Interview: Baroness James, detective novelist

07 April 2009

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 belief.

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 private prayer.

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 requirements.

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 for politics.

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 question.

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 people enjoy.

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 Fairtrade.

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 MacMath.

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