Today, the Femmes welcome crime writer, Kate Charles who was fortunate to have been invited to attend the recent memorial service in London for P.D. James. Here is Kate's beautiful and moving tribute to her colleague and friend. -- Marcia
Over the last few weeks I’ve had the sad privilege of paying my final respects to two people who have had a great influence in my life. The first was Richard III (see my Jungle Red blog on this), and the second was P.D. James.
Like so many of my avid readers of my generation, I grew up on a gluttonous diet of Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie – encouraged by my mother, who was always a great reader of mysteries. Then, when I was twelve, one or the other of us discovered Cover Her Face, by a new writer, P.D. James. I remember being blown away by the book, sensing that here was something different – something a step or two beyond the delicious puzzles of Dame Agatha. Each offering by ‘The New Queen of Crime’, as she was soon being labelled, was eagerly awaited and hugely enjoyed by both of us. Adam Dalgliesh, Cordelia Gray: every book was a masterpiece, in my young opinion. I remember being particularly impressed by The Skull Beneath the Skin, and later by A Taste for Death – which I still regard as one of the finest crime novels ever written.
As long as I can recall, I wanted to be a writer, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that reading P.D. James gave me a glimpse of the sort of writer I aspired to be: using crime as a device to explore the workings of the human heart, reflecting a strong moral compass and written in the most elegant and precise prose. So it wasn’t surprising that when I finally wrote my first book (at about the same age that she did, in fact), and decided that I needed an agent, I went through the Writer’s and Artists’ Yearbook to find P.D. James’s agent to be the recipient of my first query letter. By some miracle the agency took me on, and through that connection I got to know Phyllis in the flesh.
Over the years we connected in various contexts, not least at the St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference. I have co-organised the conference for its 21 years of existence, and Phyllis was a speaker at the first and a number of subsequent conferences. She was as generous to me as she was to so many younger writers, never too busy or too self-important to chat. I revered her as a writer, and loved her as a human being.
Our conversations never seemed to be about writing, though, unless you count our chats about two writers we both adored: Barbara Pam and Jane Austen. We talked about music, about liturgy – a subject on which she was passionate – and about Ludlow, the town where she lived as a girl and in which I now reside.
When I heard on the news, last Thanksgiving, that she had died, I couldn’t believe it. I had begun to think of Phyllis as indestructible – growing a bit frailer through the years, but indomitable of spirit and of mind. Not that many months before, she’d joined us for lunch at the St Hilda’s conference, which as usual fell close to her birthday, and I had no sense that it would be the last time I would see her.
(P.D.James' 90th birthday celebrated at St Hilda's Crime and Mystery Conference, Oxford, UK, August 2010. Left to right, Andrew Taylor, Peter Lovesey, PD James and Kate Charles)
(Phyllis with Principal, Lady English, August 2011)
(Phyllis in conversation with Colin Dexter, August 2007)
Rarely has any writer been prominent in so many areas of public life as P.D. James. She was a member of the House of Lords (as a life peer, Baroness James of Holland Park), a Governor of the BBC, Patron of the Prayer Book Society, Honorary Fellow of several Oxbridge colleges including St Hilda’s, and President of the Society of Authors. So it was no surprise that her Memorial Service, held on 30 April at the Temple Church in London, was replete with luminaries from different spheres. A past Prime Minister and several former cabinet ministers rubbed elbows with media people, prominent Churchmen, representatives of the publishing world, academics and writers, as well as Phyllis’ family.
The Temple Church, with its fascinating history and unique architecture, located in the depths of the Inns of Court, was a fitting setting for the service. It was evidently Phyllis’ own choice; she had also chosen the music and the readings. For those who might be interested in such details, the excellent choir sang Bach’s ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’, ‘Hear my prayer, O Lord’ by Purcell, and Lotti’s ‘Crucifixus’, and the readings included Ecclesiasticus 44.1-15, the poem ‘Love (III) by George Herbert, and an excerpt from Phyllis’ Time to be in Earnest. The Bishop of London preached very movingly about Phyllis’ faith. The congregation joined in singing the hymns: ‘Praise, my soul, the King of heaven’, ‘I vow to thee, my country’, and ‘Tell out, my soul’.
It was an entirely fitting send-off. I felt immensely privileged to be there that day, and will never forget it.
May she rest in peace, and rise in glory.
Kate Charles, a past Chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association and the Barbara Pym Society, is American by birth but has lived in England for almost thirty years. She is co-organizer of the annual St. Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference and a member of the prestigious Detection Club. Her books, including the Callie Anson series and the ‘Book of Psalms’ series, are set against the background of the Church of England. Her latest novel, False Tongues, #4 in the Callie Anson series, has just been published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press.
What did you want to be when you grew up? a friend asked a group of women.
Annie Oakley, several women said – and many of them didn’t have a gun in their house.
Amelia Earhart. A princess, said another.
Now the career choices came thick and fast: An oceanographer. A veterinarian. A teacher. A writer.
The woman who wanted to be a teacher became one. So did the writer. They were born for those careers.
I wanted to be a Pink Sister.
That’s right – a cloistered nun who wore a pink habit and prayed all day.
Once you stop laughing, you’ll understand why that wasn’t such a wacky career choice for me. I was the oldest daughter in a family with three rambunctious boys. At age nine, a life of perpetual, peaceful silence seemed heavenly. The sisters’ chapel had an unearthly beauty, and I looked good in pink.
Other sisters set me on a less holy path. The sisters at St. Thomas Aquinas high school decided that I could write and steered me to a career as a newspaper reporter.
I knew all about newspapers. I read "Brenda Starr" in the comics section. Brenda had great clothes, good travel and romance. No kids, either.
Most days, I blessed the sisters for their career guidance. Newspapers gave me an adventurous life until I started killing people 1997. That’s when I wrote my first mystery.
Sister Valeria put the ka-bosh on my last, lingering impulse to be a nun. In high school, the poor woman punished me for talking in class by making me sit with the boys.
Sister Valeria was nearly ninety. I’m sure being surrounded by rowdy young boys was her personal hell. But for a teenage girl?
That punishment was the answer to my prayers.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you reach your goal or become something else?