James, P. D.
P. D. James 1920–
(Full name Phyllis Dorothy James White) English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of James's life and career. For further information about her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 18 and 46.
James is a respected crime and mystery writer who is credited with expanding the scope of the mystery genre. Although she makes use of elements of traditional detective fiction, James is particularly concerned with establishing the psychological motivations of her characters. James is also noted for her sophisticated prose style, highlighted by literary allusions and quotations, and her vivid, realistic characters and settings.
James was born in Oxford, England, in 1920. Her father was an Inland Revenue officer, and the family of five did not have much money. James had the opportunity to attend Cambridge Girls High School, but she ended her education when she left the school at the age of 16. Two years after the start of World War II, James married Dr. Connor Bantry White, who served during the war in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Her husband returned from the war suffering from extreme mental illness for which he had to be hospitalized. In order to support her two young daughters and herself, James took night classes in hospital administration and became an administrator working for the National Health Service. Her experience in the health field helped in the writing of Shroud for a Nightingale (1971) and The Black Tower (1975), which are both set in hospitals. James had always dreamed of becoming a writer and when she finally decided to try her hand at writing, she thought a mystery novel would be good practice for her. The novel, Cover Her Face (1962), was accepted by the first publisher to which she sent it. James decided that she liked the discipline of the detective genre, and continued to employ it in all but a few of her future novels. After her husband died in 1968, she transferred to the Department of Home Affairs, roughly equivalent to the United States Department of Justice. Her experience at this job helped with her to write knowledgeably about forensic science and police investigation. James eventually retired from civil service and became a local magistrate, in addition to continuing her writing career.
One of James's goals as a writer of detective fiction is to fulfill the elements of the genre and still employ the tools which make "serious fiction" satisfying. Her early novels, including Cover Her Face, A Mind to Murder (1963), Unnatural Causes (1967), and Shroud for a Nightingale, evidence her interest in realism. Although structured in traditional "whodunnit" fashion, these works rely on rounded credible characterizations that separate her work from that of the traditional "country house mystery" of traditional British detective fiction, in which static characters exist only to advance the plot of the mystery. Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh is the protagonist in each of these novels, as well as several of James's later books. A published poet as well as a police inspector, Dalgliesh is portrayed as a detached and devoted professional who is acutely sensitive to the emotions and motivations of the individuals he encounters in his work. The developments in Dalgliesh's private and professional life are engrossing subplots to the novels in which he is featured. In Devices and Desires (1989), Dalgliesh gets pulled into the investigation of a serial killer while vacationing on the Norfolk coast and resolving his late aunt's affairs. James focused less on Dalgliesh and his personal life in A Certain Justice (1997). In this novel, a barrister is murdered and her arrogance and cut-throat career climbing leaves a string of suspects. In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972). James introduces the character of Cordelia Grey, a female protagonist who is considerably different from Dalgliesh. Grey is a young, inexperienced private investigator who cannot rely on the resources of the police department. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman chronicles Grey's first investigation, in which she uncovers a murder originally believed to be a suicide. James departed from the detective genre in two novels. First in Innocent Blood (1980), a woman who was adopted as a child locates her real parents and discovers that her father was a rapist and her mother was a murderer. In The Children of Men (1992), James chronicles the extinction of the human race and the baby that may be its salvation.
Critics have conflicting views about James's proliferation of details in her novels. Some reviewers have praised her evocation of place through the use of description; others have found it a distraction to the action of the plot. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt complained that "so much of her scene-setting serves no other purpose than to create impenetrable atmosphere." Reviewers have noted that she effectively conveys the specifics of forensics and police investigation. Critics have consistently lauded James for giving readers more psychological depth than the average detective story. Commentators often note that James provides the motivation and larger human questions underlying the crimes in her novels, instead of simply presenting a neatly solved puzzle. Walter Wangerin, Jr. stated, "Plot, under Miss James's hand, is never merely external action. Always she explores character, the complexities of motive and thought and emotion; and always she wonders about the nature of humankind in general—this baffling admixture of good and evil, faith and failure, love and a murderous self-sufficiency." One aspect of her work often noted is the juxtaposition of the regular, ordered world presented in her novels and the disordered chaos wrought by the introduction of the crime. Ben Macintyre noted that "it is precisely the contrast between such external fastidiousness and the complex, sometimes depraved internal lives of James's characters that gives her books such emotive power." Some critics laud James for her feminist departure from the typical male detective through the character of Cordelia Grey. Many critics assert that James's work transcends the mystery genre because it contains the elements one looks for in a literary novel. However, a few have disagreed, contending that James represents the best of her genre because of what she has accomplished within the confinements of the detective story. Joyce Carol Oates concluded, "P. D. James does not 'transcend' genre; she refines, deepens, and amplifies it."
