P.D. James, Lady James of Holland Park, who has died aged 94, was the grande dame of mystery, and a link with the golden age of detective writing that flourished between the wars, the successor to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. After Christie’s death, James was called the new Queen of Crime. It was a title she did not at all mind.Of James’ first novel, 1962’s Cover Her Face, the paper writes:
Yet Phyllis James had not started writing until her 40s, and said she only wrote a whodunnit as practice for a serious novel. Later on, though, she never fretted about being locked into crime writing. She said she could write everything she wanted while remaining in the genre. She wrote one futuristic satire, The Children of Men (1992, made into a film in 2006), set in 2021, about the human race facing extinction as a result of infertility but, unlike her great rival Ruth Rendell, did not attempt to break away from crime.
In many ways it harked back to the cosy murders of the golden age, set in a country house with a body in a locked room and an old-fashioned cast including the village vicar, a genial country doctor and a home for wayward girls. It featured Adam Dalgliesh, the poet-policeman, and he seemed old-fashioned, too, an intellectual and a trifle upper-class. It was as if the noir school of hardboiled realism had never occurred.My introduction to James came in my 20s, when I picked up a copy of Death of an Expert Witness (1977), her sixth Dalgliesh mystery. I can’t say that I have been a faithful reader of her novels ever since, but I have read a number of them (or, in the case of The Lighthouse, listened to their audiobook versions). And only recently, I watched the BBC One adaptation of her 2011 Jane Austen tribute, Death Comes to Pemberley. (See reviews of that two-part drama here and here.)
In 1962, on the verge of the swinging 60s, she was lucky to get such a piece published. But Cover Her Face showed that James had a natural ability to create mystery. The reader was never quite sure what was happening and the uncovering of the murderer came as a complete surprise. James also had the courage to be preposterous. She knew sudden shocks and twists would keep readers engaged. In Cover Her Face, for instance, a prime suspect proves he could not have done it by revealing he has an artificial hand. In Unnatural Causes (1967), there is a specially constructed sidecar in which a man with a weak heart is murdered and taken out of London. At a time when other crime writers were attempting to make their stories more literary, James knew that she was dealing not with real life but a genre that demanded the unbelievable. But while James was happy to remain in detective fiction, the critics often said how literary she was. Kingsley Amis called her “Iris Murdoch with murder”.
I am particularly intrigued by this note in Time magazine’s obituary of James: “James told the BBC last year that she was working on another novel, though she noted, ‘With old age, it becomes very difficult. It takes longer for the inspiration to come, but the thing about being a writer is that you need to write.’” Whether that work-in-progress was completed before her demise this morning, I do not know. But if it ever sees publication, you can bet I’ll find a copy for my own library.
P.D. James spent more than half her life bringing delight and diversion to millions of readers worldwide. With that, if nothing else, she achieved greatness.
READ MORE: “P.D. James, Novelist Known as ‘Queen of Crime,’ Dies at 94,” by Marilyn Stasio (The New York Times); “P.D. James: She Was Fascinated by Death All Her Life,” by Jake Kerridge (The Telegraph); “P.D. James: ‘Any of the Events in Phyllis’s Books Might Have Happened,’” by Ruth Rendell (The Guardian); “Farewell, P.D. James,” by Sergio Angelini (Tipping My Fedora); “P.D. James--A Few Thoughts,” by Martin Edwards (‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’); “P.D. James (1920-2014)--A Personal Reminiscence by Mike Ripley and Obituary” (Shotsmag Confidential); “Author P.D. James Dies at 94,” by by Chris Schluep (Omnivoracious); “Post-40 Bloomers: You’ve Come a Long Way, Lady James,” by Jill Kronstadt (The Millions); “P.D. James, The Art of Fiction No. 141,” interviewed by Shusha Guppy (The Paris Review).