(Published in the Business Standard, November 29, 2014, in memory of the late Baroness PD James and her books.)
In the five decades between her first book, Cover Her Face, published when she was 42, and her last, Death Comes to Pemberley, published when she was 91, the Rt Hon Phyllis Dorothy James murdered over a score of characters. She had a knack for it; the reading public thought so too, devouring the 14 Adam Dalgliesh novels and the two Cordelia Gray mysteries.
When she died this week at the age of 94, she had reigned over the world of crime fiction, drawing in both the kind of reader who had a taste of Agatha Christie’s tidy village mysteries and the sort who preferred the new, bloodier school of Nordic-inspired thrillers. Her books may have had old-fashioned settings – from Oxbridge to Jane Austen’s fictional estates—but she had a cold eye; she saw the skull beneath the skin quite clearly.
“I had an interest in death from an early age,” PD James acknowledged in her Paris Review interview. “It fascinated me. When I heard, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, I thought, Did he fall or was he pushed?”
Many reviewers felt there was much of her in Adam Dalgliesh, the Detective Chief-Inspector who rose over the 14 books in which he featured to the heights of Commander. Dalgliesh is sensitive, compassionate, a poet who grew up in a vicarage, but also a quietly relentless tracker of evil, a fullblooded widower who has discreet romances, one of them (mentioned in an aside) with PD James’ other sleuth, Cordelia Gray.
James loved the city of Cambridge, and based some of murders in university towns, but she herself had not attended university; her father felt that women did not need a higher education. She did assorted jobs, taking up full-time employment in hospital administration after her husband came back from the Second World War with a serious psychiatric disorder. PD James cared for him, and for their daughters with the help of their families, until his death in 1964. She had written Cover Her Face and A Mind To Murder by then, and would continue to write at a steady, even pace, producing a book roughly every two-and-a-half years or so.
Her notes for each mystery were kept in carefully organised notebooks, around 7 to 15 for each novel, recording details of landscape, the history of the time, the lives of the characters, the ways in which they were to die or to kill. She had trained herself to rise early and write before the bustle of the household began; this settled into lifelong habit, and she was known for writing between 8 am and 12 noon on most days.
It was the keen edge of her craft that made a PD James novel so satisfying, as much as the human frisson of reading about someone else’s tragedies. Robert J Ray records a lecture by James in a 1987 article in the Orange Coast magazine:
“Remember these four things. First, the body must be discovered by an innocent, a child or an unsuspecting citizen. That increases the shock value for the reader, who sees through innocent eyes. Second, the body should appear early, preferably in line one of chapter one, but no later than chapter two. Third, you cannot as a writer enter the point-of-view of a killer after the body has been discovered, after the reader knows there’s been a crime committed. Otherwise, you give it all away, because the killer, being human, is re-thinking the murder. Fourth, the killer should not be revealed until 60 per cent of the book is done.”
By 1991, she had become a national asset, a position confirmed when she was made Baroness James of Holland Park. James had her critics – many said that her novels were of the old conservative school, that the settings were both tidy and old-fashioned. But as PD James wrote in the introduction to one of her omnibuses, the modern detective story remained, despite some shifts, a reassuring genre. “It distances for us the atavistic fear of death and by fictionalizing it… helps us to come to terms with its inevitability. It affirms the sanctity of the individual human life and confirms our belief that we live in a generally benevolent and rational human universe.”
She had no fear of death, herself; a lifetime of exploring the fragility and precariousness of human life had only strengthened her faith. The pleasure in having lived a rich life came through in many of the interviews she gave after the age of 80. After her death, the first tributes to the Baroness came from Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, the next generation of crime writers paying tribute to the grande dame of their genre. They owed PD James much, and they were proud to acknowledge that debt.