P.D. James … a Life in Crime



Book signing in Cologne, 2013

Book signing in Cologne, 2013

P.D. James (1920-2014) was one of Britain’s most admired and best loved writers, long considered to be the queen of crime and the doyenne of detective novelists. She rose to fame for her series of detective novels starring police commander and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard. He was named after a teacher at Cambridge High School. Her first novel Cover Her Face was published in 1964.


Photographed in 1980

Photographed in1980

P.D. James wrote 14 Adam Dalgleish novels in all between 1964 and 2008. She also created another  detective called Cordelia Gray in 1972. Her final novel was Death Comes to Pemberley published in 2011. She died in 2014 aged 94. And even in her final years she was quoted as saying … I still feel I have another novel left in me.

Photo by Graham Harrison/Rex

Photo by Graham Harrison/Rex

P.D. James was interviewed by the Paris Review in 1995 and was asked about her writing routine and choice of workplace …

When I first started writing I got up early and worked from six to eight, as I had to go to work. The habit has stuck and I still get up early and write in the morning. When I’m writing a book, I get up before seven, go down to the kitchen and make tea, listen to the news on the radio, and have a bath, then I settle down to work. I find that after a few hours I can’t go on and stop around twelve. The rest of the day is given to all other matters. I don’t write in any particular place, and I can, in fact, write anywhere provided I have absolute peace and privacy. My favourite place is in the kitchen since I can easily walk out into the garden when I feel inclined to a break in the fresh air, or make myself a coffee. It also has the advantage that the kitchen table is large enough to spread out my notes, dictionary and reference books. I prefer writing by hand but my handwriting is so bad, particularly when I am writing quickly, that I can barely decipher it myself the next day. What I do is almost immediately transfer the writing to tape, which my Secretary types out to provide the first draft. I write the books out of order, rather as if I were shooting a film, and then put the story together at the end before sending the manuscript to a professional word-processing agency where it is put on disc. Then it is done.


In 2002 P.D. James was a guest on Desert Island Discs. Photo: BBC

In 2013 BBC News correspondent Alison Feeney-Hart asked P.D. James about her top 10 tips for writers. One of her tips was concerned with writing routines …

I think all writers are different. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how different we are? Some people have to have the room, the pen and others do everything on a computer. I write by hand and I can write more or less anywhere as long as I’ve got a comfortable chair, a table, an unlimited amount of biros to write with and lined paper to write on. And then the next day when my PA comes, which she does at 10 o’clock, then I’ve got quite a lot to dictate to her and she puts it on to the computer, prints it out and I do the first revision. In a sense, therefore, I revise as I go. It’s important to get up early – before London really wakes and the telephone calls begin and the emails pile up. This is the best time of the day for me, the time of quiet in the morning.


Photo: Rex Features


2 responses to “P.D. James … a Life in Crime

  1. Thanks for these posts.I enjoyed reading about her. And I enjoy her books.
    Plus, two tiny things I noticed: in the earlier photo, there are no burglar bars on her window.
    And I, too, write my chapters out of order but didn’t think anyone else did.

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