Marni Graff is the Award-winning author of the Nora Tierney Mysteries, set in England and featuring an American protagonist. She recently attended a memorial service for P.D. James, Baroness James of Holland Park, Mystery Writer Extraordinaire, and presents us with this lovely visit.
P D James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE
3rd August 1920 – 27th November 2014
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 fifteen years ago was the start of an ongoing friendship, with James becoming an encouraging and supportive mentor. 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.
I’d just finished the manuscript for the mystery the Baroness encouraged me to write, saying readers loved a behind the scenes look at different worlds. Death Unscripted gives readers that view of the land of soap operas; and while James was a huge fan of my English Nora Tierney Mystery series, she insisted I write this one.
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 de 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 told me who all the family were 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!”
A poem by George Herbert, “Love (III)” was read by Dr. Beatrice Groves, Renaissance English Literature Don at Trinity College, Oxford. A second eulogy from Stephen Paget at her publishers, Faber and Faber, gave a thoughtful and emotional tribute about how she’d changed the face of crime fiction, and described her personal goodness, as well as Phyllis’ contribution to elevating mystery to a literary form. And then Sheila Mitchell, a former actor and widow of friend, crime writer H. R. F. Keating, read the final entry from Phyllis’ autobiography, Time to Be in Earnest, which she had written in the form of a year’s diary. With Mitchell’s wonderful delivery in an accent close to Phyllis’ own, it seemed as if The Baroness was talking to us. It was a bit emotional for me then.
When it was over, we trooped across the cobblestoned yard to the reception. I saw Val McDermid, Frances Fyfield, Kate Charles, 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 Phyllis’ 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. I stood talking to a writer I’d planned to meet there, another Phyllis mentoree, Nicola Upson, and her partner, musician and writer Mandy Morton. They knew Phyllis’ granddaughter, Kate, and we chatted with her and Joyce for a while. They all agreed Phyllis would have been so pleased I’d made the effort to come.
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.
Death Unscripted, the first Trudy Genova Manhattan Mystery, debuts this August 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.
Visit Marni Graff here:
The Nora Tierney Mysteries
Exciting news: THE GREEN REMAINS, book 2 in The Nora Tierney English Mysteries, has won First Place as Best Classic British Cozy in the Murder and Mayhem Awards from Chanticleer Media.