‘The construction of a detective story might be formulaic; the writing need not be’

In her 1999 book, Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography, P. D. James recalls the moment she discovered she was to be a published author.

‘I can’t now remember how long it took to write Cover Her Face, but I suspect it was years rather than months. When I began the book I was working at Paddington Hospital Management Committee, and the book was largely planned on the Central Line as I travelled from Redbridge to Liverpool Street, then on by the Metropolitan Line to Paddington. The writing, as always by hand, was done in the early mornings when I needed to leave for work, occasionally at weekends between visits to Connor in hospital, and sometimes on the journey. The work was hindered by family emergencies, by pressure of my job and by the need to spend some evenings at the City of London College in Moorgate, studying for the qualification in hospital administration which I hoped might eventually result in a job sufficiently well paid to support my family. I don’t think it occurred to me then that writing novels would be either lucrative enough or dependable enough to rely on.

It didn’t occur to me either to begin with anything other than a detective story. They had formed my own recreational reading in adolescence and I was influenced in particular by the women writers: Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey. I had no wish to write a strongly autobiographical novel about the war or Connor’s illness. I suppose, too, I have a streak of scepticism, even of morbidity, which attracted me to the exploration of character and motive under the trauma of a police investigation of a violent death. I could always imagine myself writing a novel which wasn’t a detective story – indeed, I have written two, Innocent Blood and The Children of Men – but I can’t imagine myself writing a book which doesn’t include death. Death has always fascinated me and even in childhood I was always aware of the fragility of life.

And there were other reasons for my choice. I love structure in a novel and the detective story is probably the most structured of popular fiction. Some would say that it is the most artificial, but then all fiction is artificial, a careful rearrangement by selection of the writer’s internal life in a form designed to make it accessible and attractive to a reader. The construction of a detective story might be formulaic; the writing need not be. And I was setting out, I remember, with high artistic ambitions. I didn’t expect to make a fortune, but I did hope one day to be regarded as a good and serious novelist. It seemed to me, as it has to others, that there can be no better apprenticeship for an aspiring novelist than a classical detective story with its technical problems of balancing a credible mystery with believable characters and a setting which both complements and integrates the action. And I may have needed to write detective fiction for the same reasons as aficionados enjoy the genre: the catharsis of carefully controlled terror, the bringing of order out of disorder, the reassurance that we live in a comprehensible and moral universe and that, although we may not achieve justice, we can at least achieve an explanation and a solution.

Glancing now through Cover Her Face, I am struck by how conventional it is. This is very much a detective story in the mode of Agatha Christie even if it aspires to probe more deeply into the minds and motives of its characters. Here is the English village, the stock characters of priest and doctor, the anxious virgin who runs the home for unmarried mothers. The book is very much of its time. Today, the victim Sally Jupp, would not have found it necessary either to seek refuge in Miss Liddell’s home, or to take a job as a house parlour-maid with the Maxie family. The local authority would have provided her and her child with a flat and the local social workers would have helped her to furnish it, and welfare payments, although not generous, would have enabled her to survive. But I’m surprised how many readers say that they like Cover Her Face. It seems that the cosy, domestic, English village murder has never quite lost its appeal.

After the book was finally finished and typed I had a stroke of luck. I was selected for a three-month residential course at the King’s Fund College for Hospital Administrators, then situated in the Bayswater Road. The head of the college was an ex-headmaster of Brighton School. He was a good administrator and I suspect had been a good teacher, but not immune to that particular brand of social snobbery which I have encountered more than once in the headmasters of minor public schools. But he liked me and was helpful to me, and I was invited by his wife to spend a weekend at their oasthouse in Kent. A fellow guest was the actor Miles Malleson, for me always associated with his incomparable portrayal of Dr Chasuble in the film of The Importance of Being Earnest. He had written books about the theatre and I confided to him that I had just finished my first novel. He suggested that I send it to his agent, Elaine Greene at MCA, and gave me an introduction. My memory is that I took the manuscript in person. I can recall an imposing building in Piccadilly, the large letters on the brass nameplate, and meeting this dark-haired, rather intimidating American woman who accepted the manuscript but was not, as I remember, either particularly effusive or encouraging.

Elaine was at that time married to Hugh Carleton Greene, Director General of the BBC, and after reading my manuscript she had gone with him to have lunch or dinner – I forget which – at All Souls College, Oxford. There she had sat next to Charles Monteith, a Director of Faber and Faber. Elaine, an enthusiast for detective fiction, had said how sad she was at the death of the crime writer Cyril Hare, whose novels, mostly set in the world of law, are some of the most elegantly written in the genre. One, Tragedy at Law, is in my view among the most enjoyable classical detective stories. Charles Monteith said that Faber would now start looking for a replacement for Cyril Hare, and Elaine told him that she thought she had found one. She sent the manuscript to him the next day and Charles accepted it. I think this success produced some unease among my daughters, who had read that any writer of real talent could paper his or her wall with rejection slips. They tactfully pointed this out, anxious to arm me against future disappointment. I retorted with some tartness that children with no faith in Mummy’s talent would not get new bicycles out of the proceeds. A couple of extremely good bicycles as well as other small treats constituted for me financial success.

I have remained with Faber and Faber ever since, and remained also with Elaine until her death. After that her younger partner, Carol Heaton, took over and I am more than happy to be in her hands.

I can remember the moment of that telephone call with great clarity. I was late home from work and returned as usual to an empty house. My husband was in Goodmayes Hospital, the children both away and my parents-in-law had retired to Suffolk. The telephone rang almost as soon as I unlocked the door. Elaine had been trying to get me earlier and had made one last attempt. Receiving the news that I was at last to be a published author was one of the most exciting moments of my life, far more exciting, in retrospect, than receiving the first six copies of the novel. It would have been good to have someone with whom to share the news, but I don’t recall that this mattered at the time. It was sufficient to know that I was going to be a novelist. I knew that evening, as I pranced up and down the hall, that people do literally jump for joy.

There was one disappointment. The book was due to be published in 1961, the following year, but I received a letter to say that Faber’s fiction list was too large and that my novel was being deferred for twelve months. At the time the wait seemed insupportable, but at least it gave me an added incentive to make a beginning on my second novel with quiet confidence that it would stand a chance of acceptance.’

Extracted from Time to Be in Earnest (© P. D. James, 1999)

Photo credit: Alixe Buckerfield de la Roche