P D James: the warm, inspirational woman I knew

Independent on Sunday, 30 November 2014

She confronted moral dilemmas with seriiusness and a sense of responsibility

I first met the novelist P D James, who died last week at the age of 94, almost three decades ago. Phyllis was in her mid-sixties at the time, and I had been reading her avidly since coming across her novel An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in a public library. She was about to publish one of her best books, A Taste for Death, and I had been asked to write a profile of her. I arrived at her west London house slightly early, feeling a little nervous.

I needn’t have worried. Phyllis turned out to be a warm, almost motherly woman with old-fashioned good manners. The contrast with her latest novel, which opened with the bodies of two men being found in a west London church with their throats cut, was striking. She offered me tea, which came on a tray, and we settled down to do the interview.

I asked my first question – “When did you know you were a novelist?” – and something quite unexpected happened. Phyllis looked at me and asked a question of her own: “Do you write fiction?” I said I had just finished my first novel and she nodded, observing that only another novelist would have phrased it like that. The next thing knew, I was telling her about my book, A Masculine Ending, and the fact that we had the same publisher. Phyllis immediately offered to read the manuscript, which she duly did. She suggested small amendments to the plot and offered an endorsement to go on the cover.

Phyllis must have known how much that meant to a first-time novelist, but she did the whole thing matter-of-factly. It was the beginning of a long friendship, cemented by the fact that for a while we shared the same editor, my great friend Rosemary Goad. Rose, as she has always been known, started at Faber & Faber as one of T S Eliot’s secretaries; long after she retired, she went on editing Phyllis’s novels, including her Jane Austen pastiche, Death Comes to Pemberley, three years ago.

In the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking a lot about that first conversation with Phyllis. She didn’t start publishing until her early forties, when she realised that if she was going to write fiction, she had better get on with it. At the time, she had two small children and was the family’s main breadwinner; her husband, a doctor, had been a Japanese prisoner of war and came home profoundly damaged. He was found dead a couple of years after her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962.

Phyllis was a private person and we didn’t talk much about that very difficult period of her life. But she did tell me, when I asked if she had any regrets, that she was sorry that certain people were not around to enjoy her success as a writer. Something else that stayed with me is what she had to say about motive in crime novels. Her books are full of all kinds of murders, but she told me she couldn’t imagine writing a novel about a psychopath; she just wouldn’t find someone like that interesting.

Phyllis carried on the golden age tradition of applying logic and reason to crime fiction, and it’s hard to imagine her caring for the endless diet of gory serial killers offered by so many contemporary authors. She knew a great deal about forensic science from her time at the Home Office, but she never allowed it to dominate the plot or take precedence over character.

I wish more modern writers displayed the sense of moral purpose I associate with Phyllis, not because she was a Conservative peer – politics was never an issue in our conversations – but because she insisted that human beings have moral choices. Born in 1920, she was a young adult during the Second World War and maybe it was that experience, of human nature at its worst, that led her to confront moral dilemmas with seriousness and a sense of responsibility. She was a one-nation Tory and an Anglican, although I wondered if she was talking about herself when she told me that her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, was someone who wanted to believe more than he actually did.

One passion we shared was women’s rights. I always thought Phyllis was a little bit in love with Dalgliesh, but she introduced a younger female detective, Kate Miskin, in her later novels. She told me that she would have liked Dalgliesh to be a female character, but it was simply unthinkable to have such a senior woman at Scotland Yard when she started writing.

Some of my happiest memories of Phyllis are from the birthday parties organised for her by her publisher. At one of them, I remember talking to the wife of a former Archbishop of Canterbury; at another, I sat next to Austen Kark, a charming man who later died, tragically, in the Potters Bar rail crash. Those parties were a reminder of her ability to make and maintain friendships with very disparate people.

I cried a little when I heard about her death. Phyllis had a long and successful life, but I shall miss her warm, inspirational presence in the world.