Cover Her Face (novel) 1962
A Mind to Murder (novel) 1963
Unnatural Causes (novel) 1967
The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811 [with Thomas A. Critchley] (nonfiction) 1971
Shroud for a Nightingale (novel) 1971
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (novel) 1972
The Black Tower (novel) 1975
Death of an Expert Witness (novel) 1977
Innocent Blood (novel) 1980
The Skull Beneath the Skin (novel) 1982
A Private Treason (play) 1985
A Taste for Death (novel) 1986
Devices and Desires (novel) 1989
The Children of Men (novel) 1992
Original Sin (novel) 1994
A Certain Justice (novel) 1997
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SOURCE: "Interview with P. D. James," in Armchair Detective, Vol. 10, No. 1, January, 1977, pp. 55-7, 92.
[In the following interview, James discusses her approach to crafting a mystery, her view on feminism, and how she wants to be remembered.]
P. D. James is a unique person in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that she has never had a rejection slip from an editor! With a typical touch of humor and a broad smile, she reported that as she prepared her first novel for submission, her children cautioned her that "All good writers can paper their walls with their rejection slips!" And then, when the book, Cover Her Face, was accepted by Faber and Faber, the first publisher to whom it was offered, the children's "confidence in the book was somewhat shaken. They felt good novels ought to be rejected!"
But the confidence of James's fans remains unshaken. Her six novels, Cover Her Face, 1962; A Mind to Murder, 1963; Unnatural Causes, 1967; Shroud for a Nightingale, 1971; An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, 1972; and The Black Tower, 1975, along with her short stories (two of which have won Ellery Queen prizes) have earned her a wide following among American as well as British readers of mystery-detective fiction. Her solid reputation as a careful crafts person, clever creator of plots, and shrewd commentator on human psychology is...
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SOURCE: "Adam Dalgliesh: Byronic Hero," in Clues: A Journal of Detection, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall-Winter, 1982, pp. 40-46.
[In the following essay, Hubly analyzes the character of Adam Dalgliesh as a Byronic hero.]
Various readers of P. D. James' novels have attempted to understand the character of her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, by discussing him in terms of classic detective fiction. Francis Wyndham, for example, writing in the London Times Literary Supplement, has placed Adam in the tradition of "the gentleman detective" as developed by Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. As such he is "a suitably romantic sleuth," attracted to women, able to carry on "stylish courtships" of them, fond of music and good literature (Jane Austen is his favorite writer), sensitive and yet ruthless enough to be able to perform his sometimes distasteful duties. Norma Siebenheller, in her book on James, discusses Adam in terms of this same tradition. Like the earlier English mystery writers—Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and others—James writes "literature tightly constructed and civilized" novels in which inventive characterizations, psychological insights and detailed descriptions replace violence, physical conflict and rough-and-tumble action. And yet, Siebenheller argues, James also departs from that tradition in significant ways. Rather than write books in which the puzzle is all important, as did...
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SOURCE: "A Mind to Write," in Armchair Detective, Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 340-48.
[In the following interview, James discusses how her novels differ from those of the traditional detective genre, and the inspiration behind her characters and plots.]
"The extraordinary thing" is a phrase used often by British detective novelist P. D. James. There are many extraordinary things to be said about this vibrant woman whose ageless, wrinkle-free face and warm personality belie the fact that she has in her life faced great personal tragedy and in her writing has explored convincingly the psychological motivations for murder.
In her publicity photographs, James appears to be serious, pensive, perhaps even a touch reserved or severe. Many interviews in the past focus on the difficulty she faced when her husband, a doctor, returned from World War II to remain seriously mentally ill throughout the remainder of his life. Before meeting her, it is easy to picture a determined, perhaps rather silent woman, working away for years as a high-level British civil servant, efficiently balancing a demanding career in criminal law with bringing up two daughters, while earnestly tapping away on her typewriter in the early mornings, turning out detective novels hailed without exception by critics as masterpieces in the genre. But a face-to-face meeting with this woman obliterates this impression almost...
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SOURCE: "The Queen of Crime: P. D. James," in New York Times Magazine, October 5, 1986, pp. 48-50, 54, 58, 60, 70.
[In the following essay, Symons discusses James's new book, A Taste for Death, and talks to the author about her life and writing in the detective genre.]
The bodies were discovered at eight forty-five on the morning of Wednesday 18 September by Miss Emily Wharton, a sixty-five-year-old spinster of the parish of St Matthew's in Paddington, London, and Darren Wilkes, aged ten.
