James, P(hyllis) D(orothy)

views updated May 21 2018

JAMES, P(hyllis) D(orothy)

Nationality: British. Born: Oxford, 3 August 1920. Education: Cambridge Girls' High School, 1931-37. During World War II worked as a Red Cross nurse and at the Ministry of Food. Family: Married Ernest Connor Bantry White in 1941 (died 1964); two daughters. Career: Prior to World War II, assistant stage manager, Festival Theatre, Cambridge; principal administrative assistant, North West Regional Hospital Board, London, 1949-68; principal, Home Office, in police department, 1968-72, and criminal policy department, 1972-79. Justice of the Peace, Willesden, London, 1979-82, and Inner London, 1984. Chair, Society of Authors, 1984-86; governor, BBC, and board of the British Council, 1988-93; chair, Arts Council Literature Advisory Panel, 1989-92. Lives in London. Awards: Crime Writers Association award, 1967, Silver Dagger award, 1971, 1975, 1986, Diamond Dagger award, 1987; Grand Master, Edgar Allan Poe Awards, 1999. D. Litt.: Buckingham, 1992; London, 1993; Hertfordshire, 1994; Glasgow, 1995; Essex, 1996; Durham, 1998; Portsmouth, 1999. Associate Fellow, Downing College, Cambridge, 1986; Fellow, Institute of Hospital Administrators, Royal Society of Literature, 1987, and Royal Society of Arts; honorary fellow, St. Hilda's College, Oxford, 1996. O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire), 1983. Baroness, 1991. Agent: Greene & Heaton, Ltd., 37 Goldhawk Road, London W12 8QQ, England.



Cover Her Face. London, Faber, 1962; New York, Scribner, 1966.

A Mind to Murder. London, Faber, 1963; New York, Scribner, 1967.

Unnatural Causes. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1967.

Shroud for a Nightingale. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1971.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. London, Faber, 1972; New York, Scribner, 1973.

The Black Tower. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1975.

Death of an Expert Witness. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1977.

Innocent Blood. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1980.

The Skull Beneath the Skin. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1982.

A Taste for Death. London, Faber, and New York, Knopf, 1986.

Devices and Desires. London, Faber, 1989; New York, Knopf, 1990.

The Children of Men. London, Faber, 1992; New York, Knopf, 1993.

Original Sin. London, Faber, 1994; New York, Knopf, 1995.

A Certain Justice. New York, Knopf, 1997.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Moment of Power," in Ellery Queen's Murder Menu. Cleveland, World, 1969.

"The Victim," in Winter's Crimes 5, edited by Virginia Whitaker. London, Macmillan, 1973.

"Murder, 1986," in Ellery Queen's Masters of Mystery. New York, Davis, 1975.

"A Very Desirable Residence," in Winter's Crimes 8, edited by Hilary Watson. London, Macmillan, 1976.

"Great-Aunt Ellie's Flypapers," in Verdict of Thirteen, edited by Julian Symons. London, Faber, and New York, Harper, 1979.

"The Girl Who Loved Graveyards," in Winter's Crimes 15, edited by George Hardinge. London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.

"Memories Don't Die," in Redbook (New York), July 1984.

"The Murder of Santa Claus," in Great Detectives, edited by D.W. McCullough. New York, Pantheon, 1984.

"The Mistletoe Murder," in The Spectator (London), 1991.

"The Man Who Was 80," in The Man Who. London, Macmillan, 1992.


A Private Treason (produced Watford, Hertfordshire, 1985).


The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811, with Thomas A. Critchley. London, Constable, 1971; New York, Mysterious Press, 1986.

Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography. New York, Knopf, 2000.


Critical Studies:

P.D. James by Norma Siebenheller, New York, Ungar, 1981; P.D. James by Richard B. Gidez, Boston, Hall, 1986.

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Starting from a conventional first detective story, Cover Her Face, P.D. James has moved toward fiction in which criminal investigation provides merely a loose structure for characterization, atmosphere, and theme, which now seem most important to her. In this assault on generic boundaries, she resembles, but is more determined than, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Ngaio Marsh. Consequently, James's detectivesCordelia Gray (private and young) and Adam Dalgliesh (professional and middle-aging)have been absent from or muted in recent works.

Commander Dalgliesh resembles other detectives created by women writers: tall, dark, attractive, and frangible (he is ill, bashed, or burned in half his novels). "When the Met want to show that the police know what bottle to order with the canard à l'orange , they wheel out Dalgliesh," a hostile chief inspector says. Sensitive under seeming coldness, he has published several volumes of poetry. Before his first appearance, Dalgliesh's wife has died in childbirth, but in successive novels her presence dies away. At one time readers hoped that Cordelia Gray would take her place, but romantic notes have ceased to be struck; Cordelia has disappeared, and Inspector Kate Miskin, introduced in A Taste of Death, has not replaced her. In fact, few James characters are happily married, and there are no juvenile leads to assert the normality of love. There are, however, close, psychologically incestuous brother-sister relationships.

