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Interview By Martin Wroe
The Baroness in the Crime Lab
Her Christian name is Phyllis, but she is known to millions as P. D. James. In the House of Lords, the second chamber of Britain's Parliament, where she sits as a life peer, she is known as Baroness P. D. James of Holland Park. Widely regarded today as the true heir to Agatha Christie, she was over 40 before she published her first book. Now in her seventy-eighth year, she has recently published her fourteenth novel, A Certain Justice (Alfred A. Knopf). Altogether her books have sold more than 10 million copies. P. D. James was born in Oxford on August 3, 1920. She attended Cambridge Girls High School but was not allowed by her tax-inspector father to go on to the university, a matter she still regrets. At 21 she married a young Anglo-Irish medical student, Connor Bantry White. He came back from World War II with severe mental illness, but the army refused to put this down to the war and therefore denied him a pension. From then on Phyllis had to support him and their two small daughters. Her husband died in 1964, and she has not married again. With unending determination, James graduated from secretarial work in the health service to a principal role in the Home Office, running the Criminal Policy Department, where, to quote the title of one of her novels, she caught A Taste for Death. By now she was also rising daily at six to write. Cover Her Face, her first novel, was published when she was 42. "I always knew I wanted to write books, but it just never seemed possible," she says. "I always just had to concentrate on what I considered was a safe job with a check at the end of the month." She kept her day job until she was 59, even as her literary career bloomed. She has been awarded the OBE, a life peerage, and a string of literary and cultural honors. James is famed for her unflinching and comprehensive knowledge of violent death. (A frequent visitor to the Metropolitan Police Laboratory, she is said to know the classics of forensic medicine by heart.) But ...