These are the opening lines of P. D. James's new book, A Taste for Death, and they are typical of her work in their factual exactness, their brisk presentation of what we need to know about two characters who are there not just to discover corpses. The bodies, of a tramp and a Minister of Parliament, are in the Little Vestry of the church. The scene is horrific, the room a shambles, blood everywhere. And it is all garishly lit by the long fluorescent tube that disfigures the Little Vestry's ceiling. Brightening the blood, making the figures seem unreal, the ghastly light is the particular P. D. James touch that makes the reader shudder a little.
A Taste for Death is the longest, most ambitious and the best of Phyllis James's 10 novels. Her first, Cover Her Face, was written 25 years ago under the influence of the work of...
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SOURCE: "The Unfinished Detective: The Work of P. D. James," in Critique, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Summer, 1987, pp. 211-23.
[In the following essay, Maxfield analyzes the character of Cordelia Gray and asserts that at the end of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, there is still room for growth of the character.]
The adult's ego … continues to defend itself against dangers which no longer exist in reality; indeed, it finds itself compelled to seek out those situations in reality which can serve as an approximate substitute for the original danger, so as to be able to justify, in relation to them, its maintaining its habitual modes of reaction. (Sigmund Freud)
My father was not disposed to educate girls. (P. D. James)
P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is probably the best known of her nine mystery novels because of its unusual conception of the detective protagonist. First published in 1972, An Unsuitable Job appeared to many of its early readers to be a feminist breakthrough. The heroine, Cordelia Gray, follows a profession hitherto reserved almost exclusively to males: lone-wolf, private detective. The prevailing critical interpretation of the novel seems to hold that Cordelia triumphantly demonstrates her ability to function successfully at a job not previously deemed suitable to women. Carolyn...
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SOURCE: "'Sweet Thames, Run Softly': P. D. James's Waste Land in A Taste for Death," in Clues: A Journal of Detection, Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall-Winter, 1988, pp. 105-18.
[In the following essay, Richardson delineates the common symbolism and imagery between T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and James's A Taste for Death and asserts that work is still meaningful to readers who do not recognize the influence.]
The considerable popular success of P. D. James's A Taste for Death defies current conventions of detective and suspense publishing. A Taste for Death is 459 pages in hard-cover edition at a time when detective novels more often are between 170 and 230 pages. The writing is literate, and it is literary: the novel teems with allusions to literature and other arts. Of violence there is little and of explicit sex, none.
The reader sees the slaughtered bodies of Sir Paul Berowne and tramp Harry Mack but sees them distanced through the shocked eyes of an aging spinster; at the end of the novel, an old woman's death is graphically shown. Thwarted personality development, including sexual development, leads to the multiple murders, but the reader must figure that out for herself or himself. And that is all. How, then, does James produce a work that for many weeks appeared on the New York Times list of best sellers, that is sold in supermarkets and...
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SOURCE: "The City as Mosaic: P. D. James," in A Female Vision of the City: London in the Novels of Five British Women, University of Tennessee Press, 1989, pp. 152-87.
[In the following essay, Sizemore analyzes the role of London, with its mosaic of villages and people, in James's fiction, especially A Taste for Death and Innocent Blood.]
A strong sub-genre of urban fiction is the detective novel. Throughout the twentieth century, women writers have infiltrated this seemingly "masculine" genre. Among contemporary writers, P. D. James, in particular, presents a complex portrait of the city as a mosaic in her detective stories and her novel Innocent Blood. The city in these works is an intricate picture built up out of many small pieces. But the mosaic is not only an image of the city in these works; it is also the method of a detective or mystery novel. From the point of view of the detective, it is not just a question of putting together pieces of a puzzle, because the picture has not yet been created. The detective must create it by fitting together the small pieces available. The pieces which P. D. James' detectives must use to create their picture of the city are London's "villages," all the districts of London that must be connected together to form a coherent whole.
The concept of London as a collection of villages echoes throughout P. D. James' works. In Unnatural...
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SOURCE: "Hanging Out With Higgins," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 23, December 7, 1989, pp. 18-9.
[In the following excerpt, Wood asserts that James's Devices and Desires "is a thriller and a detective novel."]
P. D. James's new novel[, Devices and Desires,] seems to return us straight to Auden's theology [as set out is his essay 'The Guilty Vicarage' in which he asserts that thrillers are more serious than detective fiction]. It is set in rural East Anglia, and takes its title from the Anglican prayer book: 'We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.' A psychopath called the Whistler is on the loose, killing young women. Then the haughty and handsome female administrator of a nuclear power station is murdered. Has the Whistler struck again, or has he found a disciple? Suspects include several scientists at the power station, a retired schoolmistress, a writer of cookery books, a protester against the use of nuclear energy, a secretary who has secretly joined an international terrorist organisation, and, marginally, Adam Dalgliesh, James's poet-detective, who has just inherited an old mill in the area, and is awkwardly close to several of these people. The book ends in a brilliant train of misdeductions and evasions, and an explicit contrast with the work of H. R. F. Keating, standing in...
