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Modern Greats: PD James

Brook and Sarah explore the life and writing of PD James, creator of Detective Dalgliesh.


Cover Her Face (1962) PD James

Innocent Blood (1980) PD James

Dalgliesh (2021) Acorn TV

Death Comes to Pemberley (2011)

Pride and Prejudice (1813) Jane Austen

Children of Men (1992) PD James

Women of Mystery (2000) Martha Haley DuBose

The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811 (1971) PD James with Thomas A. Critchley

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. Today we’re continuing our new series of Modern Greats.
SarahI’m very excited about this and we’ll be talking about PD James. But before that let me just mention that in the Cartel, which is our paid subscription, we are shortly going to be starting a write with us exercise, which is going to be something completely new and completely different for us.
BrookYeah, it’s going to be so much fun. And I think a little bit out of both of our comfort zones. But that’s what’s going to kind of make it great right? Because we will be sharing what we write, how the story unfolds, as it happens, with the Cartel members. So, this is going to be maybe a week-by-week snippet of what we’ve created during that time.
SarahYeah, I think it’ll be lots of fun it. As you say it will be probably a little uncomfortable but but lots of fun. So let me begin with a bio of PD James.
SarahBorn in 1920 to outgoing Dorothy May Hone and reserved Sydney Victor James, Phyllis Dorothy James was the eldest of 3 children. She grew up in Oxford, Ludlow, and Cambridge and had lots of freedom to explore, which likely contributed to her imagination. Shortly after the family moved to Cambridge, her mother was institutionalized for an extended period and she took on the responsibility of raising her siblings. James enjoyed school and her sleuth, Adam Dalgliesh was named for her favorite teacher, Miss Dalgliesh. After graduating from high school, she wanted to attend university but her family couldn’t afford it. Instead she worked in administrative jobs and in a theater where she met the man she would marry. Connor Bantry White. After he qualified as a physician he enlisted with the royal army medical corps and was sent to India, during which period James gave birth to their first daughter. After the war ,her husband returned but he was suffering from severe mental illness. He was never formally diagnosed, but spent the next twenty years in and out of institutions until his death by apparent suicide at 44 years old.
SarahIn 1949, with her husband unable to work, James began working for the new National Health Service. She enrolled in night classes in hospital administration and her career progressed. In the late 1950s, while still taking night classes caring for her family, including her ailing husband, and working full-time, she wrote her first novel. She cited her influences as Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Josephine Tay. Her first novel Cover Her Face was published in 1962 and introduces readers to Adam Dalgliesh, her detective, who appeared in 15 novels between then and 2008. She continued working in the public service, spending 11 years with the Home Office where she would have learned about police investigations and forensics as well as public relations. Her novel Innocent Blood was published in 1980 when James was 60 and she was preparing to retire. She had a pension and savings and was planning to write full-time when that novel topped the bestseller lists and secured film options. She realized she would be very comfortable in her retirement. And I just love this that she became famous later in life. Her retirement was filled with responsibilities, including being a magistrate in juvenile court, a governor of the BBC, and chair of the Booker Prize judging panel. She taught creative writing and was awarded several honorary university degrees.
SarahShe became a life peer 1991, becoming Baroness James, and sat in the House of Lords. Her books have won several awards, and she received a Lifetime Achievement award from the British Crime Writers association in 1987 and the Grandmaster Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1999. She was also a member of the Detection Club. PD James died in 2014 at 94 years old and left us with a number of wonderful books to enjoy.
BrookThank you, Sarah. That was just a great summary. I spent some time researching, knowing that you were going to take the lead in the bio, but I learned so much from that that that I didn’t come across and I find PD James to be a very fascinating character. One of the things and you talked about this was the fact that she didn’t really get to go on to higher education like she probably would have liked to. I saw that at 16 she left school, didn’t get to go to university because she had these responsibilities to help care for her family. Her mom was ill at that time I believe and that um, you know she started working in the theater to help provide for her family and I see that responsibility to caretake and provide for others that went on throughout her life.
SarahYeah, absolutely. So, her mum I think suffered from mental illness as well as as her husband. And so yeah, she just had that responsibility for such a ah large portion of her life, to be caring for other people. And so I think it’s so wonderful that it was later in her life that she became successful and really that was when she had the opportunity to appreciate and enjoy that success, right?
BrookAnd and nice that she lived such a nice healthy long life so that she got that chance in her life to have some um some time that was just for her. I think I was surprised like I I knew very little about Pd James before we ah started preparing for the show and I only had read like I think just a little bit and it was a long time ago. So, this was all fresh and I think I would have guessed I would have said that she came from a very affluent family because she that’s kind of how she carries herself isn’t it. She’s a very sophisticated like well-spoken person that I would have assumed she was highly educated and came from you know, kind of a posh society but that’s not the case at all.
