Nothing that ever happens to a novelist is ever wasted.
Years ago, on a whim, I picked up P.D. James’ Original Sin on a remainder table. I’d heard of the “Queen of Crime,” but I wasn’t into mystery novels. I decided to take a chance.
Five hundred pages later, I closed it and thought, “Didn’t see that coming.” I was hooked.
Original Sin was the ninth in her series about poet-policeman Adam Dalgliesh, commenced in 1962. She started writing at age 42, while still in civil service and supporting a mentally-ill husband. I developed a deep admiration for her.
“A writer needs as much trauma as she can take”
Phyllis Dorothy James was born in 1920 in Oxford and educated at Cambridge High School for Girls. She was just 15 when her mother was committed to a mental hospital. James has little memory of the time before this happened.
She does, however, remember always wanting to be a writer, particularly a mystery writer. When she first heard of Humpty Dumpty, she asked: “Did he fall or was he pushed?”
James left school at 17 and got a job in the tax office. When she was 21, she married Connor Bantry White, a young medical student. They had two daughters.
When a Beloved Companion Becomes a Total Stranger
World War II broke out, and Connor shipped out to India and Africa with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He returned a broken man, suffering from schizophrenia. He never worked again and spent the next 20 years in and out of mental institutions.
Only those who have lived with the mental illness of someone they love can understand. Another human being who was once a beloved companion can become not only a stranger, but occasionally a malevolent stranger.
James took government jobs to support her family, first with the National Health Services and then with the Home Office. In the mid-1950s, she finally realized, that there would never be a convenient time to start writing: “You become a writer by writing. I had to make it happen.”
Connor died in 1964, when they both were both 44. James never remarried.
Eighteen Years to Overnight Success
James wrote in the early mornings before setting off for her job as a hospital administrator. Although the first Dalgliesh mystery appeared in 1962, success didn’t come until she retired from the Home Office 18 years later, with Innocent Blood, her eighth novel.
She has no regrets about keeping that steady paycheck coming in: “I had done more reading, I had done more thinking, I had done more living. It has been extremely useful being in the mainstream of working life.” She administered five psychiatric clinics for the NHS and worked in criminal law for the Home Office.
Until age 87, she had few health problems. Then she broke her hip, and while recovering, had a heart attack in her dentist’s chair.
I was extraordinarily lucky with health. I really didn’t feel particularly old… We don’t grow gradually into old age. Throughout our lives, we’re on a plateau and then suddenly, whoosh! We’re five years older, and then we’re on a plateau again.
James incorporated her recovery experience into the latest Dalgliesh mystery, The Private Patient, which takes place in a remote plastic surgery clinic.
Other settings from her novels include a secluded Cornish island, a decrepit medieval tower turned asylum, and a private museum with a wing dedicated to grisly killings between World Wars I and II. (Only in England!)
Crime Fiction’s Grand Dame
P.D. James has five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She looks like everyone’s granny, except for that “arsenic and old lace” gleam in her eyes.
In 1983, she was made an OBE (officer of the Order of the British Empire) and in 1991, a life peer. Baroness James regards the 21st century a challenge when it comes to finding motives for her antagonists.
Dear old Agatha Christie had A murder B because A was having an affair and thought B would tell. Now, of course, people write about their affairs in the Sunday papers.
In 2011, James wrote a whodunnit set in 1803, Death Comes to Pemberley, set six years after the events of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Masterpiece Theatre produced a televised version in December 2013.
P.D. James passed away in Oxford, age 94, at the end of 2014. She proves that we absolutely can take care of our people and pursue our creative dreams. It may be hard and it may take longer, but we just need to keep at it.
More About P.D. James
- PD James ‘frightened’ by pace of technological change. The Telegraph: 11 July 2010
- ‘A writer needs as much trauma as she can take’. The Sunday Times: 17 August 2008
- A Mind to Murder. The Telegraph: 05 March 2001
- ‘We regard murder with fascination’. The Guardian: 04 March 2001
- The Salon Interview. Salon.com: 02/26/98
- Opening image of P.D. James via The Irish Times