P. D. James

views updated May 18 2018

P. D. James

The British author P (hyllis) D (orothy) James (born 1920) wrote in the tradition of the British crime storyteller, but her extensive explorations of relationships, motivations, and meanings of justice classified her, in the opinion of some, as a novelist.

P. D. James—Queen of Crime, Mistress of Murder, OBE (Order of the British Empire), baroness, and grandmother—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 the family to Cambridge, where James attended the Cambridge High School for Girls. One of this century's foremost crime novelists had to leave school at age 16 to work in a tax office, followed by a stint as assistant stage manager for the Festival Theatre in Cambridge. (Her own play A Private Treason was staged in 1985 in London's West End.)

During World War II she worked as a Red Cross nurse and for the Ministry of Food. On August 8, 1941, she married Ernest Connor Bantry White of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and in 1942 and 1944 gave birth to their daughters, Claire and Jane. When White returned from the war in 1945, he was suffering from schizophrenia and frequently had to be hospitalized.. He was unemployable, leaving her to provide for their family until his death in 1964. So James studied hospital administration, and from 1949 to 1968 she served as administrative assistant with the North West Regional Hospital Board in London.

First Novel

She would be in her early forties before her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. By that time both personal and professional experience and contacts had nurtured her knowledge and powers of observation and reflection. These informed both her depiction of police detection and her portrayal of characters drawn within a given social ambience.

Cover Her Face was followed during this period by A Mind to Murder and Unnatural Causes. She co-authored with Thomas A. Critchley The Maul and the Pear Tree, a recounting of a real life murder from the annals of 19th-century London.

Not until 1979 would she devote herself to full-time authorship. In 1968, she qualified—via open exam—for civil service in the Home Office, rising from her initial appointment (1968) with the Department of Home Affairs, London, to senior civil servant in the Crime Department (1972-1979). Additionally, her various public service roles included that of magistrate. James's work experience is reflected in her novels, providing convincing backgrounds for both the medical establishment and police procedure. The settings of four of her mysteries are in medicine-related facilities: a psychiatric clinic in A Mind to Murder (1962), a nurses' training school in Shroud for a Nightingale (1971), a private home for the disabled in The Black Tower (1975), and a forensic science laboratory in Death of an Expert Witness (1977). In all these novels she is just as interested in dissecting the relationships among people living in closed communities as she is in the conventions of the mystery genre. She is often inspired by a sense of place, as in Devices and Desires (1989), with its bleak landscape dominated by a nuclear power station.

On the one hand, James wrote in the tradition of the British crime storyteller as represented by such authors as Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Josephine Tey—what Marilyn Stasio, in the New York Times for October 9, 1988, refers to as the "polite mystery." (Her Adam Dalgliesh has joined Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Albert Campion on television. Her Original Sin was also adapted for the television series Mystery!).

On the other hand, she probed for motivations; explored relationships between even relatively minor characters and within individual characters; raised complex questions about guilt and innocence, about the adequacy and ultimate justice of legal assumptions and processes, about religion; and explored the resonance of setting of significant landmarks, of the individual's tellingly personal surroundings. Frequently in her settings she confronts an extensive Past with a not always appreciative and usually clumsily adapting Present; her characters, too, have resonant pasts.

Experimentation With the Mystery Form

James's work is distinguished not only for the consistent quality of plot, setting, and character, but for her increasing experimentation with the mystery form. Her first novel, Cover Her Face (1962), is a classic "locked-room" puzzle, set in a British country house, complete with a confrontation of all the suspects at the end. Innocent Blood (1980) departs from the form almost entirely because the search is not to find the murderer but to find the natural mother of a child adopted at birth. In the brilliantly complex A Taste for Death (1986), an unlikely pair of companions stumble upon an unlikely pair of murder victims in an anteroom of an imaginary London cathedral. The situation allows James to deal with questions of privilege, politics, aesthetics, and theology. The Children of Men (1993) leans toward science fiction, using as its premise a global disease that blocks all future births. Such complexity and depth led her, in the opinion of some, out of the classification of crime genre author into that of, simply, novelist. James herself admitted to using the detective story format to comment on men, women, and society and to having first viewed writing a mystery as practice toward her ambition of writing a novel. She later came to view her detective stories as "novels, too," and told Julian Symons (New York Times, October 5, 1986) that she would, should it become necessary, "sacrifice … the detective element" to the requirement of the novel.

