When I first heard of P.D. James (many long years ago), I initially thought she was a he. I mean, how many women prefer to be known by their initials rather than their actual names? When I heard yesterday that Baroness James had died at the age of 94, I can’t deny I thought with regret about how her most illustrious character and protagonist of fourteen James novels, Adam Dalgliesh, would fare. Yes, James did (more or less) retire Dalgliesh when the last mystery novel (The Private Patient) in which he was featured debuted in 2008. But for readers of the fourteen books, his persona is so familiar, so real! (Did I mention he’s a poet?)
When I began to be more serious about my writing in adulthood, several others in the writing world – who knew about publishing – told me mystery-writing was an easier avenue for achieving publication success. I read some mystery/detective whodunnits and a ton of Ellery Queen before I acknowledged these weren’t my cup of tea.
In something of a surprise, I stumbled across P.D. James who (I discovered) had begun writing detective stories as a self-taught “apprenticeship” she hoped would assist her development into a “serious” novelist. My aspirations mirrored hers. Before I’d read one book through, I was hooked. Her cautionary comment became a watchword for me: “a detective story is very easy to write badly but difficult to write well.“
In my personal apprenticeship, I’ve studied her work with enthusiasm. Her debut novel (1962), Cover Her Face, is an introduction to James as well as a get-to-know-you look at Scotland Yard’s brilliant (albeit fictional) detective Adam Dalgliesh. The plot develops similarly to what her later mysteries did … a young housemaid is found in her bed, strangled and behind a bolted door. A large assortment of suspects all seem to have motive and opportunity to have murdered the girl. Dalgliesh is able to eliminate suspects, one by one, and nab the killer. (The image below doesn’t reflect the 1962 cover but a later version.)
Having established herself as a crime and mystery writer, James went on to develop her main character over the next forty-six years. She came to know her character inside-out. One of the things I enjoy about the Adam Dalgliesh series is her presentation.
In each book, there’s a dead body, and the novel follows a circuitous path to determining who has committed the crime. However, the murder has already occurred before the novel begins. This (to me) is an exceptional way to encourage the reader to walk alongside Dalgliesh as he sifts through the details. Is it work? Yes, it is, but that’s what makes it rewarding. (Don’t spoon-feed me with fiction! I want to be an active participant!)
The final novel featuring Dalgliesh is The Private Patient, released in 2008 … when P. D. James was eighty-eight years old! Again, Commander Dalgliesh is called in to investigate the murder of a woman. The setting is a private clinic / manor house where a famous plastic surgeon operates on various wealthy patients whose identities are closely guarded. The Commander is sifting through clues when his investigation becomes more complex with the discovery of a second body.
Multiple accolades were showered on James during her life. “The greatest living mystery writer” from People Magazine. “The greatest contemporary writer of classic crime” from The London Sunday Times. Her long-time editor said she “broke the bounds of the mystery genre.” Biography.com dubbed her “The Queen of Crime.”
One of the things that amazes me about P. D. James is her longevity. Having created a body of work that spans fifty years, she seemed boundless. For instance, consider the addition to her oeuvre of Death Comes To Pemberley in 2011. Combining her love for detecting and her fondness for Jane Austen, James created an exceptional sequel to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
James created other characters besides the enduring Dalgliesh. In 1972, she introduced another detective, Cordelia Gray, and developed this character in two novels. I enjoyed reading these books, but felt no disappointment when James dropped the character. However, I’d have read ten or more books like The Children of Men (1992). This fictional future world takes place in 2021 (not so far from us today) and is frighteningly prescient. James understands and presents a compelling dystopian reality.
She lived a long life, much of it with Adam Dalgliesh sharing at least a part of her brain. I think he might live on; perhaps another talented writer will pick up the reins as James did briefly for Jane Austen?
Oh, and by the way, Phyllis Dorothy James attained her unique stature in the world of literature sans a college degree. In fact, her formal education ended when she was sixteen years of age!