PD James: Woman of mystery

A combination of fierce intelligence and tender grandmotherliness, less is known about Britain's foremost crime writer than her fictional creation, Detective Adam Dalgleish. But as Brian Viner discovers, the clues to the real PD James are in the merest twitch of her forbidding eyebrows
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He stepped out of Holland Park Underground station to find the latest manifestation of this unusually oppressive London summer: warm, scything rain. Cursing himself for leaving his umbrella behind, he checked his watch. It was 10.52am. The elderly crime writer - created a baroness for her services to literature, he reminded himself - had asked him to come at eleven, so he sheltered for four minutes in a delicatessen, admiring the cheeses, wondering whether to buy a quarter of a Manchego, and finally deciding against, before making his way, head bowed against the rain, to the handsome but unostentatious house set back from the road. It was 10.59am. He smiled, pleased with his own punctuality, and rang the bell.

He stepped out of Holland Park Underground station to find the latest manifestation of this unusually oppressive London summer: warm, scything rain. Cursing himself for leaving his umbrella behind, he checked his watch. It was 10.52am. The elderly crime writer - created a baroness for her services to literature, he reminded himself - had asked him to come at eleven, so he sheltered for four minutes in a delicatessen, admiring the cheeses, wondering whether to buy a quarter of a Manchego, and finally deciding against, before making his way, head bowed against the rain, to the handsome but unostentatious house set back from the road. It was 10.59am. He smiled, pleased with his own punctuality, and rang the bell.

Frances Pardell, a BBC publicist he had known and liked for several years, answered the door, briefly expressed concern for his dampness, and showed him into an attractively cluttered drawing room.

The crime writer, she explained, was having her photograph taken and would be through directly. It gave him an opportunity, in the nicest possible way, to snoop. To the mystery he had hoped to solve, he could find no answer. Instead, he saw family photographs (two children, five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren), fine porcelain and a video tape of the Woody Allen film Manhattan. He made a mental note to ask her if she was a fan.

"Are you a Woody Allen fan?" he asked. She was now sitting alongside him on an elegant sofa. She had neat, white hair, swept back girlishly under an Alice band. Her brown eyes were kind, but she had forbidding eyebrows. Later, he would find that they registered disapproval most effectively. He noticed also that her hands were surprisingly large.

"Yes, I am," she said. "Yes. Are you?"

They talked for a while about the forthcoming television adaptation of her novel, Death in Holy Orders, set in a theological college. Sipping his coffee as much out of duty as desire ("You must drink it, dear. I so often find interviewers leave their coffee," she said), he asked whether she thought society was becoming more irreligious.

"In the sense of orthodox religious observance, undoubtedly," she said. "But I doubt whether people are getting less hungry for spirituality. I do very much regret the loss of knowledge of those seminal books, Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. They formed our language, yet there are now people going up to read English at university who have never encountered either of them. I find that astonishing."

He asked whether she associated declining morality with the decline in religious awareness? "I don't think one can make facile judgements about things that are incredibly complex," she said. He wasn't sure whether to take this as a rebuke.

"But it must have made a difference," she continued, "because I was indoctrinated into civic virtue, really. I was educated largely in the state system, yet I never encountered a case of theft or vandalism, not one. Nor, of course, did I ever know a child whose parents were either separated or divorced. That must have hidden a lot of great unhappiness, but it does seem to me that every good, every so-called reform, has had its obverse side. Divorce has meant that adults are able to start again, to rid themselves of partners they dislike, which is no doubt a good thing, but the price is paid by children. I do think this is the most unhappy young generation I've known in my long life.

"Similarly, there is now a much more liberal view of illegitimacy. It used to be a lifelong stain, and no one can defend that. But the obverse of that more liberal attitude is that we have more underage pregnancies than anywhere in Europe."

She spoke strongly, quickly, occasionally calling him "dear", which threw him slightly; he had never before encountered such a combination of fierce intelligence and tender grandmotherliness.

He asked: "Is there any sense in which you, sort of, through your characters, invent scenarios you would have liked for yourself?" Inwardly, he scolded himself for his inarticulacy. "I think what you're saying is," she said, "'Is writing a certain kind of wish fulfilment?'" That, he acknowledged, was indeed what he had been trying to say. At 82, she was exactly twice his age. He decided he would be happy to have exactly half her mental acuity.

"It can be," she said. "But I have never been aware of it. For me, writing is more about a liking for bringing order out of disorder."

A sudden shaft of sunlight filled the drawing room; he felt a simultaneous pang of awareness that he was no nearer to solving the mystery. And, with names on his mind, he mentioned that, while reading about her that morning on the 07.52 to Paddington, he had learned that she named her detective hero, Adam Dalgleish, after one of her teachers, a Miss Dalgleish.

"Yes, and years later, long after she had retired, I went to see her. She told me that her father had been called Adam. An extraordinary coincidence. She was a great influ- ence on me. Those old grammar schools gave you an extraordinarily good education. Although, of course [which she pronounced "of coss"], it was scientifically very limited. I was taught that the atom was the smallest particle of matter, and could in no way ever be altered, split or destroyed." She gave a short laugh. "Whereas, Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory [in Cambridge] was doing just that, probably at that very moment, of course [of coss]."

