Happy Birthday P.D. James
On this day in 1920 P. D. James was born. Although almost a half-century and some twenty whodunits long, James’s career did not get going until she was forty-two. Her “fragment of autobiography,” Time to Be in Earnest (1999), takes its title from Samuel Johnson’s line that “At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest,” but her first book had a similar inspiration, minus the joke. James says that she always thought that she would write, and write crime novels, but when her husband returned from WWII with mental problems that would institutionalize him for the rest of his life, she was forced to make the family’s living. Working all day, raising her family, taking classes at night — James spent almost twenty years in hospital administration and another ten in police administration — and visiting her husband on weekends didn’t leave much time for childhood dreams, but James “finally realized that there would never be a convenient time to write my first book.” Planned out on commuter trains and written on hard-to-imagine spare time, Cover Her Face (1962) was reviewed as “the kind of novel which suggests that the author is planning a lengthy career in the business” — a career, it was noted, which Inspector Adam Dalgliesh (named after James’s high school English teacher) would surely share.
Now that the career is approaching its close, many are trying to assign James her place in the crime genre. If, as Raymond Chandler has famously said, Dashiell Hammett “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley,” she’s clearly more fancy vase, or tweedy suit, than back alley. Still, despite sentences which are closer to Henry James than hard-boiled, her bodies are blood-soaked and her criminals can be sex-mad or drug-dependent or power-mean. Certainly the alley-minded couldn’t be too upset with the killer in Devices and Desires, who whistles hymns while strangling his victims and then stuffs their mouths with pubic hair. The latest Dalgliesh book (A Certain Justice, 1997) is built around the lurid murder of a pushy, glam-girl lawyer — member of a venerable London legal firm but a type who could have come from Chandler’s L.A.
It is interesting, given Chandler’s quip about Italian vases, that the lawyer is named “Venetia Aldridge.” James’s signature crime is murder-in-the-vicarage, one in which the sordid intrudes upon some sacred or stately setting. It is as if vase vrs. alley is, for her, not so much a style option as a theme. This is her description of first feeling the “heart-lifting certainty” that she would write A Certain Justice:
I had been to the 11:15 service in the Temple Church, to which I occasionally go when I feel the need to hear Mattins beautifully said in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer and with superb accompanying music. Strolling after the service through the Temple and into Middle Temple Lane, I was struck by the contrast between the peace, the traditions, the history and the ordered beauty of this unique part of London and the appalling events with which criminal barristers daily deal in courts like the Old Bailey. I thought that it would be exciting to bring murder, the ultimate crime, into the heart of this bastion of law and order….
This are many passages in James’s autobiography which register the slow death of Old England as a lament. The BBC is now but a shadow; the Anglican Church is in peril; the House of Lords (in which Baroness James now sits) should not be dismantled by the progressive politicians; the between-wars generation read more, respected more, showed more “fortitude and self-control,” and “I am not sorry that I was at school at a time when the word ‘kid’ was reserved for the young of goats.” Still, Time to Be in Earnest shows James to be wary of her own generation-complaints, as does one of the characters in The Murder Room (just before getting murdered): “We clutter ourselves with dead lives, dead ideas, instead of coping with the problems of the present.”