Her victims have died in hideous ways: frightened to death in fake coffins, poisoned while being fed through the nose, slashed at the throat, shot in the head so that the greater part of the face has disappeared, leaving "the sunken eyes still fixed in [a] glazed extremity of fear."
And yet the purveyor of all this mayhem, British mystery writer Phyllis Dorothy White, better known as P.D. James, is a genteel lady of 66 who lives in a house of muted pink-and-fawn chintz in London, calls from the airport to inquire after her kittens, and named one of her two daughters for her favorite writer, Jane Austen. She claims no homicidal fantasies and is possessed of such innate respect for humankind—rank though most of it appears to be in her writing—that she has refused the opportunity to sit in at autopsies.
"Priv-acy," she says, giving the word the clipped British vowel. "I think, after all, you're seeing another human being cut up, and if it were somebody I loved, I wouldn't want people staring at them. Somebody once asked me to one and said it was only an old tramp. I said, 'Well, an old tramp has just as much right to be included in that kind of privacy as anybody else.' "
How do you like your detectives? Slim and sassy, with the wit of Nick and Nora Charles? Arrogant and vain, like the eccentric Hercule Poirot, whom even his creator Agatha Christie came to dislike? Or are you a fan of Commander Adam Dalgliesh, the cerebral and melancholy detective who has starred in most of James' 10 mysteries, including her latest, A Taste for Death, which has made best-seller lists in the U.S. and England?
Poet and policeman, he is an unbeatable blend for literary ladies who suffer not unpleasurable palpitations upon hearing of unnatural death. Such is his attraction that Miss James is not at all taken aback when an ebullient American visitor declares, for Dalgliesh, her love.
"Well, that's nice, dear. All sorts of people are in love with Adam Dalgliesh," she says.
Just what it would be like to consummate this passion is, alas, one of the few graphic details you can expect never to be divulged by the author. She playfully sends Dalgliesh out to dinner with her sometime heroine, the (much younger) amateur detective Cordelia Gray, but says of the evening nothing more.
"It is rather teasing," she said recently. "I'm afraid that as far as Adam's sex life is concerned, what he does in private with a consenting adult is no affair of mine. I don't think I should marry them off."
She said this in her house in London's elegant Holland Park Avenue, a home which, with its tasteful wall coverings, polished mahogany and Chinese porcelain, seems as far from poor manners—the worst of which would be homicide—as you can possibly get. There ensconced, James, with her cozy but proper style, hardly seems the sort to be expert in such esoterica as laying open the carotid artery or the effects of a solid whack to the head. She wears soft and understated creams and plums, sensible shoes, and dotes on her 6-month-old Burmese kittens. ("I want my cats affectionate and sloppy," she says, scooping one up. "You can't be too sloppy for me, can you, darling? No, you can't.") She offers sherry in front of the fire, though her schedule, between publicity tours, university lectures and her part-time work as a London magistrate—in which she hears cases involving nonviolent crime—is frantic. Her nature is cheery and uncomplaining.
Myth about herself and her profession she shatters quite gaily. It is true that she worked for several years in the forensics department of the Home Office, she says, but she never visited a crime scene. She was merely a bureaucrat. The clinical detail for which she is famous—description, say, of a victim's throat severed so that the vessels stick "like corrugated pipes through the clotted blood"—comes from a textbook, Dr. Keith Simpson's Forensic Medicine. "Really awfully good," she says.
She has never, ever, been called upon by police to help with a crime. Nor is her hero, Dalgliesh, who is named for a favorite English teacher, based on anyone except, partly, herself. "I think in some ways he may be the masculine equivalent of me," she says. "He's not a self-portrait, but he does have qualities I admire. He's intelligent, he's literary. I admire his sensitivities and certainly his courage and his self-sufficiency, but he may be too self-sufficient. I think there's a splinter of ice in his heart."
She is not, she says, courageous in the same way as Dalgliesh. "I'm very frightened of violence indeed," she says. "Maybe by writing you sublimate your fear of violence and death. I do think I try and write about it realistically—but it is not the method of murder that interests me. I think most of us apply a coat of varnish over our lives, and murder cracks it open. And to study people under that influence is absolutely fascinating."
It is interesting that James—her maiden name—faults herself for lack of valor, for she has dealt superbly with a difficult life. Married, with two young children, she went to work to support her family after her husband returned home from World War II incapacitated. Though she longed to write, she did not begin her first book until she was in her late 30s, a few years before her husband's death. Seven of her books were written while she was holding high-ranking jobs in the British civil service. And she is self-taught, though she grew up in the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge. "I would certainly have liked to have gone to university," she says. "But you needed a great deal of money, which my father, a revenue officer, didn't have. If he had, he wouldn't have spent it on a girl's education."
Did she find it difficult to live in a university town and not attend? When she writes, in her most recent book, that "the desperate contrivings, the small deceptions of respectable poverty" are "so much more humiliating than the real poverty of the inner cities," is she writing about herself? "No, no, no!" she says. "There was privilege. You could see it in the May balls when the big tents went up along the river, and the girls would come down from London. But I never was aware of being particularly resentful that I didn't have the money to be part of it. I'm never aware of wanting anybody's lifestyle but my own," she adds. "A sign of arrogance, I suppose."
