James, P.D. 1920–
James, P.D. 1920–
(Phyllis Dorothy James White)
PERSONAL: Born August 3, 1920, in Oxford, England; daughter of Sidney Victor (a tax Officer) and Dorothy May Amelia (Hone) James; married Ernest Conner Bantry White (a medical practitioner), August 8, 1941 (died, 1964); children: Clare, Jane. Education: Attended Cambridge High School for Girls, 1931–37. Religion: Church of England. Hobbies and other interests: Exploring churches, walking by the sea.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Greene & Heaton Ltd., 37 Gold-hawk Rd., London W12 8QQ, England.
CAREER: Festival Theatre, Cambridge, England, assistant stage manager prior to World War II; worked as a Red Cross nurse and at the Ministry of Food during World War II; North West Regional Hospital Board, London, England, became principal administrative assistant, 1949–68; Department of Home Affairs, London, England, principal administrative assistant in Police Department, 1968–72, and in Criminal Policy Department, 1972–79; full time writer, 1979–. Associate fellow, Downing College, Cambridge, 1986; British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) general advisory council, 1987–88, member of Arts Council of Great Britain, 1988–92, and of British Council, 1988–93; governor, BBC, 1988–93. Magistrate, 1979–84.
MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature (fellow), Royal Society of Arts (fellow), Society of Authors (chair, 1985–87), Crime Writers Association, Detection Club, Institute of Hospital Administration (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: First prize, Crime Writers Association contest, 1967, for short story, "Moment of Power"; Order of the British Empire, 1983; created Life Peer of United Kingdom (Baroness James of Holland Park), 1991; Diamond Dagger Award, Crime Writers Association for services to crime writing; Silver Dagger Awards, Crime Writers Association, for Shroud for a Nightingale and The Black Tower; Edgar Award, Mystery Writers of America, for Shroud for a Nightingale; Scroll Award, Mystery Writers of America, for An Unsuitable Job for a Woman; Litt.D., University of Buckingham, 1992; Doctor of Literature, University of London, 1993.
Cover Her Face, Faber (London, England), 1962, Scribner (New York, NY), 1966.
A Mind to Murder, Faber (London, England), 1963, Scribner (New York, NY), 1967.
Unnatural Causes, Scribner (New York, NY), 1967.
Shroud for a Nightingale, Scribner (New York, NY), 1971.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Faber (London, England), 1972, Scribner (New York, NY), 1973.
The Black Tower, Scribner (New York, NY), 1975.
Death of an Expert Witness, Scribner (New York, NY), 1977.
Innocent Blood, Scribner (New York, NY), 1980.
The Skull Beneath the Skin, Scribner (New York, NY), 1982.
A Taste for Death, Faber (London, England), 1985, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
Devices and Desires, Faber (London, England), 1989, Random House (New York, NY), 1990.
The Children of Men, Faber (London, England), 1992, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
Original Sin, Franklin Library (Franklin Center, PA), 1995, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
A Certain Justice, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
Death in Holy Orders, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
The Murder Room, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
The Lighthouse, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
Crime Times Three (includes Cover Her Face, A Mind to Murder, and Shroud for a Nightingale) Scribner (New York, NY), 1979.
Murder in Triplicate (includes Unnatural Causes, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and The Black Tower), Scribner (New York, NY), 1982.
Trilogy of Death, Scribner (New York, NY), 1984.
P.D. James: Three Complete Novels, Crown (New York, NY), 1987.
An Omnibus P.D. James (includes Death of an Expert Witness, Innocent Blood, and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman), Faber (London, England), 1990.
A Dalgliesh Trilogy (includes The Black Tower, Death of an Expert Witness, and Shroud for a Nightingale), Penguin/Faber (London, England), 1991.
In Murderous Company: Three Complete Novels Featuring Detectives Adam Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray, Wings Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Ellery Queen's Murder Menu, World Publishing (New York, NY), 1969.
Virginian Whitaker, editor, Winter's Crimes 5, Macmillan (London, England), 1973.
Ellery Queen's Masters of Mystery, Dial (New York, NY), 1975.
Hilary Watson, editor, Winter's Crimes 8, Macmillan (London, England), 1976.
