Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford, England, on August 3, 1920. She attended Cambridge High School for Girls from 1931 until her graduation in 1937. Prior to World War II, she served for a time as assistant stage manager at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge. She worked during the war as a Red Cross nurse and also at the Ministry of Food. She married Ernest C. B. White, a medical practitioner, on August 8, 1941, and was widowed in 1964. She has two daughters.
In 1949, James commenced a long career in the civil service. She was a principal administrative assistant with the North West Regional Hospital Board, London, until 1968, when she became a senior civil servant in the Home Office. From 1972 until her retirement in 1979, she served in the crime department. James is a Fellow of the Institute of Hospital Administrators. Although writing has been her full-time occupation since 1979, she has also served as a London magistrate.
James’s first novel, Cover Her Face, did not appear until 1962, at which time the author was past forty years of age. Nevertheless, she quickly attained recognition as a major crime novelist. A Mind to Murder appeared in 1963, and with the publication of Unnatural Causes in 1967 came that year’s prize from the Crime Writers’ Association. James denies that her decision to write under her maiden name preceded by initials only was an attempt to disguise her identity as a woman. Clearly, she was aware of the sexual ambiguity of the name P. D. James, but she points out, quite correctly, that detective fiction is a field in which women, writing under their own names, have long excelled. Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers—two writers to whom James is often compared—are masters of the genre. On reaching the age of seventy-seven, James added a work to the memoir field, much to the delight of her readers.