Thursday, August 03, 2006

Birthday for a Baroness

It was on this day, in 1920, that now-celebrated crime-fictionist P.D. James (Phyllis Dorothy James) was born at Oxford, England. She has since been heralded as one of the top mystery writers of her generation, with her most recent novel being The Lighthouse (2005). In 1983 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and in 1991 became a life peer and was created as Baroness James of Holland Park, a non-inheritable title.

Although James has said that she always wanted to be a novelist, because of the Second World War, the illness of her husband (she was widowed in 1964), and other matters, she didn’t actually get started on the writing part of becoming an author until she was in her 30s. Her first published work was Cover Her Face (1962), which introduced a character who has since become almost as famous as his creator, Scotland Yard detective and poet Adam Dalgliesh. Despite that fact that James--and Dalgliesh--have gained an immense following, the author has said that, to her, Cover Her Face now seems “disconcertingly like an early Agatha Christie.”

If James’ earliest works were somewhat labored, it didn’t take her long to find her stride. She had perhaps nailed it by 1971 when Shroud for a Nightingale, her fourth Dalgliesh outing, was named as the best novel of the year by the Mystery Writers of America and was also awarded the Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction by the Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association.

Many books, accolades, and readers have followed. And over the decades, she’s given considerable thought to the purpose and promise of mystery fiction. As she’s said,
All fiction is an attempt to create order out of disorder and to make sense of personal experience. But the classical detective story does this within its own established conventions; a central mystery which is usually but not necessarily a murder, a closed circle of suspects, a detective, either professional or amateur, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve the crime, and a final solution which the reader should be able to arrive at himself by logical deduction from the clues. This apparent formula writing is capable of accommodating a remarkable variety of books and talents. Within the formal constraints of the detective novel I try to say something true about men and women under the stress of the ultimate crime and about the society in which they live.
Happy 86th birthday, Baroness James. May there be many more.

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