Secret Sidekicks – D.James’s Personal Assistant

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The Who, The What, and The When; and illustrated love letter to the people (and pets!) behind some of histories most legendary figures.

Meet, JOYCE MCLENNAN 1943 – D. JAMES’S PERSONAL ASSISTANT

When Joyce McLennan takes a London bus to work, the slender woman with patrician features arrives at the Holland Park home of multi-award-winning English writer P. D. James, the queen of British mystery, creator of detective and poet Adam Dalgliesh. She is also known as Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, recipient of seven honorary doctorates and four honorary fellowships, and a life peer in the House of Lords; but, after thirty-seven years of working together, to McLennan the esteemed author is simply “Phyllis.” McLennan was hired after the publication of James’s seventh novel.

McLennan’s intelligence and organisation complement her natural kindness. James notes in her autobiography, Time to Be in Earnest, that McLennan is “unfailingly good-tempered,” a quality James could count on as her popularity rose and, with it, the demands on her time: “She is high among the small group of friends on whom I can rely to keep me sane.” Their process evolved from McLennan’s original job as part-time typist, working from home and raising two young children. Then, James would dictate a tape from her handwritten notes. McLennan or her husband, Mike, who worked for James’s publisher, Faber & Faber, would often pick up the tape, sometimes hidden at James’s side gate in a large china pig. Today, McLennan transcribes into a computer and prints pages for James to edit, leaving the famed mystery author to concentrate on research, plotting, and writing.

The increasing time needed to attend to the business side of being a successful author found James and McLennan tackling the mail together, which soon spread to modern e-mails and includes requests for photos, autographs, signed books for charity auctions, interviews and advice. When James travelled, McLennan would deal with incoming mail and day-to-day matters in her absence, leading James to say: “What would I ever do without her?” In recent years she has taken to accompanying James on longer trips.

Working alongside a popular figure serving on various committees, McLennan’s support sees the baroness through all of these activities, from chairing the Booker Prize panel of judges to a sixteen-year tenancy as president of the Society of Authors. After James’s appointment to the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, McLennan’s humour showed in her response to its bulging paperwork. She created a file labelled “God.”

McLennan has remained an unobtrusive ally to James, someone UK journalist Kate Kellaway terms “secretary, friend and all-round prop.” James hints at the closeness of their relationship in her Author’s Note from 2001’s Death in Holy Orders: “I am particularly grateful to my secretary, Mrs. Joyce McLennan, whose help with this novel went far beyond her skill with a computer.”

Both genteel women appear most unlikely a duo to be so steeped in murder and betrayal. Yet the work ethic to produce complex mysteries persists, and when James recuperated from cardiac issues in a private Oxford hospital, McLennan travelled from London twice a week to help finish work on the most recent Dalgleish novel, The Private Patient. James is known for her sense of setting and the psychological depths she brings to her mysteries, as well as her strong descriptions, as in this excerpt from that same novel: “There was only the crack of the smashed bottle, like a pistol shot, the stink of whisky, a moment of searing pain which passed almost as soon as she felt it and the warm blood flowing from her check, dripping onto the seat of the chair, her mother’s anguished cry.”

McLennan’s calm, steadfast backing has allowed the author to continue writing into her nineties, yet she is rarely photographed or interviewed. A native of Pinner in the Middlesex area, McLennan is now a widow, and with her boys grown and out on their own, she shares her home in the west London suburb of Ealing with two cats, Tyler and Rafferty.

After decades of Joyce McLennan’s service as James’s trusted aide, it should come as no surprise that when James combined her two lifelong enthusiasms—writing detective fiction and the novels of Jane Austen—to create her sequel to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, she chose this fitting dedication for 2011’s Death Comes to Pemberley:

To Joyce McLennan

Friend and personal assistant who has typed

my novels for thirty-five years

With affection and gratitude

written by MARNI GRAFF

www.auntiemwrites.com

illustrated by JULIA ROTHMAN

www.juliarothman.com

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