James, P.D. (1920—)

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James, P.D. (1920—)

British mystery writer known as the "Queen of Crime." Name variations: Phyllis Dorothy James; Phyllis Dorothy James White; Baroness James of Holland Park. Born Phyllis Dorothy James on August 3, 1920, in Oxford, England; daughter of Sidney Victor James (an Inland Revenue officer) and Dorothy May (Hone) James; educated at Cambridge Girls' High School, 1931–37; married Ernest Connor Bantry White, in 1941 (died 1964); children: two daughters.

Selected writings:

Cover Her Face (London: Faber & Faber, 1962); A Mind to Murder (London: Faber & Faber, 1963); Unnatural Causes (London: Faber & Faber, 1967); Shroud for a Nightingale (London: Faber & Faber, 1971); An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (London: Faber & Faber, 1972); The Black Tower (London: Faber & Faber, 1975); Death of an Expert Witness (London: Faber & Faber, 1977); Innocent

Blood (London: Faber & Faber, 1980); The Skull Beneath the Skin (London: Faber & Faber, 1982); A Taste for Death (London: Faber & Faber, 1986); Devices and Desires (London: Faber & Faber, 1989); The Children of Men (London: Faber & Faber, 1992); Original Sin (London: Faber & Faber, 1994); A Certain Justice (London: Faber & Faber, 1997).

Phyllis Dorothy James White, who is better known to legions of mystery fans as P.D. James, the "Queen of Crime," was born in Oxford, England, on August 3, 1920, the daughter of Sidney, an official of the Inland Revenue, and Dorothy Hone James . The family moved to Cambridge, where Phyllis attended school at the Cambridge High School for Girls. James recalls that from an early age she knew that she wanted to write and had a gift for it; the problem would be to figure out how to use this gift. She has described her childhood as "reasonably happy," not the sort of traumatic youth that some might think a prerequisite for producing tales filled with violent deaths.

Forced to quit school at age 16, James went to work in a tax office. A few years later, she managed to escape the bureaucratic world and became an assistant stage manager at the Festival Theater of Cambridge. In 1941, she married Ernest Conner White, a physician serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II. White returned from the war in 1945 mentally incapacitated and was hospitalized until his death in 1964. In 1949, with two young daughters to support, James began work for the National Health Service, and medical administration became her career. James' understanding of medical matters, gained through personal experiences during these years, later proved valuable for clinical settings in many of her stories. In 1968, she entered the Home Office and served first as a principal in the Police Department and later in the Criminal Policy Department, again experiences that later made their way into her crime novels. She also served as a magistrate in London.

James did not get around to putting her writing skills to work until she was almost 40, but she knew from the start that it would be a crime story. Because mysteries were then popular, James felt she would have a better chance of getting her work published; she also liked the constraints involved in the craft of writing detective fiction. Although mystery writers are often criticized for using a formulaic process, James found these restrictions liberating, and she was fascinated by the variety of writers who could use the so-called formula successfully. Her first book, Cover Her Face (1962), featured Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, her most popular and well-known character, who goes on to solve a number of cases in later books: A Mind to Murder (1963), Unnatural Causes (1967), Shroud for a Nightingale (1971), The Black Tower (1975), Death of an Expert Witness (1977) and Devices and Desires (1989). James' other famous literary creations include private detective Cordelia Gray, featured in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) and The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982), and Kate Miskin, detective inspector, who appears in A Taste for Death (1986) and A Certain Justice (1997). James chose to use her maiden name as her pen name because it was "genderless," and because she thought "it would look good on the dust jacket, if it ever got on a dust jacket."

Phyllis James had a relatively small following for her crime stories until her eighth novel, Innocent Blood (1980). After that, the popularity of her books, which share similar settings, a sense of the Gothic, preoccupation with architectural structures, and meticulous, complex character and story lines, increased immensely. She not only enjoyed an international reputation but was granted honorary doctorates at five universities and became a member of the House of Lords (Baroness James of Holland Park). She also served as a governor of the BBC and was a member of the Arts Council, the Society of Authors, and the Booker Prize panel.

James won numerous awards and prizes for her writing. In 1983, she was awarded the OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire) and, in 1985, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an associate fellow of Downing College, Cambridge. James won Silver Daggers from the Crime Writers' Association of Great Britain for Shroud for a Nightingale, The Black Tower, and A Taste for Death, and, in 1987, received the Diamond Dagger for outstanding lifetime contributions to crime writing.


Basbanes, Nicholas A. "The Queen of Crime brings Dalgliesh Back," in The Day [New London, CT]. February 1, 1998.

Gussow, Mel. "P.D. James: Murder, She Wrote, and Why She Did," in The New York Times News Service. February 8, 1998.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont