I was setting out to be a good serious
novelist, and I thought detective fiction would be a
wonderful apprenticeship. It's quite difficult to write a
detective story well. I'd read them as an adolescent - Dorothy L.
Sayers and Margery Allingham more than Agatha Christie - and I
thought I could do it. It's a popular form, and I thought they
would be acceptable to a publisher.
I love structure in a novel. For that reason
Jane Austen is my favourite novelist. As I continued, I came to
believe that I could continue within this popular form and be a
good and serious novelist.
I'm not as bloodthirsty as some. I only
describe an actual murder in one or two of my books, and not at all
in bloodthirsty terms - there wasn't any blood.
But I do discuss finding the body, because
murder is a terrible and unique crime, and finding a body is such a
shock, and influences people's lives. I think the readers should
share the shock; so I usually do describe the body from the
viewpoint of the person who finds the body.
Adam Dalgliesh [her main detective] is the son of a
priest; but I would call him a reverent agnostic, a
seeker, rather than someone who has finally arrived at a coherent
Most people said they liked Death in Holy
Orders, and it did deal with different views of
priesthood and of the training for the priesthood which you find in
a very broad Church. There's no theological college anything like
that in existence, of course - it doesn't reflect theological
training today in any way.
The Children of Men got more theologians
discussing it, particularly in American journals, and if
I met senior churchmen, they told me they had given it to ordinands
to read, and so on.
My readers are so loyal and enthusiastic, and
I value them very much. I try to do the best I can with the ideas
that I have, and I think they expect it of me. They like detective
stories, but they want them to be well-written - they want to enjoy
the prose as well as the plot.
I'm optimistic about the future by nature. But
if I look at the evidence - mass hunger, that we may not have
enough water, what we're doing to the planet, the loss of moral and
ethical value - it is depressing. My brain is pessimistic, but my
heart is optimistic. For me, there must always be some hope.
My love for the Prayer Book began in very early
childhood, before I could read - when I could only listen to
it. Of course, it was the only book used then. Later, when
I could read, during long, boring sermons I would read it and
specially loved the instructions - for instance, those to priests
for giving holy communion in time of pestilence. That conjured up
pictures in my childish mind of the priest walking with the sacred
vessels through the almost deserted village, almost certainly to
become ill himself; or the prayers for when in danger on the sea,
knowing that they would have been read by everyone on board, and
the ship would almost certainly founder.
There is so much history, romance, and great beauty in
it. And the prayers like the General Thanksgiving and the
prayers after communion are so superb that they meet my need in
praying much better than my own words do, and I still use them in
I enjoy services in other denominations, like
those of the Reformed Church, or going to a Roman Catholic mass
with a friend - but what is essential to me is an atmosphere of
devotion and concentration on God. If there's a great deal of
happy-clappy singing and announcements of birthdays, and so on, I
can see that it binds people together, but I don't personally find
it's useful to me. I want silence, so I can concentrate on God -
not just talking to him and giving him a list of my
I was not appointed to the House of Lords as a working
peer, but I attend the Upper House as often as I can -
although not often enough. I do very much respect it. There is so
much legislation which is drafted in a hurry. We need a revising
chamber, and the Lords has so many people with experience in so
many aspects of our daily lives.
There is a general feeling that both Houses should be
elected. But if the House of Lords is elected
democratically, it would have equal authority with the House of
Commons. So where will the power lie? Where will the Prime
Minister sit? How will he be elected? And one of the strengths of
the Lords is that a lot of people have no party allegiances: they
wouldn't stand for Parliament; they have no time or enthusiasm
I was in at the beginning of the National Health Service
as an administrator, when there was huge optimism. They
said the cost would be high for the first few days when people were
catching up with the medical treatment they had been denied, but as
we got healthier it would go down. No one assumed we would be able
to replace hearts, as we can now, or that there would be so many
new drugs. The costs have gone up and up and up.
Nursing has changed, too. When I was nursing
with the Red Cross, nurses took food from trolleys to the beds, and
they could see whether you were eating it or not. Now it's brought
round by someone else who is certainly not a nurse, and the tray
is taken away 15 minutes later - we've all experienced that.
People are just as concerned and dedicated as they were, but they
are all overworked.
I'm rereading Jane Austen's Emma at the
moment, because I'm giving a talk about that novel at the
Oxford Literary Festival. We're discussing which is the best novel
in the English language, and that's always been my favourite; so
I'm very happy to defend her. And I'm reading The Suspicions
of Mr Whicher, which is about the Roads Hill House murder. I
always have poetry by the bedside - Philip Larkin's Collected
Poems at the moment.
We all have regrets, that we have not been more kind,
more understanding, better daughters, better mothers. On
a less fundamental level, I do regret never having persevered in
learning to drive, because that might have given me more
independence now that I'm nearly 90. But, then, now I'm nearly 90,
perhaps they wouldn't let me drive. And I regret not learning a
foreign language really well. French, I think.
I like to think half a dozen of my books would
last - but I can't pin-point one. No, that's not an easy
I like the Psalms and St Mark's Gospel. I like
Revelation least. I like the Authorised Version. The modern
translations, modern scholarship, can give more precision, but they
are spiritually much less useful. After all, we all know what we
mean by "a still small voice". To me "a low murmuring sound" is a
vacuum cleaner. But one shouldn't be too critical of what other
I relax by reading, or at the end of the day, watching
television. Or when I visit my daughters and sit in their
houses and gardens and talk to them.
Cruelty and stupidity make me angry. And, I
suppose, in this world there are so many examples of that.
I'm happiest when I'm with one of my two
daughters, walking together, and talking. Getting away
from crowds, by the sea, in woodlands - this is wonderful.
Yes, I do support Fairtrade, and I think coffee
is probably most important. When my secretary arrives in the
morning we always have coffee together and it's always
I didn't travel about on holiday very often -
it was mostly for publishers or the Arts Council. I think I enjoyed
motoring in France, finding little out-of-the-way inns. Or
Southwold, in England.
I love country churches which are empty
because, after exploring, one can sit - just sit - in absolute
peace, and realise that for hundreds of years this has been a place
of prayer - as T. S. Eliot says, "where prayer has been valid". To
be out in the countryside in absolute silence, where there is no
sound of traffic, one can hear the rustle of leaves. One could shut
one's eyes and think one could get in touch with God. It's very
hard these days, but such places can be found.
I suppose a mother prays for her children and
family, and I also pray for friends who may be ill or in
difficulties. That's very important. I also try to pray for people
I don't know - people in Africa watching their children die from
starvation. One just hopes that prayer helps there.
I'd like to be locked in a church with the Archbishop of
Canterbury. It would be a huge privilege to have such a
holy man to oneself for a long time. I could ask him a great many
questions and discuss things with him.
Baroness James (P. D. James) was talking to Terence Handley