... Conversations with People at the Leading Edgesm.

Mysteries of Justice

Lady P.D. James


... detective novelist. P.D. James is globally admired as today's leading voice in the world's most popular form of fiction. The author of more than a dozen murder mysteries and three works of nonfiction, she was named Baroness of Holland Park in 1991 and sits in Great Britain's House of Lords. For thirty years, Lady James worked for the British Civil Service. She has 6 honorary doctorates of literature, was president of the Society of Authors, has served as a governor of the BBC, chaired the panel of judges for the prestigious Booker Prize and was a magistrate. Time To Be in Earnest is autobiographical. Lady James died in late November, 2014. This is our modest tribute to Lady James, published on the Huffington Post.


P.D. James' detective novels go to the heart of elemental human mysteries -- a longing for justice, the human hunger for stories and a rational, moral, comprehensible world, the inevitability of death. Is this too much to ask from murder mysteries? Hardly! according to this one-time British civil servant, now a Life Peer. Lady James is drawn to the way the world's most popular form of literature affirms the sanctity of the individual life and allows her to bring order out of disorder.

Millions of people, worldwide, agree. P.D. James' works of fiction have carried her into the House of Lords, onto the Board of Governors of the BBC, given her the standing to chair the judges of the prestigious Booker Prize and graced her with six honorary doctorates of literature from some of the world's great academic institutions.

The kind of book one writes, Lady James believes, gives a view of the mind's topography. Her exemplars are Graham Greene and John leCarr. Entertainment and literature need not be contradictory, says Lady James. Her credo as a writer is to give people an exciting and credible mystery story, unambiguously set in its time and place, while delivering an extremely well written novel full of psychological subtleties.

Yes, she was born loving language, words, book, reading. But her luck, she says, came from being born in 1920, educated in grammar schools that taught grammar, high schools that taught literature. She argues passionately that giving children the tools by which they can use language well -- simply, persuasively, evidently -- empowers them for life and is essential to a democracy. Hence her deep concern that overall standards for written and spoken English are slipping badly.

Not surprisingly, Lady James is also a strong advocate for children reading -- readers contribute their imagination to the writer, she says, form their own mental pictures. Although many of her novels have been made into television and she was a Governor of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Lady James does not shy away from saying that television -- admirable as it may be in many ways -- demands nothing of us. Hence, read!

Lady James, the Baroness of Holland Park, unambiguously sets her stories in the middle of changes she's witnessed in her own lifetime -- the advent of what she sees as a more multicultural society where violence and crime are part of declining respect for all authority. Her detective novels draw millions of people into dramatic changes in everything from the Church of England and London's Metropolitan Police to the British House of Lords, from the collapse of the British Empire to devolution for Scotland and Wales. How does she do it? As with all forms of creativity, that may be the greatest mystery of all.

   [This Program was recorded May 2, 2001 in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Edited Excerpts of the Conversation:



Conversation 1


Lady P.D. James establishes the universality of stories, which she believes are an elemental human need. She describes literary circumstances that call forth "family" feelings. She recalls how a variety of writers explore life's Mystery.


Conversation 2

Detective novels are considered both as entertainment and as literature, over generations. Lady James describes the tremendous importance good writing has for her and explains her personal credo as a writer. With the prestigious Booker Prize as her case in point, she describes and wonders about the process by which literary prizes are awarded. She compares day-to-day differences between Great Britain and America, and declares her love for "walkable" cities.



Conversation 3

Lady James describes her life-long love of language and her good luck in having been taught grammar in grammar school. She worries about falling standards both for spoken and written English and explains how both have dramatic implications for individual lives. She describes the enormous advantages that go with empowering people with the gift of proper language, convinced that proper language contributes to the democratic process. She expands on the importance of young people reading and compares the experiences of reading and watching television. She describes the changes she has witnessed in England, starting in the 1920s. The question of devolution is raised.


Conversation 4

Lady James describes dramatic changes in the British House of Lords, in which she sits. She describes proposed and completed reforms. Complexities which accompanied the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are noted, with a look at a variety of ways in which Britain's political scene and system seem to be changing. Lady James compares today's Britain to the British Empire which existed when she was born in 1920. She explains the power of setting the books she writes unambiguously in their own time, with examples from her novels.



Conversation 5

The mysteries of the writing process itself are explored, with examples drawn from how Lady James creates her novels. She contrasts the act of creation across art forms -- literature, musical composition, painting, sculpture. She compares her books to the television dramas made from them and the dramatically different processes involved in the two forms. Explaining how televised versions of drama have changed, Lady James (a former member of the Board of Governors of the British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC]) unravels the complex problems facing today's BBC. She compares British and American television.


Conversation 6

Lady James thinks back to her lifetime fascination with death, which is at the heart of all of her novels. She explains how reassuring she finds the detective novel form itself, confident in her belief that one can bring order out of disorder. She expands, firm in the belief that humans feel a need to attempt justice, however imperfect it may be.



Related Links:

P.D. James' detective novels/murder mysteries are published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf . The book that had this remarkable octagenarian author "on the road" in America is an Adam Dalgliesh mystery which she calls Death in Holy Orders.

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.


From February, 2000 'til March, 2005 we produced several hundred one and two-minute programs for CNNRadio International and, later, for These programs were excerpted from our 1-hour conversations with hundreds of "leading edge" individuals. Included were several segments with Lady James: "Justice", "Television", "Language", "Reading" and "Adapted".


It was our delight to spend a bit of time with P.D. James, a Lady in every sense of the word. We also appreciate the gracious hospitality extended to us all by The Commerce Club in Atlanta, where we recorded this program.

We thank both Knopf's Gabrielle Brooks in New York and Sheila O'Shea, who toured with Lady James, for their professional courtesies.


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