James once told an interviewer that she believes detective fiction can lessen our fear of death. Yet her details of what happens after deaththe doctor's fingers penetrating the orifices of the female body, the first long opening cut of an autopsyare scarcely reassuring. Other shocks of mortality include the skulls of plague victims packed cheekbone to cheekbone in the crypt of Courcy Castle in The Skull Beneath the Skin, James's most gothic novel, and boatloads of the elderly sailing out to die in The Children of Men.

Although few of James's settings are as conventional as the house party in Skull, her action generally takes place in closed, often bureaucratic communities: e.g., a teaching hospital , a psychiatric clinic, a forensic laboratory, or a nuclear power station, organizations which draw, no doubt, upon the author's own administrative experiences.

In terms of plot, James is most successful when dealing with the processes of investigation and is weakest in motivation. She has said she thinks in terms of film sequences; her latest novels contain variants of the "chase," and the long "panning" shots and close-ups in which she relentlessly describes interiors have become at times an intrusive mannerism. Perhaps her best, most controlled use of domestic detail occurs in Innocent Blood, where Phillipa furnishes a flat to greet her just-released murderess mother. Indeed, this violent Lehrjahr with its slower discoveries, its ambiguities, and its psychological images in "the wasteland between imagination and reality" is James's best claim to consideration as a "serious" novelist.

James's characters have always thought and talked about truth, faith, responsibility, and justice, even if not profoundly. But in the books that follow Innocent Blood, plot is almost lost amid talkiness and theme. The nature of Sir Paul Berowne's religious experience in A Taste for Death, for instance, is more important and less explicable than the identity of his blood-happy killer. In Devices and Desires (title drawn from the Book of Common Prayer), a nuclear power station and a ruined abbey confront each other, perhaps adversarially, in one of James's bleak coastal landscapes. They are surrounded by serial murder, terrorism, anti-nuclear and pro-animal protesters, cancer, drowning, anti-racism, a libel suitall pretexts and conveniences for a plot which the novel is not about. Dalgliesh is present, but almost a bystander, although he finds a corpse and almost dies in the fire that consumes the killer. Since then he has appeared in Original Sin, heading the investigation into the deaths of a young publisher and his sister, but is even more detached, except for brief bravura scenes, which demonstrate his sureness of touch and of technique. Instead, Kate Miskin is to the fore, with a Jewish detective who tries to be an atheist. The "original sin" is presumably the Nazi murder long ago of a woman and her two children, whom her husband finally avenges by murdering the two children of the man responsible. Ironically, however, they had merely been adopted to satisfy a childless wife, whose infertile husband is not particularly fond of his "offspring."

In The Children of Men, a futurist thriller, published between Devises and Desires and Original Sin, James opts for brutality. The year is 2021; mankind has lost the power to reproduce, and Xan is Warden of England. The narrator, Xan's cousin and once his advisor, is attracted to a tiny protest group, "The Five Fishes," and particularly to Julian, who is almost miraculously pregnant. To escape Xan's protective care, they embark on a wild drive, during which the religious Luke is bludgeoned to death by a band of "Painted Faces." Julian bears a son, but her midwife is murdered. When Xan appears, the narrator shoots him and becomes Warden in his stead. He signs a cross on the newborn's head. But, the reader wonders, will the state of the world really improve? In a 1985 interview, James described herself as born with a sense "that every moment is lived, really, not under the shadow of death but in the knowledge that this is how it's going to end." This sense now dominates her fiction.

Jane W. Stedman

James, P. D.

views updated Jun 08 2018

P. D. James

Born: August 3, 1920
Oxford, England

English author

Although British author P. D. James writes in the tradition of the British crime storyteller, because her stories also explore relationships, motivations (reasons for behavior), and meanings of justice, some people think of her more as novelist than a mystery writer.

Early years

P. D. James was born Phyllis Dorothy James on August 3, 1920, in Oxford, England, the oldest of three children. Her parents, Sidney Victor, a tax official, and Dorothy May (Hone) James, moved to Cambridge, England, where Phyllis attended the Cambridge High School for Girls. Phyllis liked Cambridge and even used the city as the location for one of her books, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.

Phyllis had to leave school at age sixteen to work. The family did not have much money and her father did not believe in higher education for girls. Dorothy worked in a tax office for three years. Later she found a job as an assistant stage manager for a theater group. In 1941 she married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an army doctor, and had two daughters, Claire and Jane.

