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Book Review

Diary Offers Welcome Glimpse Into the Life of a Mystery Maven

TIME TO BE IN EARNEST: A Fragment of Autobiography; By P.D. James; Alfred A. Knopf; $25, 259 pages

May 01, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The wise words of Dr. Samuel Johnson have furnished British mystery writer P.D. James with the title and perhaps the inspiration for her latest book: "At 77, it is time to be in earnest." Upon turning that age in summer 1997, James decided to begin keeping a diary for a year. Her motive, she says, was partly autobiographical: the desire to offer some account, however incomplete, of her life thus far. And, as she eloquently puts it, she was also moved by a need shared by almost all diarists: "to capture time, to have some small mastery over that which so masters us. . . ."

The prolific mystery writer (most recently, "A Certain Justice") and creator of poetry-writing police detective Adam Dalgliesh ("Original Sin," "A Taste for Death"), James came relatively late to her writing career. In the years before, she had worked as a civil servant in the areas of health, police and criminal policy. Her first novel, "Cover Her Face," was published in 1962 and, like most that followed, was a mystery notable for powerful evocation of settings, realistic depiction of investigative procedures and thoughtful understanding of characters' motives.

Awarded a life peerage in 1990, Baroness James of Holland Park leads an active life. In addition to time spent with family and friends, she sits in the House of Lords, goes on book tours, participates in fund-raising events and serves on literary panels. Chronicling her present life, James also reflects on her past. Some memories are prompted by anniversaries: the month she began her civil service career, the day she was offered a peerage or the day she lost her beloved husband, a doctor and World War II veteran forced by severe mental illness to spend much of the latter part of his life in an institution.

The oldest child of unhappily married parents, P.D. James grew up in an atmosphere of straitened gentility: "A Victorian child of the same class . . . would have felt immediately at home; a modern child, transported to a house without electricity, central heating, television, telephone or . . . a car, would feel himself banished to a dark age." Even in those prewar years when many middle-class families had at least one servant, her family had none.

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But the schools she attended, set up for children whose parents could not afford high fees, provided her with a fine education one wishes were available to all students today. It was indeed "traditional": Teachers maintained discipline; students read books, wrote essays and learned poems by heart. But it was hardly the sort of rote indoctrination that soi-disant innovators might have us believe: "We were taught," recalls James, "as much by example as by precept, to respect our minds and to use them; to examine the evidence before rushing in with our opinions . . . to see history through the eyes of the poor and vanquished, not merely those of the powerful and the conquerors. . . ."

Although James is dismayed by many aspects of modern life--the shallow celebrity culture, the pandering to the lowest elements, the high level of noise--she does not romanticize the past. Along with the good old days, she remembers the bad old days, when married women could not teach school, when many Britons (just like Americans today) could not afford basic medical care and--on the lighter side--when girls found menstruation a big mystery: "I somehow got the idea that it occurred once a year; when it did, I complained bitterly that August was a bad month to have started since all my future summer holidays would be inconvenienced!"

At a time when it seems some writers will say anything--no matter how ill-considered, absurd or downright dangerous--just to grab a few moments of our attention, reading James' diary is like spending time with a wise and thoughtful friend. Amid the cacophony of desperate self-advertisement, her modest, sensible, civilized voice sounds a welcome note. Whether she is discussing literature, painting, modern mores, crime, capital punishment, the decline of BBC programming or the reform of the House of Lords, James offers no opinion she has not first carefully weighed, no suggestion whose consequences she has not seriously contemplated.

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