In 1972 P.D. James wrote An Unsuitable Job for a Woman featuring the independent-minded and resourceful amateur private detective Cordelia Gray. That novel also spawned a television series in the UK which, like the Dalgliesh series, was broadcast in the United States on WGBH’s Mystery! program. In 2000 she published a candid and highly acclaimed autobiography called A Time to Be Earnest.
In 1991, P.D. James was created Baroness James of Holland Park. Over the years she has received almost every prestigious writing award and honor available. In 1987 she was awarded the Diamond Dagger, a lifetime achievement award presented by the Crime Writers Association, and in 1999 she was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. Since 1997, she has been the president of the Society of Authors. She currently divides her time between London and Oxford. Her latest novel, The Lighthouse, will be released this November by Knopf.
AFG: So, tell us about your new book that is going to be coming out in November, The Lighthouse.
PDJ: Well, it is another Adam Dalgliesh novel. In some ways, it is just a continuation of the last, but only as far as the relationship with the woman he is in love with, Emma, is concerned. Otherwise, it is a complete story in its own right. It is set on an island called Combe Island, off the Cornish coast. This island has a very bloodstained history because it was the home of pirates in the 17th or 18th century. It is privately owned and it offers respite for many overstressed men and women in positions of high authority who really require privacy and guaranteed security. People who are Prime Ministers can go there without their security men. It is absolutely secure, but of course the peace is violated when one of the distinguished visitors is very bizarrely murdered. So Adam Dalgliesh is called in to solve the mystery quickly and he has got a depleted team with him. They are at the moment rather wound up with their own problems. He is worried about the future with Emma, and Detective Inspector Kate Miskin has some emotional problems. There is a very ambitious Anglo-Indian sergeant, Francis Benton-Smith, who was in the last book, now working on the case and there are difficulties with that relationship as well. They begin their investigation with this very bizarre murder and then something happens—which I won’t tell you because it’s rather a secret. This places Dalgliesh in even greater danger than he is from the murderer and of course, as usual with me, there is a second death.
AFG: That sounds very interesting. Do you find that you are more popular in the US or in the UK?
PDJ: Well, I do not think one can say, because the United States is a much larger market, so you cannot just compare sales. You’d have to think of sales in relation to population. I think it is pretty well about the same, but the sales in the United States are very, very large.
AFG: I know it is a huge market. The interesting thing I’ve noticed is that readers in the United States tend to like traditional mysteries whereas in England they tend to like more of the hard-boiled, hard-edged, psychological mysteries.
PDJ: Yes. And that is very interesting, isn’t it? That is not what you would expect at all. It seems to me that the best American writing in this genre has been from the hard-boiled school. One thinks of Hammett and Chandler as being very fine novelists, quite apart from writing crime novels. I mean, they have had some influence on fiction generally. So these are very, very fine writers and one would imagine that their kind of hard-boiled fiction would be the more popular, but I gather it’s not. People do really rather like the cozy mysteries over there in the United States. It is interesting because my books are very, very English. Well, obviously they are. They are written by an English woman and they are all set in England. And they deal in many ways with the sort of social and political problems in the country at the moment, because they are very much set in the present time. Yet despite being so English, they do sell remarkably well in the United States. So people do not seem to worry about them being so English. They rather welcome the fact, I think.
AFG: I know what you mean. I live about 25 minutes away from Detroit and I do not want to read a mystery about murders in Detroit.
PDJ: I think I understand this absolutely. W.H. Auden loved detective stories and he wrote quite a famous essay—I think it’s called “The Guilty Vicarage”—about them. He said that he liked the mystery to be set in a small town or a village. He wanted a contrast between order, goodness, hierarchy, and normality and this extraordinarily disruptive crime. He said the body on the drawing room carpet is much more interesting than the bullet-riddled bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets. I think that probably sums up your attitude. I think it sums up the response of very many thousands of people. They would rather have the body on the drawing room carpet.
AFG: That’s true. Don’t you think that the mystery novel affords writers the opportunity to get certain points across to their readers which they may not be able to do with a more general novel? It is such a popular genre and readers generally will stay with a mystery and read it through to the end. Whereas someone may pick up a novel by, let’s say, Martin Amis or some other author and not be able to get through it. So in the end, sometimes, general fiction novelists may not always be able to deliver what they have to say.