Dilys Wynn, editor, Murder Ink: The Mystery Reader's Companion, Workman Publishing (New York, NY), 1977.
Crime Writers, BBC Publications (London, England), 1978.
Julian Symons, editor, Verdict of Thirteen, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.
George Hardinge, Winter's Crimes 15, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1983.
(With Thomas A. Critchley) The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811, Constable (London, England), 1971.
A Private Treason (play), first produced in the West End at the Palace Theatre, March 12, 1985.
(Author of foreword) 800 Years of Women's Letters, Faber (Boston, MA), 1993.
Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of an Autobiography, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
James's work has been translated into several languages, including Japanese.
ADAPTATIONS: Cover Her Face, Unnatural Causes, The Black Tower, A Taste for Death, Devices and Desires, Death of an Expert Witness, and Shroud for a Nightingale have been adapted as television miniseries and broadcast by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).
SIDELIGHTS: As P.D. James—a name she chose because it is short and gender-neutral—Phyllis Dorothy James White has established herself as one of England's most prominent mystery writers. Often ranked with such masters of the genre as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, James is critically acclaimed for her ability to combine complex and puzzling plots with psychologically believable characters, particularly in her novels featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard. Her "keen, cunning mind and a positively bloody imagination" make her "one of the finest and most successful mystery writers in the world," Peter Gorner wrote in the Chicago Tribune.
James began her writing career relatively late in life. When her husband returned from World War II suffering from severe mental illness, James needed to find a way to support her family. For nineteen years she worked as a hospital administrator and then, following her husband's death, entered the British Department of Home Affairs as a civil servant in the criminal department. Although she had wanted to write for many years, James was not able to devote time to this pursuit until the late 1950s. Then, as she told David Lehman and Tony Clifton in Newsweek, "I realized that if I didn't make the effort and settle down to begin that first book, eventually I would be saying to my grandchildren, 'Of course I really wanted to be a novelist.' There never was going to be a convenient time." While working in a hospital she began her first novel, Cover Her Face. Over a three-year period James wrote for two hours every morning before going to work, composing her story in longhand on notepaper, a method she still prefers. Once completed, the novel was accepted by the first publisher to whom it was sent. James's career as a mystery writer was launched. Since then, she has published over a dozen more mystery novels in addition to a novel about a twenty-first century dystopia, The Children of Men, and a work of nonfiction, The Maul and the Pear Tree. The latter book, written with Thomas A. Critchley, investigates a particularly gruesome murder committed in London in 1811. James has been a full-time writer since her retirement from government service in 1979.
Despite the difficulty of juggling two careers and her family responsibilities, James says she does not regret the long delay in becoming a full-time writer. "As a woman writer, I feel having a working life provided all sorts of experience that I wouldn't have got if I had just been living at home," she told Connie Lauerman in an interview for the Chicago Tribune. Her work as a hospital administrator and in the police and criminal policy departments has provided much of the background for her mystery novels, set in such places as a police forensic laboratory, a nurses' training school, and a home for the disabled.
There is an old-fashioned quality to James's mystery novels that puts them squarely in the tradition of classic English detective fiction, as practiced by Agatha Christie and other writers. The character of Adam Dalgliesh, Scotland Yard detective and published poet, for example, follows the familiar pattern of the gentleman detective popularized by such earlier writers as Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. James's plots are puzzles which, she told Wayne Warga of the Los Angeles Times, follow the traditional formula. "You have a murder, which is a mystery," she explained. "There is a closed circle of suspects…. You have, in my case, a professional detective. He finds clues and information which, as he discovers them, are also available to the reader. And at the end of the story there is a credible and satisfactory resolution that the reader could have arrived at as well." James's style, too, commented Thomas Lask in the New York Times, "is what we think of as typically British. Her writing is ample, leisurely, and full of loving description of house and countryside." And like that of a number of other mystery writers, stated Norma Siebenheller in her study P.D. James, James's "work is literate, tightly constructed, and civilized. Her people are genteel and polite."