SarahNo, you’re right. You know she she had I think pretty humble beginnings and you know she had to work for a lot of her life to provide for other people right? And it was only kind of yeah towards the latter part of her life that she received fame and recognition for for all of the work that she was doing.
BrookYeah, that’s wonderful. I really enjoy that she named her um signature sleuth after her favorite teacher. Like that is just something so endearing something that that you can see that that bookworm child, right? Like the the person who loved school. She loved to learn and this teacher was so important to her that when it came time to name her sleuth. She took the name and I believe that his first name is the name of her teacher’s father.
SarahI think that’s right, and I think yeah I I agree like I think it’s so nice that she’s honored this person who is so influential in her life with being the you know her her main sleuth. So, she did write two other detective novels um and with a different sleuth named Cordelia Gray. I didn’t have a chance to read either of those. I did read a couple of the Dalgliesh ones though.
BrookI just started sampling Cordelia Gray because I thought “I really want to get a taste for her before the show” and I think I’m going to love it. I have this feeling that I’m going to be very sad that James only wrote two novels because of course they’re a little later they weren’t I wrote I read some very early Dalgliesh and so these are written later. And they’re more lighthearted and dare I say just a little bit more fun than um than the Dalgliesh novels that that I read, which is not to take away anything from those because I really enjoyed this the very elegant and smooth prose that she writes and then that carries over. But you know you’ve got a very young female PI in Cordelia Gray so that of course is going to flavor this story a little differently.
SarahOh, good. I’m going to have to read those, I think. So, I ended up reading the first Dalgliesh novel and the last one and what’s interesting is so he ages, sort of, through the series right? He in the in the last one he has a cell phone. He’s a commander. He’s you know, um, progressed in his career. I think in the first one he’s kind of in the mid-point of his career and that would make him quite old if he’d actually aged with um with time. And so you know I I don’t know at what point he kind of stopped aging or she massaged that timeline a little bit but I do think that’s interesting that you know he was he didn’t stay in the 1970s for example, um, he you know in the last book. It’s it was written I think in 2008 and so um, there’s reference to world events that have happened around the same time as well.
BrookVery interesting. So it’s almost a mashup of what we’ve spoken about before because we have Poirot who doesn’t change at all and he stays in his era and then when we spoke of Margery Allingham, her sleuth very much changes with time right? Ages as a living person. And then James has done this kind of in-between thing to keep up with the times and yet keep her sleuth young enough to go on all the adventures. I like that a lot.
SarahWell I I like it too and I think it just kind of tells you that there’s not any real rules right? like you can decide how you do that and I would say the first book really felt very much like a golden age mystery right. And and in fact, the the final book in the series is also a closed circle mystery and so I don’t know if all of them are closed circle um I I watched there’s a television adaptation. Um. Relatively recent I think it was from 2021 it started. There’s a a series called Dalgliesh and I watched one story from there and it was also close circle. So I I don’t know if all of hers kind of hit on some of those Golden Age um tropes that we’ve talked about in the past. You can see the kind of progression in the character and and in her writing as well. Like if she wrote that in um or it was published in 2008 so you know she probably wrote it 2006, 2007 um, she would have been in her eighty s at the time. Um, and so a different kind of person and and you just think about how much the world has changed since the 1960s when she would have started writing.
SarahIt’s really interesting to think because her final her final book was actually published I think in 2011 um and that’s not that long ago when we think about a lot of these authors. You know we’re talking when we talk about Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh or Dorothy L Sayers like some of their books are almost one hundred years old um so you know it’s interesting to think of her as being um, kind of straddling that Golden Age and more modern crime fiction.
BrookExactly yeah I listened to um, a short actually I watched a short interview with her that the BBC did it was on her ninetieth birthday. They spoke with her and she did talk about the facts that she really leaned on that closed circle story because she had worked in these different bureaucracies. Um the hospital administration and then she did government service and she understood that there were these little conclave sort of communities, unique communities little conclaves of people that ah create that closed circle with what an office space or you know a ah ah medical department or something and so I think she did really master that idea and used her background.
SarahOh I think she definitely used her background in her writing um and you know you can you can see that or or you can tell that she’s that she’s done that in in her writing. So the last novel that she wrote was Death Comes to Pemberley which is a continuation of Pride and Prejudice but set six years after Pride and Prejudice finishes and of course there’s a murder. And she was very much a fan of Jane Austen and I think it’s you know, quite fitting that that was her her final book.