PDJ: Yes, I think that is very true. And also I think that you can learn far more about the social mores of the age in which the mystery is written than you can from more pretentious literature. I mean, if you are thinking of the 1920s, the so-called Golden Age [of mysteries], and want to know what it was like to live in England at that time, you can get a much better story from mysteries than you can from prize-winning novels. It is very interesting to me. The novels which have won very prestigious prizes over the last fifteen years are not available in paperback at the bookstores anymore. But when you look at crime novels, then you see a whole two or three shelves full of Agatha Christie. She is still there, and this is quite astonishing, really. Isn’t it?
AFG: What do you think of Agatha Christie?
PDJ: Obviously, I wouldn’t rate her as an important or even a very good novelist, but I rate her very highly as a fabricator of mystery. I think her ingenuity is absolutely extraordinary and her style is very serviceable. It suited the books very well. The dialogue is crisp and good. The books move at a fast pace and they are very, very readable and there is a kind of universality about them. She is read, really, all over the world. She appeals just as much in China as she does in the States and in England or in Scandinavia.
AFG: Tell me about the writers that influenced you when you were growing up.
PDJ: Oh, I think undoubtedly Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and probably in crime writing, Dorothy L. Sayers. I think I can see the influence of those, but particularly I think of Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austen.
AFG: What is you favorite Evelyn Waugh book?
PDJ: Well I think the Waugh trilogy [Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), The End of the Battle (1961)] is fine, but I think A Handful of Dust, possibly.
AFG: Decline and Fall is my favorite and I like Scoop.
PDJ: They are so funny. But of course, stylistically, he was very brilliant—very brilliant!
AFG: Oh, I know! I remember in Scoop the newspaper was called The Daily Beast. I mean, that was a stroke of genius.
PDJ: [laughs] Yes. Oh, I think he was a marvelous writer.
AFG: I know you’re a fan of Graham Greene and so am I.
PDJ: Oh, yes. I think I have read most of him. I just do not know which really would be my favorite. I am just sort of thinking. I suppose Brighton Rock really stands out as being the tour de force.
AFG: I think, unfortunately, Graham Greene is underrated.
PDJ: Well, I think he is. There are passions in literature as there are passions in everything else, and very often after a writer dies there is a period during which he is not as highly regarded as he was during his life, and then they [become popular] again. I remember that when I was a girl no one thought very much of Rudyard Kipling, who was felt to be an imperialist and just always lauding the empire. I think he was a marvelous writer and a marvelous poet and I think that people have begun to realize that.
AFG: So, was Dalgliesh modeled on anyone you knew?
PDJ: No. No, he isn’t—no one I know at all. I sort of created him, I suppose, from my own imagination. But it was fairly easy. I decided he should be from Scotland Yard and I gave him the qualities that I admire either in men or women, because I thought that if I did not give him what I admired, then I would get bored with him. I was also careful not to make him too eccentric. We know that Agatha Christie got rather fed up with Poirot and that she wished she had created someone who was not quite so bizarre and, certainly, Dorothy L. Sayers changed Lord Peter Wimsey quite considerably between the first and the last book. So I thought I must try and make a credible professional detective and let him develop as I write the books.
AFG: So, does Roy Marsden look like the Dalgliesh you envisioned when you originally wrote the first novel?
PDJ: No. Not at all.
AFG: So in your mind’s eye do you see a different person when you are writing it?
PDJ: Oh, yes.
AFG: Did your experience in hospital administration and forensics help you with some of the plots?
PDJ: Oh, yes. Very much. Shroud for a Nightingale is set in a nurse training school in the hospital world. I do not think I could have written that if I had not worked in the health service. And of course the second one, A Mind to Murder, was set in a psychiatric clinic. I was administering five outpatient psychiatric clinics when I wrote that. Then when I went to the Home Office and I was concerned with the forensic science service—I mean, I am not a scientist; I was only concerned as a bureaucrat—that gave me all the background to write Death of an Expert Witness. So the working experience really has been very valuable indeed.