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A Grandmotherly Briton and Her Unlikely Novel

November 06, 1986|MARIAN SMITH HOLMES | Holmes lives in London. and

LONDON — ". . . They lay like butchered animals in a waste of blood . . . ," P. D. James wrote. "One corpse had slipped from the low single bed to the right of the door and lay staring up at her, the mouth open, the head almost cleft from the body. . . ."

The grisly description continued, not at all suggesting that the author is a benign-looking grandmother who on a recent gray, wet morning served coffee in her antique-furnished drawing room and chatted cheerily about her life and her latest book, "A Taste for Death."

'A Lot of Blood'

"I think I do describe the corpses very realistically," she said, sipping her coffee. "There is a lot of blood and in some of them a great deal of horror, I suppose. But basically I'm writing the classic English detective story. I'm not specifically setting out to be particularly bloody or horrific. I'm most interested in the people and the effect of the crime on them."

James had shaken the whodunit world with her literate style of detective fiction. Reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic are crowning her the new Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie's successor, and crediting her with sparking a revival of the mystery novel. Her awards include two Silver Daggers from the Crime Writers' Assn. and the Edgar Allan Poe scroll.

Three-Month Best Seller

"A Taste for Death," published in London in June, stayed on Britain's hard-back best-seller list for three months, and has won enthusiastic acclaim, many critics praising its likeness to a straight novel. To coincide with its U.S. publication last week (Knopf: $18.95), James, 66, has embarked on a three-week promotional tour of the United States and Canada. She will be appearing Friday and Saturday in Los Angeles.

Like her other nine books, "A Taste for Death" is notable for its complexity of characters and setting, while adhering to the conventions of the detective story genre: the mysterious murder, a closed circle of suspects, and a detective who solves the crime from the clues in the narrative.

A recently resigned member of Parliament and a local tramp are found with their throats slashed in a dingy church vestry. As James' cerebral hero, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, and his staff launch their investigation, a skein of motives including adultery, inheritance, politics, revenge and familial estrangement begins to unravel. The events culminate in a heart-thumping siege near Holland Park, the well-heeled neighborhood where James lives.

The author has set much of the novel in Central London, within walking distance of her three-story town house. The book is sprinkled with references to shops, parks, antique stalls and other neighborhood places that James frequents. She doesn't own a car and does her shopping with a grocery cart. Her habits of strolling in the nearby parks, browsing antique stores and secondhand bookstores, and exploring church architecture plus her eye for detail and creative imagination work together to create the palpable atmosphere found in her books.

In "A Taste for Death," James took the liberty of moving an Oxford church to London, placed it a few miles from her house and made it the scene of the crime.

From her buff-colored living room, with its floral-patterned sofas and polished tables, is a view of Camden Hill Square, a leafy park bordered by houses. It's here that James places the palatial mansion of the murdered politician. The mansion is a Sir John Sloane house uprooted from another area.

"I suppose living in this area, it's one I know intimately and it seemed to me that that would be a good place for him," said James, who was born in Oxford and grew up in Cambridge and London.

Despite her almost 25 years as a published writer James has maintained a degree of anonymity and prefers it. To neighbors she is Mrs. Phyllis White, a genial, doting grandmother who plays a challenging game of Scrabble and collects porcelain figurines. A widow, she lives alone but has recently acquired two playful Burmese kittens. To relax she walks by the sea, watches television and reads a lot, but her main source of pleasure is visiting with her two daughters, their husbands and her five grandchildren, ages 8 to 21.

"I don't see them as much as I would like," she said. "We are very close." Another side of the "benign grandmother," as she modestly describes herself, is a fiercely intelligent, literate woman who, without benefit of a college education, supported her family through some hard times and never lost sight of her dream to become a writer.

A Late Beginner

James, the daughter of a income-tax official, said she always knew she wanted to be a writer from age 7 or 8, but was "just a late beginner."

"I was 19 when the war broke out. We lived in London and there wasn't a lot of expectation of surviving," she said.

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