BrookI love that so much. She mentions in this interview that I said that I watched that she was working on something different and I’m wondering if that’s what she’s referencing. It doesn’t become clear. But um, yeah I love that so much and then. The interviewer asked her in that clip whether or not she would be writing anymore Dalgiesh. And she said that it was a possibility but that she hated the idea of dying in the middle of a book and she said and at my age you can’t be too sure. So she was a little worried about starting something she couldn’t finish, it seems.
SarahOh that’s that super interesting. And you know we talked about Sue Grafton and Margery Allingham leaving um, unfinished books unfinished works right.
SarahAnother book that she wrote—and I did not realize this—is Children of Men and that was adapted into a film in 2006 with Julianne Moore and Clive Owen. And in that that’s where it’s like a futuristic kind of world where there’s no reproduction. And quite a departure from the mysteries that she was writing.
BrookYeah, you know she referenced it in this interview, which it must been a good timing for this interview for us to get these nuggets because she said that she read an article about the fact that humans are becoming less and less fertile and they got her mind going. And so, here’s this woman who does an entirely different genre, goes to a sci-fi, and I just I just find that so both inspiring and amazing.
SarahYeah, the book came out in 1992, and so she would have been in her late 60s early 70s when she was writing it.
BrookYeah, isn’t that amazing and inspiring?
BrookI just find it so interesting that someone who really built their career on detective fiction is willing to try something brand new later in life and it just goes to show I think what a skilled writer and um, very intelligent person she was.
SarahSo she did also write an autobiography in 1999 and I think she was quite a private person and it’s understandable because honestly I don’t think she had that happy of a life. Certainly for that first part while she was you know while her mother was institutionalized and then her husband was institutionalized. I think that must have been a very difficult first half of her life.
BrookAbsolutely. It was something that she I think doesn’t talk a lot about. It’s kind of difficult to even find the references to especially her mother being ill um. And it it must have been a very challenging early life for her. So, Sarah did you learn in your preparations how she went about writing how she created her stories?
SarahSo she was a planner. And it was often ah several years between her Dalgliesh novels. And that was because she spent months and months just thinking about them researching facts, thinking up plot points before she even started drafting. I think her family was very religious and I think that kind of stayed with her for her whole life and I wonder if that didn’t contribute to some of her outlook on writing and I just have a ah quote and this is from the book Women of Mystery by Martha Haley DuBose and she has attributed PD James as saying “I hope that my books serve as small celebrations of order and reason in our increasingly disordered world.” And you can see that in her sleuth Dalgliesh. I think he’s very you know he’s very ordered. And I think that was part of her writing process was a very structured process.
BrookThat’s very interesting. I hadn’t learned the part about religion in her life. But I also feel like there’s a parallel there because we have um, Dalgliesh is a poet detective, so we have that softer, maybe spiritual side of him, along with the ordered um you know very black and white job of being a Scotland Yard detective. So um, you see it coming out in different places.
SarahYeah I agree. So she also was interested in true crime. She was also interested in true crime. Ah she did write a book called. The Maul and the Pear Tree the Ratcliffe Highway murders which is murders that happened in the early nineteenth century. And then she also in 2013 claimed to have solved a murder that had happened in 1931, which also apparently was the inspiration for one of her own novels.
SarahYeah, yeah, so I found I found several articles that kind of referenced her having made this claim that she that she had a theory and in how this murder had happened. And, you know she is one of several authors that we have spoken about who have kind of dabbled in um, their own investigations or putting forward their own theories about actual events.
BrookYes, she’s walking in the footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when he helped solve some cases and and also helped look for Agatha Christie when she was missing. So very interesting, but it also makes sense because these minds that have created these plots can then sometimes dismantle them as well. So, I love that. And I’m going to look into that I would love to know what her theories are and and if they were ever followed up on by ah by the officials.
SarahYeah, I don’t I don’t know the answer to that. I mean several years had had passed since the crime so you know I don’t know how much investigating they would have done but yeah, super interesting.
BrookSarah, I loved learning more about PD James and she’s one of the authors and you know you and I have spoken and there’s several of these and I’m sure we’ll highlight more that I know that I should have been reading but hadn’t in my in my life. So I’m just thrilled that we took the time to look into her life and learn more about her.
SarahI really enjoyed learning about her book I think um, yeah, she as you said in the beginning really fascinating person and yeah like you I hadn’t read very much of hers and and she’s someone that I definitely will read more of.
BrookMe too and thank you listeners I hope that you enjoyed today’s episode as well. Thanks for joining us on another Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.