Mari Hannah: Why PD James is One of the Literary Greats

Mari Hannah: Why PD James is One of the Literary Greats

During a fascinating discussion, they seemed oblivious to the audience as they chatted about their craft. It was a full house, of course, standing room only at the back. PD James was very kind to me when I approached her nervously in the signing queue afterwards (I hadn’t yet been published) and it struck me that words of wisdom and encouragement for those coming up behind were very much her trademark. Every writer will tell you how generous she was.

A year or two later I was to benefit from that generosity again at an auction. James had signed and donated hard and paperback copies of The Private Patient to raise funds for the same book festival, together with the last three pages of the associated manuscript, complete with annotations. My bid was successful and I will always treasure this piece of crime writing history.

Little did I know that I would one day be invited by Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival to celebrate the life and work of PD James, a daunting task for a relative newbie. How could I possibly do the grande dame of mystery justice? Would I be able to show readers what a pioneering writer she was? My mission was to encourage as many people as possible to read and discuss her classic novel: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. The title made me sit up and take notice. I was sure I’d read this book many years before – and I had. On my bookshelf I found a very old copy, its pages well thumbed and brown with age.

So, as festival reader-in-residence I set off on a library tour across the North of England – an outreach initiative known as the Big Read – to discuss Baroness James of Holland Park, to explore the enormous contribution she made to crime fiction and to talk about the novel introducing Cordelia Gray, the first female private detective in crime fiction.

In researching James’s life, I found that we had a lot in common. We began our writing careers late. Crime, real rather than imagined, was part of our lives before we put pen to paper. We were Home Office employees: in my case, a probation officer, James a civil servant in the crime department. Our female detectives were proving their worth in difficult circumstances, striving to change attitudes and make their way in the world. Was I channelling this amazing writer even though we were never formally introduced?

Snapped up by the first publisher to have sight of her debut, Cover Her Face, PD James went on to sell millions of books worldwide, many featuring her beloved Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Her work was translated many times, much of it adapted for TV and film and she received numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic: the CWA Diamond Dagger, Theakstons Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award and the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster among them.

Of Cordelia, James said: “I wanted to have a young heroine of courage and intelligence who faces the problems of life with a determination to be successful in a job which everyone else thinks she won’t be able to do.” Less well known than some of the author’s characters, Cordelia was no less fascinating, a liberated detective, the forerunner for all female sleuths that came after. James claimed that Cordelia was based on her youngest daughter, but many readers I spoke to felt that the character was very like James herself, an intelligent woman with a keen sense of humour and sharp eye for detail.

An Unsuitable Job For a Woman was and still is a great read, the title cleverly posing the question: is running a detective agency a suitable job for a woman? Social comment? Absolutely. One observer remarked: “Feminist questions of what constitutes proper women’s work are implicitly addressed in this moody and poetic thriller.” I couldn’t agree more.

The consensus of opinion among readers I met on tour was that PD James was one of the literary greats. Her sense of place was exquisite, characterisation and plotting unrivalled. News of her death on November 27, 2014 came on my late father’s birthday. The outpouring of love from readers and writers around the world was testament to the admiration and esteem in which she was held. Afterwards, McDermid said simply, “This week we lost a legend.” She has since written an introduction to The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James. Published by Faber, this adds to an impressive body of work spanning fifty years. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.