Yet, while conforming to many of the expectations of the genre, James goes beyond its limitations. For instance, where other writers have concentrated almost entirely on the puzzles in their books to the detriment of such things as characterization, James has not. Although she creates a puzzle for her readers, she focuses her attention on writing realistic mysteries with fully rounded characters. "The classic English mystery, as practiced by many of its female creators," Siebenheller explained, "is basically a puzzle-solving exercise…. One never gets over the feeling, when reading these books, that they are all make-believe…. James departs from that tradition…. The worlds she creates are peopled with varied and interesting characters whose actions spring from believable motivations and whose reactions are true to their complex personalities." As James told Carla Heffner in the Washington Post, her frequent comparison to Agatha Christie "amazes me…. Hers [is] the stereotype English crime novel which is set in the small English village where everyone knows their place…. I don't set my novels in that never-never land."
James's concern for realism is reflected in her creation of Adam Dalgliesh, a complex character who is, Siebenheller believed, "a far cry from the almost comical characters who served Christie and Sayers as sleuths." Dalgliesh is an introspective, serious figure—intensely devoted to solving the case at hand—who suppresses his personal feelings. His personality has been shaped by one tragic event many years before: the death of his wife and son during childbirth. It is this painful memory, and the essential chaos it implies, that has formed Dalgliesh's "vision of the world," as Erlene Hubly stated in Clues. Because of this memory, Dalgliesh is a "Byronic hero," Hubly argued, unable "to adjust to or accept society." Yet, because of his fear of chaos and death, he enforces the rules of society, convinced that they are all humanity has with which to create order. Dalgliesh tries, wrote Hubly, "to bring order out of chaos: if he cannot stop death he can at least catch and punish those who inflict it on others."
While Dalgliesh is her most popular character, James's secondary characters are equally realistic. All of her books, Julian Symons noted in the New York Times Book Review, "are marked by powerful and sympathetic characterizations." Perhaps her most fully realized character after Dalgliesh is Cordelia Gray, a female private detective who appears in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and The Skull beneath the Skin. As James related in the first of these two novels, Gray had a difficult childhood, being raised in a series of foster homes. Despite her past misfortunes, Gray is "a totally positive person," Siebenheller related. "Not only is she optimistic, capable, and clever, she is good-natured as well…. This is not to say Cordelia is a Pollyanna. She fully acknowledges the rougher edges of life." She and Dalgliesh enjoy a cordial rivalry whenever they meet on a murder case.
Many of James's other characters are from the respectable English middle class. Educated and humanistic, they find themselves "consumed by jealousy, hatred, lust, sexual fears, and ambition," Gorner stated. James explored her characters' labyrinthine emotional and psychological states with a penetrating and compassionate eye. Heffner, for example, sees James as someone "passionately curious about people and their peculiarities." Lask believed that James's work, despite its veneer of traditional English fiction, "is modern in the ambiguous makeup of her characters, their complex motives and the shrewd psychological touches of the relationship between the police and the criminals they pursue."
Moved by a deep moral concern, James sees mystery writing as an important expression of basic human values. Mystery novels, she told Heffner, "are like twentieth-century morality plays; the values are basic and unambiguous. Murder is wrong. In an age in which gratuitous violence and arbitrary death have become common, these values need no apology." The "corrosive, destructive aspect of crime," Siebenheller maintained, is one of James's major themes. She traces the effects of crime not only on the victim and criminal, but on their family and friends as well. James's concern is obvious, too, in the values she gives her characters. Comparing Adam Dalgliesh to James herself, Warga described him as "a man who is a realistic moralist much like his creator."
James moved away from her signature genre to a futuristic tale with The Children of Men, published in 1992. The story is in the year 2021, after twenty-five years have passed during which humans have stopped bearing children as the result of a global disease. James examines the outcome through the eyes of Dr. Theodore Faron, an Oxford professor. Walter Wangerin, Jr., writing for the New York Times Book Review, compared the effort to James's crime novels and found that "in her other novels, the author's attention is upon the plot and these concerns [about the nature of humankind] appear only indirectly. But here Miss James makes these contemplations the very business of her book, and her view is Olympian." James Sallis, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, viewed the novel "from first to last exceedingly well-wrought" but believed it falls short by making it a eulogy for a British culture that is long past. "James set out to provide a cosmic poem; considered for a while folding in the makings of a political novel; decided somewhere along the way to interpolate a religious fable; and ended up with a book that's none of these, but a kind of sympathy card for her own time and class." Peter Reading noted in the Times Literary Supplement that, "if this departure from James's usual genre is intended as a fable, its meaning is not readily communicated. However … her ability to create a well-paced plot ensures that her audience will find The Children of Men as exciting as her crime stories."