Some critics are dismayed by her concern with the psychology of her characters, especially when it has more to do with presenting a well-rounded character and exploring the ramifications of crime among even tangential characters than with forwarding the basic detective story puzzle and solution. They criticize her for violating the purity of the genre, for delaying plot progress, and for dissipating reader interest. Yet the qualities condemned by one group are prized by another as evidence of the maturing into true literary status of a subgenre. Her many honors include the Crime Writers' Association's gold and silver daggers.

In her 13th novel, Original Sin, a ruthless book publisher is found asphyxiated by gas, with the head of the office mascot—a snake nicknamed Hissing Sid—stuffed in his forever-silenced mouth. Another ill-fated publishing figure meets her end in the lapping waters of the Thames River—her body kept anchored by the shoulder strap of her pocketbook.

Main Characters

The James canon of novels, with the exception of Innocent Blood (1980), involves either Adam Dalgliesh or Cordelia Gray, a struggling young private detective introduced in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972). In addition to the individual mysteries, the Dalgliesh and Gray biographies, tantalizingly interwoven, unfold from book to book.

Dalgliesh, who is also a published poet, has risen from chief inspector to commander of the Special Squad, newly formed in A Taste for Death (1986). Sensitive, respected though not always liked by colleagues, he is a man shadowed by grief—the death in childbirth of his wife and, shortly afterward, of their infant son. The only son of an Anglican clergyman, he is no longer a believer yet seems haunted by that forsaken heritage. This is not simply a matter of the occasional case involving a respected clergyman from his youth—as in The Black Tower (1975) and the short story "Great-Aunt Allie's Flypapers" (1979)—nor even the religious experience of Paul Berowne in Taste. Repeatedly detection discloses sympathetic perpetrators, unsympathetic victims, disruption in the lives of all—kith, kin, and bystanders—necessarily caught up in the investigation. Complexities of justice are exposed to which law does not reach but for which, he acknowledges, Christian theology provides a solution. Yet, for all its limitations, law is necessary to the safety of society.

Cordelia Gray is similarly troubled and, in Unsuitable Job, helps a killer escape. The daughter of an atheistic father so cause-committed as to be somewhat negligent of his motherless daughter's rearing, she has been educated in a Roman Catholic school. One of the major influences on her life, in addition to Bernie Pryde, from whom she inherited Pryde's Detective Agency and through whom she has been instructed in detection according to Dalgliesh, is Sister Perpetua.

James herself was troubled by the increasing violence and insecurity of contemporary society and, while professing to be a devout Anglican, was not sure that she believed in the after-life where Christians are urged to look for totally satisfying justice.

Reader speculation as to whether Dalgliesh and Gray would marry led James to declare that, for the sake of the unity and quality of their respective novels (Gray's second book, The Skull Beneath the Skin, appeared in 1982), she had no such plans for them. However, she deliberately avoided making the statement an absolute negative and continued to weave references to one into the other's novels. She trailed the possibility of Dalgliesh's remarriage—to Deborah Riscoe—through earlier books; the situation by 1990, however, differed both in Gray's stature and in Dalgliesh's circumstances, updated in Devices and Desires (1989).

James also published a number of short stories in such mystery collections as Winter's Crimes, Ellery Queen's Murder Menu, and Ellery Queen's Masters of Mystery.

P. D. James, the much honored author who, like her detective Cordelia Gray, has known the pinch of a budget, lived comfortably in London. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1983 and made a baroness on the Queen's New Year's Honors List (1991). James was made a member of the governor's board of the BBC maintaining that writers should be involved with the outside world. James was also named the Baroness James of Holland Park (her London neighborhood) in 1991 and was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1992.

Further Reading

Two books are available on James: P. D. James by Richard B.Gidez (1986); and P. D. James by Norma Siebenheller (1981); SueEllen Campbell discusses "The Detective Heroine and the Death of her Hero: Dorothy Sayers to P. D. James" in Modern Fiction Studies 29 (Autumn 1983); in the same volume appears Erlene Hubly's "The Formula Challenged: The Novels of P. D. James" Patricia A. Ward treats of "Moral Ambiguities and the Crime Novels of P. D. James" in Christian Century 101 (May 16, 1984); and M. Cannon discusses James' particular brand of crime in "Mistress of Malice Domestic" in the New York Times Book Review for April 27, 1980; P. D. James herself, in Murder Ink, has written "House Calls: The Doctor Detective Round-up." □