Time to be in Earnest

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Knopf Canada, Dec 22, 2010 - Biography & Autobiography - 288 pages
On the day she turned seventy-seven, internationally acclaimed mystery writer P. D. James embarked on an endeavor unlike any other in her distinguished career: she decided to write a personal memoir in the form of a diary. Over the course of a year she set down not only the events and impressions of her extraordinarily active life, but also the memories, joys, discoveries, and crises of a lifetime. This enchantingly original volume is the result.

Time to Be in Earnest offers an intimate portrait of one of most accomplished women of our time. Here are vivid, revealing accounts of her school days in Cambridge in the 1920s and '30s, her happy marriage and the tragedy of her husband's mental illness, and the thrill of publishing her first novel, Cover Her Face, in 1962. As she recounts the decades of her exceptional life, James holds forth with wit and candor on such diverse subjects as the evolution of the detective novel, her deep love of the English countryside, her views of author tours and television adaptations, and her life-long obsession with Jane Austen. Wise and frank, engaging and graceful, this "fragment of autobiography" will delight and surprise P. D. James's admirers the world over.

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TIME TO BE IN EARNEST: A Fragment of Autobiography

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From British mystery writer (and recent Baroness) James, an elegantly constructed, deceptively off-the-cuff reflection on her life and times that is by turns humorous, nostalgic, instructive, and ... Read full review

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About the author (2010)

Phyllis Dorothy James was born in 1920 in Oxford, England, in the aftermath of the First World War. Her mother experienced emotional breakdowns, and her father could be frightening and was incapable of displaying affection. There was no money for James’s higher education, so at sixteen she went out to work, becoming a Red Cross nurse during the Second World War. She married a doctor, Ernest White (whom James chose to call Connor in the book), in 1941, but he returned from the war with mental illness (later diagnosed as schizophrenia), and until his death at the age of forty-four he was intermittently institutionalized. In the late 1940s, the couple was very poor. To support their two children, James worked full-time as a civil servant in a London hospital, and later in the Police and Criminal Law departments of the British Home Office.

From early childhood, P. D. James wanted to be a writer. She had a vivid fantasy life, telling stories to her younger brother and sister, and was clearly gifted. Yet she did not begin writing until her late thirties, during a difficult period in her life. “I was not only working full time, I was going to evening classes to get the professional qualification in hospital administration. I was visiting my husband in hospital on the weekend, and when the children were home [from boarding school], of course I was with them.” Realizing there was never going to be a convenient time to start that first novel, she began to write while commuting to work on the train. Even then, she preferred to steer clear of any autobiographical writing of her wartime experiences. Instead, she wrote a mystery novel, believing she might stand a better chance of being published since the genre was popular. “But also, I love the work of constructing a novel, and was happiest working within the constraints of detective fiction – the need for a plot, a puzzle, and so on. I found these constraints liberating.”

By the time James had published her third novel, her position at the Home Office gave her responsibility for the appointment of scientists and pathologists to all of England's forensic research laboratories. She was in touch with police authorities throughout the country and advised ministers on the legal problems relating to juvenile crime. Eventually, after Innocent Blood became a North American bestseller, she gave up her job to write full-time. In a genre that now includes such luminaries as Colin Dexter, Martha Grimes, Minette Walters, Elizabeth George and Ruth Rendell, P. D. James is still considered by many one of the top practitioners of mystery fiction. Her books, known for their complex, nuanced plots, careful character development and rich evocation of place, have been made even more popular by television serial adaptations.

She has also kept up a very active public life. In recognition of her work for the Arts Council of Britain, the British Society of Authors and the BBC, James was appointed to the House of Lords in 1991, becoming Baroness James of Holland Park. She has served as a magistrate and as vice-president of the Prayer Book Society. So how does this upstanding pillar of the establishment write of incest, child abuse and violent deaths, with chilling descriptions of hideously mutilated corpses? It is a testament to her imagination: James herself has never known anyone who was murdered and has only ever seen two cadavers.

“I don't think I had a very happy childhood, but I didn't have the kind of childhood that you would expect to produce this dark imagination which I occasionally show.” She fears violence of all kinds, however. While murder is still rare in Britain, there are more incidents of irrational violence, and though she dislikes having bars on the windows of her basement, she also feels unsafe walking alone in her Notting Hill neighbourhood at night. She has a strong sense of morality, and exploring what drives a normally good person to cross the line that separates murderers from the rest of us is what makes her mysteries fascinating. “Murder is the unique crime, the only one for which we can never make reparation. People have been fascinated from earliest times by the motives, temptations and compulsions which drive people to this ultimate act of violence.”

With each new book, James starts with a place: often an ordered, closed, institutional or bureaucratic environment, such as the ceremonious law courts in A Certain Justice or the theological college in her most recent novel, Death in Holy Orders. She loves making the setting come alive, building narrative thrust and plot, and then reasserting order – though very often, since James is a realist and her police characters work in a contemporary world, justice cannot fully be achieved. Resolution is usually in the hands of detective Adam Dalgliesh, a character whom she has made a complex and sensitive human being, perhaps, as James has said, “an idealized version of what I'd have liked to be if I'd been born a man.” She also created one of the genre’s first female detectives, Cordelia Gray.

“The greatest mystery of all is the human heart, and that is the mystery with which all good novelists, I think, are concerned.” James’s explorations of character are subtle and complex, with few innocent victims and few completely unsympathetic killers. She muses: “I wonder if the personality is fixed or fluid, whether it is a rock or a moving river.” Her well-written, challenging books are given the respectful reviews generally accorded a major novelist in the British press. She is beyond worrying about being taken seriously, noting that “genre writing at its best is some of the best fiction we have.” As Margaret Cannon observed in a review in The Globe and Mail, “fans of P. D. James have known for years that the murder is just the edge of the story.”

P. D. James lives in an elegant 1930s house in London. Her favourite novelist is Jane Austen (“an absolute mistress of construction”) and she likes to reread Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Trollope. She grew up reading female mystery writers and was influenced by Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. But while she has a high regard for the great American mystery writers (Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald) and the British novelists Anita Brookner, A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble, James does not read much modern fiction. “I'm increasingly fond of biography, autobiography, history and letters.”

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