Mari Hannah on The Big Read 2016

It’s Friday night, early February. The house is quiet. I’m sitting by the fireside having a drink when I should be in my office cracking on with my latest thriller. Instead, my eyes scan bookshelves looking for something to read. I hone in on an old copy of a PD James novel: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Well-thumbed, printed in 1986 by Sphere for the princely sum of two pounds fifty, it sits next a shiny new copy of the same title sent to me by her current publisher, Faber & Faber.

I’m excited because I have a secret. Months ago, I was invited to take the baton from David Mark as Reader-in-Residence at Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. No one knows – just the programming committee – and I’m busting to share the news.

I think about PD James, much loved by all who had the pleasure of meeting her or hearing her speak. My old copy of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is proof, if it were needed, that I was aware of her long before her inimitable character Commander Adam Dalgliesh hit our TV screens. Sadly, she died before I could tell her how much she’d influenced my writing.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is a classic crime novel introducing Cordelia Gray, a liberated detective, the forerunner for all female sleuths that came after. PD James was in her fifties when she wrote it. Faultless prose, coupled with a lead character very much ahead of her time, proved to be a winning combination. It gave the rest of us something to chase.

If I may be so bold, PD James and I had a lot in common. We began our writing careers late. Before we put pen to paper, crime was part of our lives – real rather than fictional – we were both Home Office employees. She was a civil servant in the crime department at the Home Office. I was a probation officer. We both chose to write about female detectives proving their worth in difficult circumstances, striving to change attitudes and make their way in the world. I feel close to PD James, even though we were never formally introduced.

In 2010, I was in the audience at Hexham Book Festival when she was in conversation with Val McDermid. Aged 90, as switched on as writers half her age, PD James was billed as the doyenne of crime writing – and rightly so. It was a joy to watch these two amazing authors take to the stage. Fellow professionals yes, but also friends with a mutual admiration and respect for one another. They seemed almost oblivious to the audience as they chatted about their craft. It was a full house, of course, standing room only at the back.

PD James was such a generous writer, very kind to me when I approached her nervously in the signing queue afterwards – I hadn’t yet been published – words of wisdom and encouragement very much her trademark. A year or two later, I was present at an auction where she’d donated copies of The Private Patient to raise funds for Hexham Book Festival, together with the last three pages of the associated manuscript, complete with annotations. My bid was successful and I will always treasure it. Little did I know that I would one day promote one of her titles as part of the Big Read. I can’t wait.

More on the Big Read 2016 is available at bigread.org.uk