Time to Be in Earnest

Publisher: Vintage Canada
The great British mystery novelist P. D. James, otherwise known as the Queen of Crime, has redefined the genre over a career spanning close to forty years. TIME magazine called her the “reigning mistress of murder,” whose vivid and compelling novels have made her one of the world’s leading crime writers. Biographers have urged her to allow them to write about her life, but she has always kept them at bay, valuing her privacy.

However, at the age of seventy-seven, P. D. James decided for the first time in her life to keep a diary for one year, foremost as a record of her thoughts and memories for her family and herself, but also as a “fragment of autobiography” for publication. As she beautifully describes the salient events of a dizzying year full of publicity duties, giving lectures and fulfilling other public commitments, she lets the memories flow, wandering back and forth through the years to illuminate an extraordinary life and to give striking insights into the craft of writing. The book became a New York Times bestseller – as have all of her recent books – and does more than simply satisfy the curiosity of her many fans.

Mystery author Eric Wright wrote in The Globe and Mail that “The final effect is not of a fragment, but of a finished miniature portrait of the artist in her 77th year. … The form she has invented, a kind of public diary, creates an intimacy that a major autobiography would never achieve. …a revealing portrait of a gifted human being, full of common sense and humour, someone we would like to know.”

In the book, James comments on everything from architecture to literature to fox hunting to the decline of moral values in modern Britain, and shares with us her love of reading and the joys of family life (she has two daughters, who live in the United States, and several grandchildren). However, she refuses to delve too deeply into the painful areas of her personal life now well in the past, though she has clearly experienced some hard times. “They are over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always known that happiness is a gift, not a right.” Readers have found this reservation admirable and elegantly refreshing in a time of “self-rummaging, self-serving autobiography” (Joan Barfoot, The London Free Press). Still, hints of pain slip in, and we may sometimes read between the lines.

Time to Be in Earnest is a privileged and engrossing look into the life and mind of one of the great mystery writers alive today, one who has earned comparisons with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers. James is also deeply thoughtful, a remarkable woman who witnessed much over the course of the twentieth century. Whether describing motherhood in London during the bombardments of the Second World War, her fine career as a civil servant in the British Home Office, or her later life as a formidably successful writer, she sheds light on a lifetime of exceptional achievements.



A diary, if intended for publication (and how many written by a novelist are not?), is the most egotistical form of writing. The assumption is inevitably that what the writer thinks, does, sees, eats and drinks on a daily basis is as interesting to others as it is to himself or herself. And what...
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Praise for Time to Be in Earnest:

"The form James has invented, a kind of public diary, creates an intimacy that a major autobiography would never achieve, a window through which we can glimpse the Baroness going about her day, and hear her reflect on it, and on her life.... [It is] a revealing portrait of a gifted human being, full of common sense and humour, someone we would like to know." — The Globe and Mail

"Fascinating...an elegant, enjoyable amalgamation of memoir and journal." — Literary Review

"A rare jewel." — The Times (London)

"Such a delight." — Frances Fyfield

"James clearly has found her own healing art. Her 'fragment of autobiography' is deeply moving, and all too short." — The New York Times Book Review

"A monument to…James' remarkable working life. She is a heroine, not of our time, but of her own; her story is an improving one. But it is the good humour with which it is encountered that makes it memorable." — Anita Brookner, The Spectator

"Delightful...touching.... It is like a string quartet in which themes appear, slide away and recur. The result is a memoir of charm and feeling which retains its dignity and reserve. — Scotland On Sunday

“Deeply moving, and all too short.”—The New York Times Book Review

“A cornucopia of discernment, judgment and wisdom.”—The San Francisco Chronicle

“A charming, informative and timely memoir … elegantly constructed.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Energetic, thorough, excitingly fierce, and [at times] terribly sad.”—Financial Times (London)

“James’s thoughtful, endearing book is both candid and cagey, agreeably informal and yet tightly controlled … She has given us a delicately balanced, consistently interesting and finely written account of herself, full of wisdom as well as common sense.”—The Sunday Telegraph (London)

“Certainly a wonderful read … An artful book – what else would you expect?”—Antonia Fraser, The Mail on Sunday

“Delightful, touching … balanced by modesty and free of hubris, like a string quartet in which themes appear, slide away and recur … a memoir full of charm and feeling.”—Scotland on Sunday

“A rare jewel. Engaging … Very human … We are allowed to know that her calm, sane, affluent plateau was hard-won.”—The Times

“A work of great value, both for casual readers and students of literature. There was no need to label it a fragment – it is a distillation of her entire life.”—The Toronto Star