She had known since she was a small girl growing up in Ludlow, Shropshire, that she wanted to be a writer, she told him. She used to make up stories to tell to her younger brother and sister. She had to be a mother to them; their actual mother battled with mental illness. Later, so did her husband, Connor White. She was 21 when she married him; he was a bright young doctor. Then he went off to war, and returned a broken man. He spent the rest of his life in and out of mental hospitals, and died, aged 44, in 1964. By then she was a hospital administrator, but also a novelist; her first detective story, Cover Her Face, had been published in 1962.

Had her husband been able to recognise her achievement, he asked? "Oh yes, he was very happy about it," she said briskly. Her tone told him unequivocally that she would prefer not to dwell on this still-painful subject. God only knew how hard it must have been for her, whose mind had always been so sharp, to watch deteriorating the minds of two of the people she loved the most.

Moving on, he asked whether she minded relinquishing control of her books to the producers of TV or film adaptations? In 1968, she had left the National Health Service to join the Home Office, retiring just before her 60th birthday, in 1979. She felt that she could make a reasonable living from her books, but then, in the space of a week, her eighth novel, Innocent Blood, propelled her from moderate success to literary stardom. In three words, America loved it. And Hollywood duly pounced.

"I don't think you do relinquish control," she said. A lowering of her eyebrows implied a slight irritation with the question. "What stands is the book. They can't change a syllable of it. All that has happened is that the book has passed into the hands of people who are experts in a different medium.

"This one [ Death in Holy Orders] has been made well. The acting is marvellous. But every writer deplores certain things about television. Only the adaptors who are very good writers in their own right, like John Mortimer, seem content to let the original dialogue stand." She sounded suddenly weary. "They always seem to want to change the dialogue."

Had she read the Harry Potter books, written by another woman content to be known only by her initials?

"No, I don't enjoy fantasy. It is admirable that she has written books that get children reading, and boys particularly. But I want always to read about people in a recognisable world. I am reading the new Anita Brookner at the moment with great pleasure. But as I get older, I read far more biography, history, letters, than I do fiction. I have just read a biography of Lord Longford [who campaigned for Myra Hindley's release], and before that, with huge admiration, the Samuel Pepys."

Had she, he asked, known Lord Longford? "Yes, when I worked at the Home Office. I dealt with statistics of juvenile offenders, which he sometimes wanted to see." A merry chuckle. "I was told that one Home Secretary would throw his eyes to heaven when he [Longford] arrived, and cry: 'Oh Lord, why have you sent your saint to torment me?' But I was always glad to see him."

Unlike Longford, she added, she was not a diligent member of the House of Lords. "I find that it is not possible to write books and be in the Lords, although Ruth Rendell manages it."

He asked if she agreed with the reform of the upper chamber? "It was inevitable," she said. "You cannot justify a House consisting of people who are there because they are hereditary peers. On the other hand, if we are talking patronage, I don't see much difference between someone being there because their great-great-great-great-grandmother was a favourite of the king's, and someone who is a favourite of the present Prime Minister. It's patronage in both cases. So it had to happen, but of course it was ill thought-out, like so many things."

He glanced surreptitiously at his watch. They had been talking for more than an hour, and such was her wisdom that he wouldn't have minded staying for the rest of the afternoon. But she was 82, for heaven's sake. Surely she would need a little rest (later, it turned out that, far from resting, she had several further appointments, a good deal of paperwork to attend to and numerous copies of her new bestseller, The Murder Room, to sign).

He asked her: "Does anything still surprise you?"

"Oh yes," she replied. "I find the cult of celebrity absolutely astonishing. It used to be that if you were a celebrity you'd achieved something. Now you can be a celebrity for a single dress, almost." She sighed. "But there are much worse ills than that, of course (of coss)."

Seventy-odd minutes on this remarkable woman's sofa had equipped him, perhaps by some form of osmosis, with the boldness to confront her. She had been born, he remarked, into a world reeling from the catastrophe of the worst war ever known. So how could she say that the world was worse now than it used to be?

"I haven't said it is worse," she said, evenly.

"I was paraphrasing," he said.

"I'm sorry to be so meticulous, dear," she said, although he noticed that there was no apology from her eyebrows. "I don't know whether it's because I'm an ex-civil servant or because I get awfully tired of reading things I haven't said.

"Of course the world is better in some ways. The Health Service is in a poor state, but when my mother had kidney stones, she didn't go to the doctor because she didn't have the money. That is not going to happen today. However, things have been lost of great value. Common values, the freedom with which we played as children, in the meadows by the Teme, around the castle. Surely to goodness there must have been paedophiles around in those days, but where were they?" She gave another chuckle. "They weren't at Ludlow Castle."

A few minutes later, he emerged from the house, now into warm sunshine. Meeting her had been a strangely ennobling experience, he decided, even though he had not solved the mystery. If only he had known that the answer was in a letter lying not 10 feet from where he had sat, revealing that her initials stood for Phyllis Dorothy.

'Death in Holy Orders' will be shown on BBC1 at 9.05pm on Saturday and 8.30pm on Sunday

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