P.D. James, the "Queen of Crime," dies at 94

In 1992, Steve Kroft profiled famed murder mystery writer P.D. James, who explained her "fascination with death"

The following is a script of "Murder She Writes," which aired on January 5, 1992. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. An excerpt can be viewed in the above video player.

It's Sunday night on CBS, and you're about to see a charming, tweedy widow who writes about murder. No, the show's not over, and we're not talking about Jessica Fletcher. We're talking about P.D. James, the real-life literary heir of Agatha Christie, author of best sellers like "Devices and Desires" and "A Taste for Death," and, according to most critics, the greatest living practitioner of the murder mystery. And that's just one of her careers. Last year, she received the ultimate honor--taking her place in the House of Lords. Queen Elizabeth made her a baroness: Lady Phyllis Dorothy James of Holland Park, one of the few people to make it to this place by plotting murder.

Unidentified Man #1: ...do appoint, give, and grant unto her the said name, state, degree, style, dignity, title, and honor of Baroness Phyllis Dorothy James of Holland Park.

When we first met P.D. James at her Georgian townhouse in London, we weren't quite sure what to expect. After all, this is a woman who has shot, stabbed, poisoned, even mutilated dozens of victims with her pen. What we found was a gracious, cheerful 71-year-old grandmother with a fondness for antique crockery and Victorian oils. The only ominous object we saw lying around was the silver dagger award from the British Crimewriters Association.

Phyllis Dorothy James: Feel that, Steve. That's quite a weapon, isn't it?

Steve Kroft: That's quite a weapon.

Phyllis Dorothy James: Isn't it? Yes, I could defend myself very effectively with that, I think. It's rather beautiful in a way, too. I think it's a rather lovely object.

Steve Kroft: If you were going to put me out of my misery quickly, where would you put that?

Phyllis Dorothy James: Well, I suppose straight to the heart, Steve, which I suspect might be easier to say than to do. You know, people manage to do it straight away in crime novels, but I'd probably just strike your ribs and make a mess of you, and you'd survive to sue me.

Steve Kroft: What P.D. James knows about murder, a lot, and about writing, that speaks for itself, is all self-taught. You've never been to college?

Phyllis Dorothy James: No, no, I left school at 16.

Steve Kroft: And as a writer, you were a very late bloomer.

Phyllis Dorothy James: I was, really. I mean, it's very surprising, because I knew from very early childhood that this is what I wanted to do. Are you all right for tea? Do you want a fill-up or anything, Steve? You're sure?

Steve Kroft: I'm fine, I'm fine.

Phyllis Dorothy James: Well, forgive me if I put milk in first, which is what I do, but it's regarded as not the thing to do, you know. You should always pour tea and then add the milk.

Steve Kroft: P.D. James knew she wanted to be a writer when she was eight years old, but war and circumstance got in the way.

Phyllis Dorothy James: I was 19 when the war broke out. I lived here in London, and, you know, there didn't seem a great deal of chance of survival during the bombing. And then after the war, I had a sick husband to support and two small daughters, so I wanted something that was safe, you know, this wonderful security of having a check at the end of each month.

So she went to work for the government, the beginning of a 30-year career that would see her rise through the senior ranks of the British civil service, first as a hospital administrator and later in the Home Office, our equivalent of Justice Department, where she came in contact with judges, lawyers and policemen who would provide insights, settings and characters for the novels that would follow.

Phyllis Dorothy James: So I was a late, late starter, as you say, in my mid-30s when I began, and I can, in fact, remember the occasion when realization swept over me, you know: There's never going to be a convenient moment to write this first book; you're never going to have an easy life; you're never going to have a lot of leisure, so that unless you make an effort and start getting up early in the morning and write it, eventually you'll be saying to your grandchildren, 'Of course, I always wanted to be a novelist.'

Her first book, "Cover Her Face," was published when she was 44. She says a first edition with dust jacket intact is worth a great deal more than she made from writing it.

Phyllis Dorothy James: My elder daughter said to me, 'You do realize, Mummy, that really good writers, really famous writers, can paper their walls with rejection slips? So don't be disappointed.' And so when the book was accepted by the first publisher it was sent to, I think she had great doubts about whether it was a good book. I said that children who have no confidence in Mummy's talent won't get new bicycles out of the proceeds, and I think the proceeds bought them a couple of rather nice bicycles and one or two other goodies, you know, but it didn't change my way of life exactly, no.

The last five books have. They've all been international best sellers and have been made into TV serials which have run on British and American television.

It's not only brought her millions of dollars in royalties; it's made British royalty some of her biggest fans. The books, which take about two years to plot and write, are eagerly awaited literary events. When she's not writing her novels or writing her name, she still has energy to serve on the British Arts Council and sit on the BBC's board of governors, where, apart from supervising British broadcasting tastes, she has her own weekly TV show, "Speaking Volumes."

