The British novelist P. D. James, who died late last month at the age of 94, was one of the most significant crime fiction figures to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century. A late starter at 42 when her first novel Cover Her Face introduced Scotland Yard detective and published poet Adam Dalgliesh in 1962, she was still contributing major work 50 years later.
Created the Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991, she was a member of the House of Lords and a prominent public figure in Great Britain beyond her contribution to contemporary literature. As a former BBC governor, she used its own airwaves to challenge what she saw as excessive pay for BBC executives, noting that 37 of them made more money than the prime minister. As a member of the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, she deplored updating the poetic language of the Book of Common Prayer, declaring, “Something is lost, surely, when ‘Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled’ is translated as ‘Do Not Be Worried and Upset.’ ”
The last novel published in her lifetime, Death Comes to Pemberley (2011), was a departure for her, a splendid criminous sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She had done the unexpected before, with a true-crime book, The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders (1971), written with Thomas A. Critchley; with the creation of a female private eye in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972); with her first bestseller, an unconventional mystery novel outside the Dalgliesh series, Innocent Blood (1980); with the minor science fiction classic The Children of Men (1992), depicting a near-future in which humans have stopped giving birth; and with Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography (1999). But most of her books featured Adam Dalgliesh, and, despite her advanced age, it is hard to believe that The Private Patient (2008), 14th in the series, would be the last of them. She told the BBC in 2013 that she was working on another detective story, so there is reason for hope.
Some pegged James as a mystery writer who “transcended the genre.” She did nothing of the kind. True, her novels grew longer and more richly detailed, her grappling with contemporary social issues increasingly ambitious. Yes, her characters were fully realized and never seemed like puppets in service of a puzzle. And there’s no denying that she brought to her work all the seriousness and thematic attention of any good novelist. But she never deserted the classical detective novel pattern as handed down by her predecessors from the interwar Golden Age of Detection.
To risk another loaded term, she even had a formula: Create an established but often threatened business or institution—a forensics lab, a publishing company, a school for nurses, an atomic research station, a psychiatric clinic, a home for the disabled, a barristers’ chambers, a theological college, a museum—and people it with a variety of characters; have a murder or two within the closed circle of possible suspects; reveal the solution with the explanation of clues clearly shared with the reader. Far from leaving genre behind, P. D. James demonstrated what high-quality work could be achieved within its strictures.
Her 2009 Talking About Detective Fiction makes a historical point that simultaneously celebrates the unique features of the detective story and questions the artificial barriers between genre and “real” literature. Jane Austen, by no definition a crime writer, anticipated the detective-story pattern decades before Edgar Allan Poe’s credited invention of the form. In Austen’s Emma, James writes,
The secret which is the mainspring of the action is the unrecognized relationship between the limited number of characters . . . and Jane Austen deceives us with cleverly constructed clues (eight immediately come to mind)—some based on action, some on apparently innocuous conversations, some in her authorial voice. At the end, when all becomes plain and the characters are at last united with their right partners, we wonder how we could have been so deceived.
Indeed, something similar occurs in Pride and Prejudice, in which Elizabeth Bennet reviews the ways in which she had misread Darcy’s character and how matters could have been interpreted differently.