James "triumphantly [reverts] to original form," as Kate Kellaway noted in the London Observer, with her novel Original Sin. The story is set in a publishing company, where an elderly employee and part-time crime novelist, Esme Carling, is fired after thirty years at Peverell Press. Carling is later strangled with her most recent manuscript and her body dumped in the Thames. A reviewer for Tangled Web praised the author for her "impeccable style" in Original Sin, and noted that "the plot is clever and tight as always." The reviewer also praised James for taking the time to thoroughly explore the psychology of each character in depth, to cast suspicion on each, and to provide "a real challenge" to the reader trying to unravel the mystery.
In an interview with James, Kellaway asked her what she would do upon meeting the detective Dalgliesh, who returns in Original Sin. "If I met him I would say 'I did enjoy your last book of verse' and I wonder if he would then look at me very coolly," stated the author. Susannah Clapp remarked in the Times Literary Supplement that both James's moral "finger-wagging" as well as Dalgliesh's old-fashioned "rectitude and solemnity" extend the story unnecessarily. "By making Dalgliesh such a beacon not just of the law but of morality, spirituality and aesthetics, and by constantly hinting at the darkness of the age which laps him, she risks making her own criminal world seem cosily dated." Clapp concluded, "There is never any danger of drivel, or difficulty with continuing to read P.D. James's novels—she always makes you want to go on—but they are least lively when most anxious to instruct."
Death in Holy Orders, published the year James celebrated her eightieth birthday, found her still at the top of her powers, according to numerous reviewers. The book utilizes all the classic elements of English mystery: an isolated setting, a collection of guests both welcome and unwelcome, and a shocking murder in a closed room. The setting in this case is a High Anglican theological college located on the coast of East Anglia. The place is a bastion of religious tradition; the victim is an archdeacon who wanted to close the college, believing it to be irrelevant to the modern world. The four resident priests all had good reason to dislike the archdeacon and all are under suspicion, as well as the rest of the staff and the three visitors who were there when the killing took place. Adam Dalgliesh is sent to investigate, and is forced to look deeply into his soul as well as the murder at hand. As Christian Century reviewer Trudy Bush related, "That James packs so much theological discussion and meaning into a suspenseful detective story, and manages sometimes to be very funny as well, makes her book remarkable…. This is a book very concerned with faith and with life's ultimate questions." Bush felt that the conclusion of the novel was somewhat "slack," yet added that nevertheless, "James here is writing at the top of her powers." She concluded that Death in Holy Orders is "a novel that, more than a murder mystery, is also a book about life's great mysteries." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly also praised the book for its "extraordinarily complex and nuanced plot" and the "masterful ease and conviction" with which the author presents her story.
The success of James's novels can be attributed to their popularity among two different audiences, Heffner explained: "The lovers of a good 'whodunit' who read her novels for their action and intricate plots; and the literary world that admires the books for their character and motivation." In the words of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing in the New York Times, this wide acceptance has made James "one of the most esteemed practitioners of the [mystery] genre in the English-speaking world."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 8: Contemporary Writers: 1960 to the Present, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 18, 1981, pp. 272-277, Volume 46, 1988, pp. 204-211.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 87: British Mystery and Thriller Writers since 1940, First Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
James, P.D., An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Faber (London, England), 1972, Scribner (New York, NY), 1973.
Siebenheller, Norma, P.D. James, Ungar (New York, NY), 1981.
Wynn, Dilys, editor, Murder Ink, Workman Publishing (New York, NY), 1977.
Wynn, Dilys, editor, Murderess Ink, Workman Publishing (New York, NY), 1977.
Atlantic, June, 1980.
Booklist, April 15, 1999, review of Original Sin, p. 1457.
Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1980; November 6, 1986; November 16, 1986; February 4, 1990, pp. 1, 4.
