Rest in Peace, P.D. James
I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death, at the age of 94, of the great crime novelist P.D. James so decided to take a few minutes out of my lunch break to post this little tribute. I’ve long been a fan of detective fiction in general but there was something very special about the writing of P.D. James; the initials stand for Phyllis Dorothy, by the way. I think she was one of the few crime novelists who managed to transcend the whodunnit genre to produce work of authentic literary merit in its own right; Ruth Rendell is the only other that springs to mind among contemporary writers of detective fiction. Her style was as polished and the subject matter as meticulously researched was you would expect from a direct descendant of Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the leading exponents of the “Golden Age” of detective fiction.
P.D. James is most famous for her series of fourteen books featuring the poetry-loving detective Adam Dalgleish, the first of which, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. That series contained many superb stories, such as Shroud for a Nightingale, Devices and Desires, and Death of an Expert Witness. She also wrote two novels about the female private detective Cordelia Gray, including An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. More recently she wrote a murder mystery sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice called Death Comes to Pemberley. I bought this last year, but somehow never got around to reading it but will definitely do so now, as I now know it her last; I have read all her other books.
As well as numerous awards for her writing, P.D. James was honoured by the Establishment with an OBE in 1983 and a Life Peerage in 1999. It’s says most however that so many other authors, even those whose style is markedly different have offered heartfelt tributes to her (including these in the Guardian). The main reason why she was held in such high regard by fellow authors was simply that she was bloody good at being a writer; she cared about her craft and was proud of what she did.
There’s something distinctively English about the detective novels of P.D. James, although that something is a something that clearly tends to polarize people. Some find her approach a bit too detached and genteel, some find it, “cosy”, snobbish and class-ridden, and some think that she was just an anachronism, harking back too much to the era of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Yet others can’t understand the attraction of the genre at all. People are welcome to their opinions of course, but I think that the best detective fiction is not just about setting a puzzle for the reader to solve, but also posing questions about the nature of a society in which such crimes can happen. Far from being “cosy”, great crime writing actually unsettles bourgeois attitudes. The solution of the mystery may offer us a form of comfort, but the questions exposed by the investigation do not go away. As Val McDermid
wrote in the Guardian, “People who know no better sometimes describe her work as cosy. If a scalpel is cosy, then so was Phyllis”.
Rest in Peace, P.D. James (1920-2014).Follow @telescoper