PD James appreciation: She shot from poverty to the peerage – but remained down-to-earth


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Whether it was she or her friend Ruth Rendell who best deserved the title “Queen of Crime,” there was definitely something regal about PD James. She was a Baroness, she often lunched with the Queen and her books were always among the small pile of reading material sent to beguile the royal family on their holidays. She always carried herself with serene dignity. But it never, thank goodness, went to her head. She was far too down-to-earth to succumb to grandeur. She positively wriggled with embarrassment if you called her by her title. “Don’t bother with that nonsense,” she’d say. “Call me Phyllis.”

I met her a score of times, at launches and literary festivals, and marvelled at her energy, her razor-sharp intellect, her graveyard humour.  Even in her late 80s, she’d appear in a stylish, powder-blue coat, keen to take on her latest interviewer and audience. 

She took the genre of crime writing very seriously. She saw literary classics through a prism of murder and detection: “What a wonderful detective writer Jane Austen would have made,” she used to say.  She believed utterly in the strict protocols of classic crime and liked telling audiences that the rules laid down by Ronnie Knox still applied: “a) no information available to the detective should be kept from the reader, b) there should be no identical twins, and c) definitely no Chinamen.”

Her fan club numbered millions, and included many literary titans. I once asked her why so few of her poet-detective hero Adam Dalgliesh’s poems ever appeared in her novels. She said she’d once asked one of her fans to write some verse under Dalgliesh’s name, but the fan died before he could oblige. He was WH Auden.

She called everybody “Dear”, like a headmistress who has temporarily forgotten her charges’ names. There’s an apochryphal story about Phyllis and Will Self sharing a cab from the station at Cheltenham Festival in the 1990s. Conversation was strained until they sped past a cricket match. “Do you play cricket dear?” she asked. Self reportedly gave her a five-minute harangue on cricket as a dire symbol of colonial bullying, before concluding, “…so don’t talk to me about cricket.” There was a silence. “Rugby, dear?” asked PD James.

Her books weren’t “cozies” – the US term for whodunnits, a word she hated. In her pages, the reason for murder was often located in the long memories and hatreds of the historic past. And I think the past hung heavily on her – the years when her family was poor, her husband Ernest was mentally ill, and she was the sole breadwinner, working in hospital administration – the years before she was a lionised, invited to Buckingham Palace, made a life peer and praised for roasting the Director General of the BBC on the Today programme. The smile she wore in her later years was the smile of a woman amazed and delighted by the way her life had been given a happy ending.