My mother introduced me to the mystery novels of P. D. James many years ago when I was a teenager. James didn’t publish often; she was not a twice a year or even once a year mystery writer. A new James was the occasion for celebration and we read all of them. I believe there were 18. The New York Times obituary outlines the story of her life.
She was born Phyllis Dorothy James on Aug. 3, 1920, in Oxford, the eldest of three children of Dorothy and Sidney James, a civil servant who did not believe in inflicting too much education on his daughter. The family settled in Cambridge when she was 11, and before she left the Cambridge High School for Girls, at 16, she already knew that she wanted to be a writer and that mysterious death intrigued her.
“When I first heard that Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall,” she was fond of saying, “I immediately wondered: Did he fall — or was he pushed?” But a marriage to Ernest C. B. White, a medical student, and World War II halted her plans for a writing career.
James was a hospital administrator for a number of years and used hospitals as the setting for some of her early novels. But
[a]fter the death of her husband at 44, in 1964, Ms. James took a Civil Service examination and became an administrator in the forensic science and criminal law divisions of the Department of Home Affairs. The work would supply her novels with the realistic procedural detail on which she prided herself.
Although she rarely describes actual murder, the dead bodies in her novels always make an indelible impression on the innocent bystanders who chance upon them. “To many of them, it’s a really appalling and dreadful discovery,” Ms. James said. “I think that the reader should share that horror and that shock, so I make the descriptions just as realistic as I can.”
Her primary detective, Adam Dalgleish, was designed to be the anti-Peter Wimsey.
Her intention with Dalgliesh, she told the British critic and writer Julian Symons in 1986, was to create a detective “quite unlike the Lord Peter Wimsey kind of gentlemanly amateur” popularized by Dorothy L. Sayers. Ms. James envisioned a realistic cop as her protagonist, a dedicated and skilled professional, and yet “something more than just a policeman, you see, a complex and sensitive human being,” she said.
A few months back, James was featured on the Barnes and Noble mystery section as one of the authors who discussed their favorite books. It was interesting that she picked Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair and Dorothy Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise, two of the more complicated stories by each author. Also on the list were a book by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (A Fatal Inversion), the first Ian Rankin (The Complaints), and Sue Grafton’s V is for Vengance. I have to confess that I don’t care all that much for Rendell, but I liked the other books on her list, so maybe I’ll try again. There was one book, Dissolution by C. J. Sansom, I had never heard of before. On James’ recommendation, I ordered it and have it on my pile to read.
It is sad that there will be no more books by P.D. James, but I will spend them this next year re-reading and savoring all that she had left us.
Photograph: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times