When White returned from World War II (193945; a war fought mostly in Europe that pitted the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States against Germany, Italy, and Japan), he suffered from a mental illness and was not able to get a job. James was forced to provide for the whole family until her husband's death in 1964. James studied hospital administration (management), and from 1949 to 1968 she worked for a hospital board in London, England.

Early novels

James was in her early forties when her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. Her personal and professional experience helped to develop her powers of observation and thought. These aided her in both her description of police detective work and her portrayal of characters.

In 1968 James passed an examination that qualified her for a government job. She eventually worked in the Crime Department (197279) in London.

James's work served as a basis for her novels, giving them backgrounds for both medical and police procedures (official ways of working). The settings of several of her mysteries, including A Mind to Murder (1962), Shroud for a Nightingale (1971), and Death of an ExpertWitness (1977), are in medicine-related locations. In all of these novels she is just as interested in examining the relationships among people as she is in telling a mystery story.

James wrote some of her works in the tradition of the British crime storyteller as represented by such authors as Dorothy L. Sayers (18931957) and Agatha Christie (18911976). These are stories that have sometimes been referred to as "polite mysteries." However, James also wrote about motivations, explored relationships between people, examined ideas about guilt and innocence, and questioned both the legal system and religion.

Experimentation with the mystery form

James's work is distinguished (special) not only for its quality of plot, setting, and character, but also for its experimentation with the mystery form. Her first novel, Cover Her Face (1962), is similar to the stories written by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but James began to experiment with new plots and new types of characters. She has written about questions of social privilege (special rights), politics, aesthetics (the theory of beauty and art), and theology (the study of religion). In her novel The Children of Men (1993) she experimented with science fiction.

Because James brought such new ideas to the mystery story, many people have chosen to classify James not as a crime author, but as a novelist. James herself says that she uses the detective story to comment on men, women, and society. In an interview published in the New York Times in 1986, she said that she would "sacrifice the detective element" in her work if it would make a better novel.

Some critics are unhappy with James's concern with the psychology (the science of how the mind works) of her characters. These people would rather have a book that simply tells a basic detective story and gives the solution.

Even so, the qualities condemned by one group are prized by another. James is well respected and she has received many awards for her literary achievements.

Main characters

Most of James's books involve one of two characters: Adam Dalgliesh, a police inspector in Scotland Yard (London's police headquarters) and a published poet; and Cordelia Gray, a young private detective introduced in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972). In addition to their own individual mysteries, Dalgliesh and Gray appear together in some of the books.

James today

To date P. D. James has published fourteen books and many short stories. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1983 and was made a baroness in 1991. She also served on the governor's board of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). She continues to have loyal fans who enjoy both a good mystery and a well-written novel.

For More Information

Gidez, Richard B. P. D. James. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

James, P. D. Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Siebenheller, Norma. P. D. James. New York: Ungar, 1981.

James, P(hyllis) D(orothy)

views updated May 11 2018

JAMES, P(hyllis) D(orothy)

JAMES, P(hyllis) D(orothy). (Baroness James of Holland Park). British, b. 1920. Genres: Mystery/Crime/Suspense. Career: Principal Administrative Assistant, NW Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board, London, 1949-68; Civil Service appt. Principal, Home Office, 1968-79; Principal, Police Dept, 1968-72; Criminal Policy Dept., 1972-79. Associate Fellow, 1986, Hon. Fellow, 2000, Downing College, Cambridge; Hon. Fellow St. Hilda's College, Oxford, 1996; Hon. Fellow, Girton College, Cambridge, 2000; Governor, BBC, 1988-93; Board Member, British Council, 1988-93; Member of the Arts Council, and Chmm. of Literature Panel, 1988-92; Society of Authors, Chairman, 1985-87, President, 1997; Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. Order of the British Empire, 1983, created life peer (Baroness) 1991. Publications: Cover Her Face, 1962; A Mind to Murder, 1963; Unnatural Causes, 1967; Shroud for a Nightingale, 1971; (with T.A. Critchley) The Maul and the Pear Tree (nonfiction), 1971; An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, 1972; The Black Tower, 1975; Death of an Expert Witness, 1977; Innocent Blood, 1980; The Skull beneath the Skin, 1982; A Taste for Death, 1986; Devices and Desires, 1989; The Children of Men, 1992; Original Sin, 1994; A Certain Justice, 1997; Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography, 1999; Death in Holy Orders, 2001. Address: c/o Greene & Heaton Ltd, 37 Goldhawk Rd, London W12 8QQ, England.