Novelist and life peer P. D. James, since 1991 Baroness James of Holland Park, died peacefully at her Oxford, England home Thursday at 94. It’s fitting that she should leave us on Thanksgiving Day. Readers and friends of civilization everywhere have reason to be thankful for her long, productive, and well-examined life. And thankful for the literary riches she leaves behind.
Lady James’ chief claim to our attention and appreciation is her 18 elegant crime novels that have attracted millions of readers across the world from Cover Her Face in 1962 through Death Comes to Pemberly in 2011. Yes, I chose that adjective carefully. Mrs. James proved that crime fiction can be elegant. Also intelligent, insightful, and humorous. (Please excuse this American for using the civilian form of her name, titles in the U.K. having been greatly debased now that every superannuated rocker has Sir before his name.) Her stories not only make good reading, but good viewing as well. Eight of her novels have been made into television dramas.
Mrs. James’ books appear in the mystery section of your local bookstore (and I lift them up to those with readers on their Christmas gift lists). But with her handling of themes, treatment of place, complex plotting, multi-faceted characters, and deft use of mood, pace, and pitch-perfect dialogue, her work has always been far more than genre fare. She was simply one of the best novelists of the last half century.
In her early writing life, which began during her long civil service career, first in Britain’s National Health Service and later in the Home Office, Mrs. James said she thought she would write a mystery or two just to get published, then turn to more “serious” work later. But she quickly changed her mind. As she tells it:
“I came to believe that it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live.”
Just so. She accomplished this at the highest levels for decades in novels with titles such as A Mind to Murder, Unnatural Causes, A Certain Justice, Death in Holy Orders, Devices and Desires, and my favorites, Original Sin and Death of an Expert Witness. Her work calls to mind the assertion of her homonym, though probably not a relation, Henry James, who said the purpose of a novel should be “to help the human heart to know itself.”
Another reason for choosing the genre is that Mrs. James enjoyed reading detective stories as a youngster. Her imagination tracked to the dark side early on. She says that when someone read to her about Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall, she asked herself, “Did he fall or was he pushed?”
It is often said that Mrs. James’s work is in the Classical British detective tradition, made popular after the Great War by such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers. This is true as far as it goes. Mrs. James’ stories, like those of these other talented writers, have complex plots with lots of suspects and the occasional red herring. But while the fanciful entertainments of these older writers are little more than puzzles, peopled by unrealistic characters, where the chief reward is figuring out who done it, Mrs. James’ work is realistic literature in full. It has the feel of real life with real people. Her recurring series character, Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, is no flighty amateur like Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Dalgliesh is a complex and believable professional, as is his frequent investigative partner, Inspector Kate Miskin. One needn’t suspend disbelief when reading P. D. James, as one must when reading Christie, Sayers, Conan Doyle, et al.
In addition to her crime novels, Mrs. James published a diverting memoir, Time to Be Earnest, in 1999, and a short history of her genre, Talking About Detective Fiction, in 2009.
A word about style: If you’re in a hurry, don’t bother with P. D. James’ stories. She’s not in a hurry, and to reap the many rewards of her novels, readers can’t be either. Her novels are long and her style could be compared to that other James already mentioned, but in service of thoroughly contemporary stories (and with fewer dependent clauses). The characters in her novels have complex backstories that often impinge on the crime at the center of the story, and these are explored in depth. Mrs. James is literary slow food. By the end of her stories we know as much about the suspects as we do about the detectives. (I don’t know if Mrs. James ever read any of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser or Jesse Stone novels. If she did, the lightning-fast narrative and the Mach .9 action may well have made her car sick.)
Mrs. James’ contributions were not just literary. She sat in the House of Lords for more than 20 years with the Conservatives where she spoke in defense of traditional values. She served on the board of governors of the BBC from 1989 to 1993. She was Chairman of the Literature Advisory Panel of the Arts Council of England from 1988 to 1993. She was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Society of Arts. The woman whose family could not afford to send her to university when she finished Cambridge High School for Girls in 1936 was awarded honorary degrees from seven universities. Her writing, which has won every major literary prize, is erudite, and demonstrates great familiarity with literature, history, and the arts.
Mrs. James was a practicing Anglican all her life, though the traditionalist in her did not fancy some contemporary Anglican practices. On her list of top literary influences she places Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and the Book of Common Prayer. This last in early editions, of course. She recognized that when “Let not your heart be troubled” morphed into “Do not be annoyed or depressed,” a great deal was lost.
Mrs. James’ success did not come easily. She was born in 1920 into a family of modest means at a time more like Victorian England than like Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia. Her father was a minor official with the Inland Revenue at a time when government employees were not so richly rewarded as they are today. By the time she was in high school her mother had been admitted to psychiatric hospital. Her physician husband returned from the war with psychiatric problems that prevented him from working until his death in 1964. Mrs. James had to take care of an ailing husband and support herself and two daughters, one of whom was born in London during a blitz bombing. She was unable to write full time until she retired from the civil service in 1979. How she found time to write early in her literary career is as much a mystery as her plots.
Mrs. James’ long life and career — she published her final novel at age 90 — helped her to distinguish what is eternal from what is ephemeral. Though some liberal critics have taken a jaundiced view of her conservative values, Mrs. James’ work has a psychological complexity that raises it above political partisanship. Even though her characters wrestle with the issues of the day, her stories are literature, not political or cultural polemics.
For all her literary success and prizes and titles, Mrs. James always remained dignified but humble. She was warm and friendly but knew the uses of reticence. She usually asked interviewers to call her Phyllis rather than Mrs. James or Baroness. She was compassionate but not sentimental. She had so many of the qualities and virtues that are brought to mind by the word civilization.
Phyllis Dorothy James’ death last week was a great loss. But her long life was a gift. As long as there are discerning readers, her novels will live even longer.