A Memorial for P. D. James by Marni Graff
Marni Graff, author of the Nora Tierney mystery series, pays tribute to her friend and mentor, the unparalleled mystery writer P.D. James.
One of the many fortunate things to come out of my tenure at Mystery Review magazine was an opportunity to interview P. D. James at her London townhouse. That day 15 years ago was the start of an ongoing friendship, with James becoming an encouraging and supportive mentor. Often called the Queen of British Mystery, Phyllis Dorothy James was awarded an Order of the British Empire and known as the Baroness James of Holland Park, a role she took to heart becoming active in the House of Lords. Her passing last fall deeply saddened me, and so I was surprised and grateful to be invited to attend her Memorial Service in London, months after a private family funeral in Oxford.
The service was held at the Temple Church, which serves the Inner and Middle Temple, two of England’s four ancient Inns of Court that include Gray’s and Lincoln’s. Barristers and judges must belong to one Inn to practice law in England and Wales. I walked there from the Tube along the Embankment, passing lovely gardens intertwined with ancient buildings, some dating back to the 17th through 19th centuries. An extensive renovation occurred after WWII and the area reopened in 1959, with very grand buildings. I was struck by the feel of history and powdered wigs surrounding me.
The Baroness was acquainted with this church from her work as a magistrate, and despite it almost being destroyed in the blitz, recovered shards from its original stained glass windows were set in a large, clear leaded-glass window that soars over one wall. The pews face a long central aisle, with the choir stalls centered in the first three rows.
After flying across the pond for only two days for this event, I was happy to see a familiar face in Joyce McLennan, Phyllis’ PA, who typed all of the author’s manuscripts and was her right hand woman for almost five decades. Acting as an usher, she handed me a program and had me go past the choir stalls to find a seat on the “Friends” side. I was about to sit in an open one when I saw a small white card on the cushion: RESERVED FOR PM JOHN MAJOR AND MRS MAJOR. Ah, best not to sit on the former Prime Minister’s lap! I found another seat across from the family and near the altar, and as the woman who sat beside me was a friend of Phyllis’ daughter, Clare, she pointed out the family as they took their seats.
The service was conducted by the grand Bishop of London, all swirling robes and deep voice, and the Oxford priest who had conducted Phyllis’ funeral service. The choir led them in, singing Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” all male from little boys to men, wearing those stiff ruffled-neck white surplices over red cassocks, like something out of an Inspector Morse Mystery. I learned later that the Baroness had chosen the music and readings. There would be more hymns, and a sung prayer in Latin, too.
The Bishop’s eulogy centered on The Baroness’ work on the Church of England Liturgical Committee and her love of the Cranmer liturgy. He told the audience of about 250, and this I knew from our friendship, how Phyllis believed firmly that when a nation loses its literature, it loses its identity. He also told an amusing anecdote: When one of her books contained a snippet of poetry that detective Adam Dalgliesh supposedly wrote, one reviewer wrote that while the mystery was very good, the author “should stick to prose, as poetry is not her forte.” The Bishop leaned forward as though he was telling us all a secret and explained: “What the reviewer didn’t know was that W. H. Auden was a good friend of the Baroness!”
There was a poem read by an Oxford don, a second eulogy from her pubisher and an excerpt from her autobiography. Then we trooped across the cobblestoned yard to the reception. I saw Val McDermid, Frances Fyfield, Nicola Upson, and a few others I recognized, such as Eileen Roberts from St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Conference in Oxford, but writers were definitely a minority. Most of the people were from James’ House of Lords days, personal friends, or extended family. There was wine and lemonade, a few passed canapés, no chairs, and throngs of people muddling around. It was over far too fast and soon I was taking the Tube back to my friend’s in Chiswick. I knew then I’d made the right decision to attend. I felt very humbled and very blessed, as I was to have known P. D. James.
Marni Graff is also the co-author of Writing in a Changing World, and wrote for seven years for Mystery Review magazine. Death Unscripted, the first Trudy Genova Manhattan Mystery, debuts this July and was the mystery P D James insisted Graff write, based on her experience as a medical consultant for a NY movie studio. It is dedicated to James.
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