Chicago Tribune Book World, May 18, 1980; September 19, 1982.
Christian Century, May 19, 1993, p. 561; July 4, 2001, Trudy Bush, review of Death in Holy Orders, p. 32.
Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 1980.
Clues, fall-winter, 1982; spring-summer, 1985.
Commonweal, April 23, 1993, p. 26.
Globe and Mail (Toronto), May 10, 1986; November 8, 1986; February 3, 1990, p. C8.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2001, review of Death in Holy Orders, p. 296.
Kliatt, January, 1998, review of A Certain Justice (audio version), p. 42.
Library Journal, January, 1994, p. 184; September 1, 1995, p. 226; January, 1998, review of A Certain Justice, p. 55; February 1, 1998, review of A Certain Justice (audio version), p. 130; June 1, 1998, review of A Certain Justice (audio version), p. 184; March 15, 2001, Wilda Williams, review of Death in Holy Orders, p. 105.
Listener, June 5, 1975.
Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1980; November 6, 1986; January 21, 1987.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 22, 1980; November 30, 1986, p. 6; February 25, 1990, pp. 1, 11; April 4, 1993, p. 12.
Maclean's, June 30, 1980.
Ms., April, 1974; August, 1979.
National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1993, p. 23.
New Republic, July 31, 1976; November 26, 1977.
New Statesman, September 25, 1992, p. 55; November 11, 1994, p. 37.
Newsweek, January 23, 1978; May 12, 1980; September 13, 1982; October 20, 1986, pp. 81-83; February 19, 1990, p. 66.
New Yorker, March 11, 1976; March 6, 1978; June 23, 1980; March 22, 1993, p. 111; January 19, 1998, review of A Certain Justice, p. 83.
New York Review of Books, July 17, 1980; April 26, 1990, p. 35; February 5, 1998, review of A Certain Justice, p. 19.
New York Times, December 11, 1977; July 18, 1979; February 8, 1980; April 27, 1980; May 7, 1980; March 11, 1986; October 5, 1986, Julian Symons, review of A Taste for Death, section 6, p. 48; October 23, 1986; January 25, 1990, p. C22; May 9, 1996, p. C20.
New York Times Book Review, July 24, 1966; January 16, 1972; April 22, 1973; November 23, 1975; April 27, 1980; September 12, 1982; April 6, 1986; November 2, 1986, p. 9; January 28, 1990, pp. 1, 31; April 26, 1990, p. 35; March 28, 1993, p. 23; April 2, 1995, p. 11.
New York Times Magazine, October 5, 1986.
Observer (London), October 16, 1994, p. 19; January 3, 1999, review of A Certain Justice, p. 14.
People Weekly, December 8, 1986; March 29, 1993, p. 23; February 13, 1995, p. 41.
Publishers Weekly, January 5, 1976, pp. 8-9; October 25, 1985; December 1, 1989, p. 48; March 19, 2001, review of Death in Holy Orders, p. 79.
School Library Journal, April, 1998, review of A Certain Justice, p. 158.
Spectator, December 23, 1972; June 12, 1976; September 19, 1992, p. 31.
Time, April 17, 1978; May 26, 1980; March 31, 1986; October 27, 1986, p. 98; March 1, 1993, p. 69.
Times (London), March 27, 1980; May 14, 1982; March 9, 1985; March 22, 1985; December 12, 1987.
Times Literary Supplement, October 22, 1971; December 13, 1974; March 21, 1980; October 29, 1982; June 27, 1986, p. 711; September 25, 1992, p. 26; October 21, 1994.
Tribune Books (Chicago), February 4, 1990.
Village Voice, December 15, 1975; December 18, 1978.
Voice Literary Supplement, October, 1982; April, 1990, p. 10.
Washington Post, April 30, 1980; November 10, 1986.
Washington Post Book World, April 15, 1977; April 27, 1980; September 19, 1982; April 20, 1986; November 9, 1986, pp. 5-6; January 21, 1990, p. 7.
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (June 3, 2001), Jennifer Reese, interview with P.D. James.
Tangled Web, http://www.twbooks.co.uk/ (June 3, 2001), review of Original Sin.