Author Uncovered : P.D. James

Cover Her Face is Baroness P.D. James’ first book.

August is Baroness P.D. James’ birthday month, her 100th birthday no less, and I took it as a sign from the universe to start at the beginning. I read a delightful autobiographical short from her childhood published in honour of her birth centenary, and that is how I ended up reading Cover Her Face. Also, gloomy monsoons, the sound of rain thundering outside while we are at home (most of us are thanks to the pandemic, right?) and murder go quite well together, no?

The title (I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t point out the obvious) seems eerily apt for our times! I was plunged into a different world (the story did appear dated but it was true to its time) and a simple murder mystery by today’s standards but the people in it were far from simple. I really appreciated the psychological insight into well fleshed out characters, and of course, the leisurely pace. I was impressed by her sense of humour and her scathing social observation. She’s a Jane Austen fan, and I could see that in her writing.

I listened to her interviews where she spoke about writing Cover Her Face which was published in 1962. I am one of those people who are always interested in the artist behind the art, in the life of the author beyond the book. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, it’s just the way I am. And I can’t say it doesn’t colour my perception but I try to be impartial to the written word.

After reading her fragment of an autobiography Time to be in Earnest last year, I feel like a window has opened up into her life. I feel like I know her in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise (if I only read her detective fiction). This account of one year in her life was a great read, and I found myself wishing she kept a diary all through her life but she didn’t have the time nor the inclination. The insights that I gleaned from it makes reading her mysteries more intimate somehow. I can connect some dots from the way she lived her life and the things she believed in – this meshing of real and fictional worlds makes for a richer reading experience. It would have been a pity if I would have waited to read it once I had read all her books (for the fear of spoilers) waiting patiently on my shelves, which was my original intent. Me and my idiosyncrasies, honestly!

From her author photo I had imagined her to be a prim and proper English lady spinning stories to add some intrigue to her staid domestic life. Nothing could have been further from the truth. She started working at an early age, and looked after her husband (whose mental health was shattered by the war) and her young daughters. She didn’t have an easy life, and at 77 (the year she kept a diary for Time to be in Earnest) active like her life depended on it,and that would put any 27 year old to shame. She has spoken often in interviews about how she came to be a writer. She was not given to sentimentality in any form, neither in life nor writing. She had a tough life but she never dwelled on it nor did she allow it to distract her from her goal. From an early age she knew she wanted to be a writer, and she got on with it. With all the burdens life bestowed on her, which she gracefully shouldered makes you realize what a formidable woman, what a force of nature she was.

… he knew with sudden and heart lifting certainty that they would meet again. And when that happened the right words would be found.

This is how the first Adam Dalgliesh mystery ends (literally the last sentence!). Only a true romantic could write the above sentence but what do I know. Maybe she was just paving the way for a future meeting. I am looking forward (with glee) to finishing all the Adam Dalgliesh mysteries. I am no idiot though. I will pace them out so that they last a while.

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