It had been a good week for Phyllis Dorothy White. For one thing, her retirement party at the office was a great success. People she had worked with during her 30 years as civil servant -- secretaries, clerks, senior staff -- were reunited and there was lots of chat and everyone was very jolly. And then the small things. Being able to sleep late after all those years of setting alarms. Browsing in the local library in the middle of the day. Having tea at home in front of the fire at an hour when she would normally be behind her desk at the House Office.
Not a bad week for P. D. James, either. The distinguished crime writer, hailed as the "heir apparent" to Agatha Christie, had just been notified by her American publishers, Scribner's, that her seventh book, "Innocent Blood," would be the Book of the Month Club's main selection for june. And her British publisher, Faber and Faber, called that morning to tell her that the film rights had sold "for a lovely sum."
The fact that the recently retired civil servant and the successful crime writer are the same middle-class English lady makes for the kind of delicate irony that P.D. James likes to put in her novels, which have won her admirers in two camps: the lovers of a good 'whodunit' who read her novels for their action and intricate plots; and the literary world that admires the books for their character and motivation.
P. D. James, who writes under her maiden name and sexually neutral initials, loves the challenge of the puzzle inherent in crime writing and she is passionately curious about people and their peculiarities.
Her characters are the ethical, Protestant, middle-class men and women whose professional and personal lives have somehow fallen short of their expectations, creating a bleak milieu of bureaucratic competence, small disappointments and minor guilts.
James has "the richest writing and characters in comtemporary detective fiction," says the Kirkus Reviews. Adds the august New Yorker: "Miss James' work . . . is often favorably compared to that of Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham and the other female pioneers of the genre. The truth . . . is that of Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham and the other female pioneers of the genre. The truth . . . is that she is their superior . . . a better, more sensitive writer, a more agile and teasing storyteller, a deeper, more clear-eyed observer of human nature, human fears, human drives and aspirations."
Phyllis Dorothy White, nee James, lives in London on the top floor of a Regency house now converted into flats. Her sitting room could well belong to one of her learned and complex characers. Books line one wall, worn editions of Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Austen, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Drabble. On the mantlepiece are early Staffordshire figures, one depicting characters from the Victorian favorite, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." A Chippendale table covered with reference books, papers, maps and portable typewriter stands by the windows overlooking the unspoiled Regency Square. Only the couch is wrong, standing out like a false clue. It isn't flowered chintz but a suspiciously comtemporary black leatherlike material.
She pours the tea. "I've taken it for granted you have milk, my dear. Oh my, this is workman's tea. Is it too strong for you?" Watching this plump and cheerful woman coax the tea cosy over the china pot, one feels enclosed in a cameo world free from problems and suffering and pain, a world as snug and sensible as the tea cosy itself.
But in reality James' world has been anything but snug. She was born in 1920 in Oxford, England and spent her childhood in Cambridge. Her earlier ambitions included going to college and being a writer, but as the daughter of a middle-grade civil servant who could neither afford nor be convinced of the importance of educating daughters, her formal education ended when she was 16.
The next few years were spent working in a tax office, "where I was absolutely miserable" until she took a job as an assistant stage manager at the Cambridge Festival Theatre.
At 20 she married and believed that she would be "a wife, a mother and a writer." The children were born in 1942 and 1944. But her husband returned from World War II suffering from severe mental illness. By 1949 it was clear that he was unlikely to recover.
"I was faced with finding enough money to support two children and a sick husband and I knew that earning a living from writing takes time, time that I didn't have." So she began her career as a civil servant in the National Health Service. By 1959 she had an important job as hospital administrator. "But I still saw myself as a writer. One day I realized I was going to be one of those women who tell their grandchildren about the books they always meant to write."
At the age of 39 she began her first book, writing from 6 to 8 each morning before leaving for work. From the beginning she wrote in longhand, dictating her first draft onto tape to be given to a professional typist.
She plots her novels in advance, storing her charts and information in a box file. "I see the book rather like a film, in scenes, and I write accordingly. Not being confined to chronological order means one can pander to one's mood. Some mornings one feels like a dose of violence, other mornings like some gentle description of countryside," she says.
After three years she finished her first book, "Cover Her Face." It was accepted at once and soon afterward she was heralded as the "crown princess" to Agatha Christie, a claim which has crescendoed with the appearance of each successive novel.
"I confess the Agatha Christie comparison amazes me," she says. "It makes me wonder if they actually read my books or simply have a picture of another respectable English lady who writes mysteries. Hers are the stereotype English crime novel which is set in the small English village where everyone knows their place. You have the doctor and the shopkeeper and the spinster and the vicar and afternoon tea. Just like the Rupert Brooke poem, 'Stands the church clock at ten to three/and is there arsenic still for tea?' I don't set my novels in that never-never land of the fly-in-amber village."
In "Shroud for a Nightingale" James used her experience as hospital administrator for the setting -- in a nurses' training school. In "The Black Tower" she used another medical facility, a private home for the permanently disables. Her last novel, "Death of an Expert Witness," takes place in a forensic laboratory. The author finds the closed community an ideal background for the claustrophobic relations, the rival ambitions and disappointments that stir powerful emotions like jealousy and hatred. She brings to these settings the extraordinary authenticity derived from her own firsthand knowledge and practice as well as an abiding sense of institutional malice.
