P.D. James

PD James.jpg
  • Phyllis Dorothy James
  • Born: Oxford, UK, 3 August 1920
  • Died: Oxford, UK, 27 November 2014

Some critics hailed P.D. James as the heir to the Crime Queens, and one of the writers most responsible for bringing the detective story closer to literature.

Like Sayers, James believed that it was perfectly possible to be a serious novelist writing within the mystery genre.  She “tried to use the well-worn conventions of the mystery and subvert them, stretch them, use them to say something true about my characters, about men and women and the society in which they live”. James is a self-declared classicist; she believes in reason triumphing over emotion (hence, perhaps, her sympathy for introverts who cherish their solitude and wish to be free from emotional entanglements).

Although James admired Christie’s ingenuity, and acknowledged that she could draw characters, she complained that in the traditional detective story, plausibility was sacrificed to plot ingenuity.  She objected to Sayers’s “complicated methods of death”, and argued that in the modern detective story, “realism and credibility have supplanted ingenuity”.

Nowadays, I think, we are trying to write much more realistic novels, where characters almost come first.  The detective story, in the right hands, has moved much closer to straight novels, where the characterisation is [more] subtle, and true to life. 

Jim Napier, “P.D.  James—interview”, Spinetingler, 30 March 2010

James’s first novel, Cover Her Face (1961), was, as she admitted, a very conventional country house mystery, somewhat imitative of Christianna Brand.  The string of books from A Mind to Murder (1963) to Death of an Expert Witness (1977) are excellent detective stories in the manner of Ngaio Marsh or Nicholas Blake, with characterisation integrated with plot.

Shroud for a Nightingale (1971) is one of the best half dozen detective stories of the post-WWII period; the solution is shocking both because of its ingenuity and because of what it reveals about the characters.

The turning point in her oeuvre is A Taste for Death (1986), which is undoubtedly her masterpiece.  The work is structured, as Heine said of Meyerbeer’s Huguenots, like a Gothic cathedral: vast in scope, but intricately detailed.  The murderer becomes obvious relatively early on; what matters is the effect of the crime on the characters rather than the mystery itself, but the plot and detection are closely interwoven with the characterisation, so that the gradual accumulation of proof against the murderer has something of the satisfying inevitability of a Thorndyke story.


Works

  1. Cover Her Face (1962)
  2. A Mind to Murder (1963)
  3. Unnatural Causes (1967)
  4. Shroud for a Nightingale (1971)
  5. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972)
  6. The Black Tower (1975)
  7. Death of an Expert Witness (1977)
  8. Innocent Blood (1980)
  9. The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982)
  10. A Taste for Death (1986)
  11. Devices and Desires (1989)
  12. Original Sin (1994)
  13. A Certain Justice (1997)
  14. Death in Holy Orders (2001)
  15. The Murder Room (2003)
  16. The Lighthouse (2005)
  17. The Private Patient (2008)
  18. Death Comes to Pemberley (2011)
  19. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (2016; short stories)
  20. Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales (2017; short stories)