It was while working at a theater in Cambridge that she met Connor White, the medical student who would become her husband. "Charm is an odd word," she says with a sigh, "but he had it. He was Anglo-Irish. He was fair. He had a very nice smile."
They married in 1939, as war broke out. "We lived in a little flat on Manchester Square," she says. "It later got bombed, totally destroyed. A lot of people left London. Connor was a fire-watcher. Everybody had to have their premises watched [in the Blitz], and they used to employ medical students. We would fire-watch in a cozy little group. It was a dangerous time, but exciting."
She had a daughter, and by the time her husband had gone off to India to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps, she was pregnant again. She spent the last months of her pregnancy in bomb shelters, soothing herself with Jane Austen. She finally gave birth in Queen Charlotte's Hospital the same week that V-2s killed a thousand people within a half-mile radius. Mothers in that hospital spent the nights in the halls next to the supporting walls, while their infants were taken to the greater safety of the basement. The specter of the bombings haunted James: How, if the hospital were hit, she worried, would she ever find her baby?
The end of the war did not bring relief: Her husband came back mentally ill. He was in and out of hospitals—sometimes violent, it has been reported, sometimes committed against his will. James, recalling that period, speaks of her husband's illness obliquely, at times seeming to fight back tears. "He was never diagnosed as schizophrenic," says James, "though it could have been that. He did have highs and lows. It was terrifying and terribly disruptive. It's not a part of my life that's very happy for me, and I don't think about it often...."
She thought at first that her husband's illness would be temporary and looked for a job in health services. "When it became clear that he was unlikely to become well again, I took an examination in hospital administration and record keeping. I lived with my husband's parents, and my children went to boarding school."
She never considered divorce?
She speaks with vehemence: "No. Never. Never. Never. I loved my husband. I took him for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Divorce is very bad for children. He was a very good father; he loved the children very much; he loved me. I was never the sort of woman who would throw over her husband because he proved to be mentally or physically ill. It wasn't his fault."
At work her responsibilities increased, and though she had known "almost from the time I knew what a book was" that she wanted to write, she could not make the time. Then, with her daughters nearly grown, she realized she could no longer put it off. "I remember the actual moment," she says. "I knew there was never going to be a convenient moment, that time was tripping by, that someday I would say, 'I always wanted to be a writer, but...'That was one of the things that brought me up, especially if I had to say it to my grandchildren. I thought it would be appalling to be a failure in one of those important respects. I must get down to it—no more excuses."
Her method, since she was working full-time at her other job, was to get up at 6:30 each morning and work for two or three hours. Her first book, Cover Her Face, took 2½ years. It was accepted by the first agent who saw it and published, in 1962, by the first publisher to whom it was submitted. After her husband died in 1964, James continued writing and working. She became an administrator in the forensics department of the Home Office before moving to the criminal division, where she eventually championed the Children's Act, legislation giving adopted children the right to learn the identities of their natural parents. Much of that experience would find its way into her writing. The forensics department provided the background for the seething country laboratory in her mystery Death of an Expert Witness, and it was while working on the Children's Act that James remembered a case in which a child had been born to a woman who was sentenced to die. How, she wondered, would such a child cope with learning this later? The question became the foundation for Innocent Blood, the 1980 novel that reportedly brought her more than $1 million from U.S. paperback and film rights alone.
She is sorry, she sometimes says, that such success couldn't have come sooner—not for her sake, but for the people she loved. "My father saw a great deal of my success—he's now dead—but my husband and his parents and my mother, they would have enjoyed it very much. When you've lost people you love, you often think about them. You think, 'Connor would have been amused by that....' He was proud of me."
Despite the problems, she was happy in her marriage, yet she chose not to remarry after her husband's death. Why was that?
"I think that probably once you get into middle age, you tend to be much more choosy. You are not marrying for children because you have your family. I never married again because I'm very fond of solitude. I certainly enjoyed having men friends, but I never needed to marry to have a traveling companion or someone to go to dinner with.
"I suppose," she says candidly, "I'm the sort of woman who can spend a happy time with a man and then feel some sense of relief when the door closes and there's this wonderful privacy again. And also, Connor was a very exceptional man—one of the few men I've met who really believed in the equality of women. Because of my husband's illness, I was the man in the family, and he could accept the fact that his wife was earning the money, which is rare. A lot of men can't. Nor, I think, would many men be married to a woman whose main interest, writing, was so important...."
James's voice drifts a bit, as if she is going back into a private world.
"I certainly miss my husband as much now as when he first died," she says. "I think that if he had stayed well we would have had a very happy old age together. We did have a mutual understanding. But I'm not sure one can find that very easily in another man. Certainly not the men who've proposed to me...."
That was plural, men?
"Hmmmm, yes," she says, coming back to the present.
Obviously she does not like her solitude that much. So how many men, now, was it?
She starts to giggle.
"Two didn't live so long, of course, so I would have been a widow twice...."
A pause, and then the mystery writer wins out over the proper English lady.
"A pretty wealthy widow in one case," she says, and she laughs. There is a story there, no doubt, but not one to be told. Like Dalgliesh, she knows what to keep to herself.
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