When asked why respectable English women writers are so good at the gentle art of murder, a bemused look comes over her. It seems that female writers of mysteries are asked this question with monotonous regularity, especially by American readers. She admits the somewhat invidious inquiry isn't surprising in view of the preeminence of Christie, Sayers, Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh, a very distinguished group of peers.
"I believe one reason women dominate this genre is their love of order. Murder creates disorder and finding the murderer restores order. Also women understand personal feelings like jealousy and hatred. They are more interested in violent emotions than in violent crimes and so you have the 'gentle' art of murder -- poison rather than guns, kitchen knives rather than high explosive," she says.
James believes that evil is a powerful force in the world --"I suppose the kind of evil that our ancestors portrayed with devils and horns, which makes it sound ludicrous. But I think we are all capable of evil. Think of murder. To save our own lives or to defend someone we love, or if we are frightened enough or can find reason enough to hate, I think we could all commit murder under those circumstances. I don't believe everyone is capable of the kind of wickedness that would plan a murder if they wanted a sum of money."
For a crime writer, belief in the presence of evil might seem a good business practice. Coming from a senior civil servant in the criminal division of the Home Office, the theory takes on added weight. And it is as a member of the Home Office, specializing in juvenile delinquency and criminal law, that James worked for the past 11 years. (After her husband's death in 1964 she prepared for the difficult entrance exam required by the Home Office, the demands of his illness having prevented her from attempting it earlier).
While her career in the criminal division brought additional authority to her novels, her personal taste and beliefs create the counterpoint that makes her characters real. Her Scotland Yard detective, Adam Dalgliesh, is a sage and compassionate man quite unlike his fellow members in the genre. Like his creator he manages to have two careers, commander at Scotland Yard and poet. And like his creator, he gets published. A sensitive intellectual who enjoys his solitude, good claret and 19th-century literature, Adam Dalgliesh, when preparing for an investigation outside of London, remembers to pack his corkscrew, a copy of Hardy's poems, "The Return of the Native" and the appropriate "Pevsner" -- those formidable architectural guides to the buildings of England. A scene that repeats itself in Commander Dalgliesh's investigations is his perusal of the bookshelves of the often erudite victims.
In "Death of an Expert Witness" the senior biologist of a forensic laboratory in East Anglia is murdered and the commander is surprised to find that the late scientist had, among his many volumes, a shelf of philosophy which included volumes of Teilhard de Chardin, Sartre, Simone Weil and Plato. But the local police chief assisting Dalgliesh isn't impressed.
"It looks as if he was one of those men who torment themselves trying to discover the meaning of existence.'
"Dalgliesh replaced the Sartre he had been reading. 'You find that reprehensible?'
"I find it futile. Metaphysical speculation is about as pointless as a discussion on the meaning of one's lungs. They're for breathing.'
"'And life is for living.You find that an adequate credo.'
"'To maximize one's pleasure and minimize one's pain, yes sir, I do. And to bear with stoicism those miseries I can't avoid. To be human is to ensure enough of those without inventing them. Anyway I don't believe you can hope to understand what you can't see or touch or measure.'"
In this passage it is the local police chief who more closely expresses James' own philosophy of life. "I think life should be intensely enjoyable. I believe in avoiding pain and increasing happiness, for myself and for others. But when you state your philosophy of life it always sounds so simple."
She sees literature as a means of minimizing pain. In her just-published novel "Innocent Blood," a convicted murderess recently released after nine years in prison meets with her daughter. Choosing literature as a safe topic, the daughter asks her mother what she read in prison. The murderess replies, "The Victorian novelists mostly. The library was better than you'd think. There are two main requirements for cell literature: binordinate length and the writer's ability to create a distinct and alternative world. I'm the prison service authority on three-volume novels about intelligent, masochistic women who perversely marry the wrong man or no man at all. You know, 'Portrait of a Lady,' 'The Small House at Allington,' 'Middlemarch.' 'Middlemarch' kept me sane for six weeks. There are 86 chapters. I rationed myself to two a day."
James understands the needs of her murderess perfectly. She recalls waiting for the birth of her second child in London during the worst of the Nazi bombing in 1944. She wasn't in a cell but "in the basement of Queen Charlotte's Hospital. They had a very robust view of the bombing there: it's either going to get you or it isn't, an attitude difficult to appreciate in my highly pregnant state. I entered into the world of Jane Austen, that peaceful and sane place. What a comfort." She named her daughter Jane.
In her new book she has moved closer to the straight novel although there is a degree of detection in it. Is she moving away from the orthodox classical English detective story?
"I don't feel that, well, now I've moved up to slightly higher things I mustn't go back. I like crime novels. They're based on the fundamental belief that life is sacred and murder is unique and uncommon and that every human being, however unpleasant, inconvenient or worthless his life many be, has the right to live to the last natural moment. When murder takes place, all the resources of civilized society are brought to bear. In a sense detective novels are like 20th-century morality plays; the values are basic and unambiguous. Murder is wrong. In an age in which gratuitous violence and arbitrary death have become common, these value need no apology."