Phyllis Dorothy James: But what makes the book unconventional is the villain, a psychopathic killer whose horrific murders are recounted in graphic, some might say repugnant, detail.

Steve Kroft: You obviously have a fascination with murder.

Phyllis Dorothy James: Well, I think I have a fascination with death. I don't think I have a particular fascination with murder. There's a great difference between real-life murder and fictional murder. Real-life murder is often very uninteresting indeed. It's sortid; it's brutal; it's very often inadequate people driven to extremity, people with a very short fuse, people who are hot-tempered. But the detective story is very different, and, in a sense--all right--it has to be about murder. It is about murder, but it's really about the restoration of order out of disorder.

Steve Kroft: The fame, the honors all spring from her craft; the dark, complex thrillers are known for their intricate plots, consummate craftsmanship and impeccable research. This abbey near the North Sea provided a setting for several scenes from her last novel, "Devices and Desires," a decaying symbol of dying faith. You use religious settings, a lot of churches, in your novels.

Phyllis Dorothy James: Yes, there are. That's quite right. And, of course, if you have, as I did in "A Taste for Death," two brutally murdered bodies in the vestry of a church, this is much more horrific and indeed is much more interesting, of course, than if I'd placed those two bodies in the basement of a seedy sex club in a very unprepossessing part of an inner city. And in many of my books, the person who discovers the body is innocent and gentle, and I think that the reader needs to share that horror, so that I always describe the finding of the body through the eyes of the person who actually does the discovery. And I do try to convey the horror of that moment.

The ideas for her books almost always come from a location. She'll visualize a murder, then write the book to solve the crime. The inspiration for "Devices and Desires" came from this stretch of coast in East Anglia, where she used to take her vacations. The isolation, the stark cliffs, the beautiful sea were all central to the book. After you find the place, what comes next--the characters?

Phyllis Dorothy James: The characters, yes, the characters, and chief among the characters, who is going to be murdered and who is going to do it. And then after that, you build up the suspects and the community and the life of the community.

Steve Kroft: Do you have it all plotted out before you sit down to write?

Phyllis Dorothy James: Oh, yes, in very great detail. Before I begin the writing, I know exactly what's going to happen in the story. Nevertheless, at the end of it, the book is different from the book I thought I was writing.

Steve Kroft: How does this whole process work?

Phyllis Dorothy James: Well, I don't think anybody can explain that. I think if you could explain it, everybody could do it probably. It is mysterious.

Even on shopping excursions, she is a keen observer of human nature. Her characters are real people, the murderer almost always intelligent, so he or she must deal with the question of moral choice and the forces of power, ambition and survival, that drive otherwise reasonable and compassionate people to this appalling deed. Critics say she's elevated the detective story into complex, brooding, beautifully written novels about contemporary Britain.

Phyllis Dorothy James: Murder is a unique crime, and in a civilized society, the whole weight of the law is brought to bear to find out who did it, and, therefore, people who are suspects have all their pretenses rather torn away. It's a very dreadful procedure for them. We all build up, I think, a sort of little protective mask which we use to present ourselves to the world. All that's torn down.

Steve Kroft: Do you have one?

Phyllis Dorothy James: Oh, several I think, yes.

Steve Kroft: What are they? Can you talk about them?

Phyllis Dorothy James: Well, they wouldn't be masks if you talked about them.

Steve Kroft: If you want a real glimpse of Lady James, you can take a close look at her main character, the man whom she entrusts her cases to: Commander Adam Dalgleish, played by actor Roy Marson in the TV movies. According to Lady James, he's her male equivalent: sensitive, introspective, slightly melancholy.

Phyllis Dorothy James: I bore in mind the fact that if you're going to invent a detective who may, if you're lucky, go on through a series of books, then, for heaven's sake, invent someone you really like and feel you can develop and go on with. Because I learned this lesson from some of the women. I mean, we know that Agatha Christie got very fed up with Poirot.

She keeps herself and Commander Dalgleish up to date with the latest in criminology by staying in regular contact with her old friends at Scotland Yard and its metropolitan crime lab. When she was at the home office, one of her specialties was forensic science.

Phyllis Dorothy James: I shall have to try and work it into my next novel. I'll have to come and talk to you about it in more detail when the occasion arises.

Lab Technician: Yes, I'm sure we could give you plenty of advice on that.

Phyllis Dorothy James: Well, I pride myself on getting it right. It's largely because of people in this lab that I do.

She thinks that at age 71, she has two, perhaps three, more books left in her. We couldn't help wondering whether one of those might not take place at that club on the Thames she belongs to, the House of Lords, with its closed society and all of its traditions.

Phyllis Dorothy James: Death on the throne, but I think that would belay His Majesty to have the body sitting on the actual throne, wouldn't it? Well, I must say it's a temptation really, but I'm not sure I want some of the best brains in England all simultaneously suing me for libel. I think there are certain dangers in using the House of Lords, yes.