Death is still the great unmentionable" -- a vaguely shameful condition treated "as though it were an option and the deceased had made the wrong choice." So says P. D. James, the venerable mystery novelist who holds two royalty titles in Britain. One is unofficial: with 10 million copies of her books in print, she's known as the "Queen of Crime". The other is very definitely official -- in 1991, that other Queen, Elizabeth II, named her Baroness James of Holland Park.
Since death is the stuff that James routinely deals with in her books, sex and love inevitably follow. She finds it strange that society has become so frank about sex yet remains so squeamish about death, and she thinks that people put too much faith into "obsessive romantic love". That kind of obsession, she believes, is at the root of many murders. In her new autobiography, Time to be in Earnest,she goes so far as to describe it as "a debilitating waste of spirit."
And yet, she insists, "Love has been very important in my life, including the love of my husband. The love of a marriage that grows over years, companionship, physical pleasure -- these are wonderful things."
In person, Baroness Phyllis Dorothy James resembles one of those durable English ladies of colonial times, the ones rugged mountain climbers would find already at the summit, in dresses and sensible shoes, merrily picnicking and showing few signs of the ardours required to reach that summit. At 79, James is at the summit, and though she speaks of the trials and tribulations along the way, she does not dwell on them. "They are over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always known that happiness is a gift, not a right," she declares in the prologue to her new work.
Though Time to be in Earnest is written in the form of a one-year diary, James covers a lot of autobiographical territory. She was the eldest child of a mid-level civil servant and his wife; the marriage was strained, and James has described her childhood as "anxious". From an early age, she would detach from uncomfortable situations by imagining herself as a character in a story. Her own marriage at 21 to a physician, Connor White, was happy for a time, until he returned from the Second World War mentally ill. Her husband's illness forced her into the workplace in 1949 to support herself, her husband and their two young daughters.
Husband Connor died of a "probable suicide" in 1964; unable to deal with the suffering he saw during the war, unable "to detach", he withdrew into a world of his own making. Detachment is something James mentions about a great deal, she admires the ability to view the harsh world with a cool, objective eye. But she speaks of it less in terms of her own life than that of her detective Adam Dalgliesh, the strong, often dour sleuth who does not "judge in advance of the facts" and whose private passion is poetry.
"Because he is a poet, he has the detachment of the creative artist, he is compassionate without being sentimental," she says, sipping orange juice on a cozy sofa in the lounge of Manhattan's Regency Hotel. Though she avoids talking at length about what she and Dalgliesh have in common, it's clear that a parallel exists between her and her detective.
Privacy, too, is important to her.
"My secretary laughed when reading the index of Time to Be in Earnest,because there are only a few references to my children, but many more to my cat, Polly-Hodge."
Her children did not want to be mentioned in detail in the book, and she carefully guards their privacy. Loss of privacy is one of the many indignities the dead suffer, she notes, particularly in murder cases, in which the victim's life and the lives of his or her associates are exposed.
It is easy to forget, while looking into this grandmother's smiling face, that should she want to, she could knock you off quite effectively with any number of gory methods. It was that fascination with the macabre, with murder, and her desire to see mysteries solved and "order restored to a disorderly world" that started her writing mysteries. And it produced the greatest moment of unalloyed happiness in James's life, the sale of her first novel in 1962, Cover Her Face,which she still recalls, 16 books later, with girlish delight.
At the time, the nabobs had already declared the classical English detective novel dead, but the reports were greatly exaggerated. "It is an extraordinarily resilient art form," she says. "Look at the amazing variety of books and writers that this so-called formula can accommodate."
Though "more and more is expected of the writers because of advances in forensic technology" and because lay people have greater knowledge of the process, she believes the mystery will continue to thrive. "It is a very reassuring form: It distances our fear of death, makes it into a fiction," she says. "It affirms our belief we live in a moral, rational, comprehensible world."
These days, she likes to read "autobiography, biography, history, letters, and I reread a lot of old favourites -- Jane Austen, Trollope." And mysteries, of course: Ruth Rendell, Dick Francis, Amanda Cross, and some of the younger women, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky.
She laments this age in which many writers in her genre are bound to book-a-year contracts and conglomerates swallow up the better publishers -- a subject she covered with murderous glee in her 1997 book, Original Sin.
"I've always been a very independent writer, I never write to order," she maintains. "I don't contract in advance. I never take money for a book until the manuscript is delivered. They will never get a book a year out of me. If an idea excites me, I'll write a book, and if I don't have an idea that excites me, I won't."
From the beginning, she says, she had this attitude toward her craft, though it is bolstered by the fact that her bestsellers have guaranteed her financial independence. "If you're in the modern world and you're not interested in having any extra money, you're in a very powerful position."
Much has been written of her dignity, good manners, charm, and respect for the traditions of a different age. She believes thing were better, and easier, for men and women when she was younger. But she concedes that this opinion reflects her own experience working for men, and having men work for her, and that things might have been different for other women "especially young, vulnerable women." Not exactly a classic feminist, nor an anti-feminist, James says, "I believe women are caring and nurturing, and the world needs more of this feminine principle, but that there is a way women can express this and still be ambitious and fulfilled in their work."
Fulfillment in work is something that James personifies. With a new Dalgliesh underway, she has no plans to retire. "Not as long as there's an idea that excites me, and as long as I'm writing well. I think my children will probably tell me, 'Time to stop, Mummy.'
"What I aim to do is to write a really good novel within the conventions of the classical detective story, and use the detective story to say something true about men and women and the society in which to live. That would be my credo."
The idea that excites her in the next Dalgliesh mystery? The Baroness says she has a surprise in store. Though superstitious about discussing a work in progress, she does promise an interesting twist for the sturdy Dalgliesh and her readers.
"He will have a romantic attachment in the new book," she declares, and says no more about it.
Sparkle Hayter has written five satirical murder mysteries featuring TV reporter Robin Hudson. The latest, Chelsea Girl Murders , is out from Morrow in June.