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SOURCE: "A Detective in Spite of Himself," in New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1990, pp. 1, 31.
[In the following review, Crist lauds James's vivid characters, evocation of place, and risk-taking in Devices and Desires.]
Her newest mystery, Devices and Desires, is P. D. James at better than her best.
That this British writer has long transcended classification as a writer of books of mystery and detection goes without saying. That she is a first-class novelist has come clear over some 30 years and is reaffirmed by her 11th work. What "gives any mystery writer the claim to be regarded as a serious novelist," she wrote in 1983, is "the power to create [a] sense of place and to make it as real to the reader as his own living room—and then to people it with characters who are suffering men and women, not stereotypes to be knocked down like dummies in the final chapter." By hewing to this standard with literary flair and an eye as perceptive as her heart, she has established primacy in her field.
P. D. James has placed herself in the tradition of Wilkie Collins, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham, but my own thought is that if Anthony Trollope or George Eliot or Miss James's own beloved Jane Austen had turned a hand to murder or mystery, she would have her heredity. She offers her readers the satisfactions of an artfully constructed, beautifully written...
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SOURCE: "Crime and Puzzlement," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVII, No. 7, April 26, 1990, pp. 35-7.
[In the following review, Mantel complains that the detective genre is too confining for James's talent.]
February 1990: the literary editor of a British newspaper writes to The Spectator, protesting about what he sees as an elitist stranglehold on literary prizes. "Booker judges have ignored the merits of authors like William Boyd, Graham Greene, P. D. James." The reader who does not keep up with the politics of the review columns might well be puzzled. Doesn't P. D. James write best-selling detective stories? What is she doing in the company of Greene? When did the categories of fiction become so confused?
Those commentators who would elevate James's books to the status of literary novels point to her painstakingly constructed characters, her elaborate settings, her sense of place, and her love of abstractions: notions about morality and duty, pain and pleasure, are never far from the lips of her policemen, victims, and murderers. Others find her pretentious and tiresome; an inverted snobbery accuses her of abandoning the time-honored conventions of the genre in favor of fancy up-market stuff. Writing in The Spectator (October 7, 1989) Harriet Waugh wants P. D. James to get on with "the more taxing business of laying a tricky trail and then fooling the reader";...
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SOURCE: "Barren Earth," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 5, No. 221, September 25, 1992, p. 55.
[In the following review, Hughes praises the first part of James's The Children of Men as "fascinating stuff," but complains that the narrative of the second section "begins to droop."]
The Children of Men is P. D. James' first attempt to move outside the detective novel, a literary form that she has done so much to rehabilitate over the past ten years. It's interesting, therefore, that for this most significant of forays she chose another well-defined genre in which to work. The whole point about a dystopia is that it presents us with a nightmare vision of the future in order to warn about disturbing trends in the present. This is where The Children of Men succeeds magnificently. The year is 2021. In a clever reversal of the usual Malthusian armageddon, the population is drastically on the decline. No children have been born for 25 years and, despite the three-monthly compulsory sperm and gynae checks, it seems unlikely that any ever will.
To fill the aching void, kittens and dolls are fussed over, baptised and snatched from their prams by would-be "mothers". Meanwhile, an ever-increasing number of old people keep their heads down in a desperate hope of dodging the Quietus: the state-organised mass suicide whose benign rituals fail to offer comfort or meaning....
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SOURCE: "O Brave New World, That Has No People In't!" in New York Times Book Review, March 28, 1993, p. 23.
[In the following review, Wangerin discusses the two adventures in James's The Children of Men.]
On New Year's Day, 2021, "the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl." He was 25. It has been 25 years since a global disease rendered all human sperm infertile, 25 years, therefore, since any baby has been born to bear the future of humankind. The same day marks the 50th birthday of Theodore Faron, doctor of philosophy. On this day he begins to keep a journal as a "small additional defense against personal accidie."
With such swift strokes P. D. James establishes the central premise of her new novel, The Children of Men. There follow two worthy adventures for Miss James, for her protagonist and for the thoughtful reader:
The first concerns final efforts at saving this race, the people, us. The first adventure exemplifies what has always made Miss James's detective fiction structured and strong: story. But Theodore Faron's real story—the sequence of events that drives toward a conclusion that must succeed, or else all fails—is slow to start. Not till Chapter Six does Faron meet the woman, Julian, who will involve him and us in plots. And even then things unfold slowly. Faron is not easily persuaded to crack his...
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SOURCE: "The Decline and Fall of the Human Race," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 4, 1993, p. 12.
[In the following review, Sallis argues that James fails in her intentions in The Children of Men.]
There is but one liberty: to come to terms with death, Camus wrote, after which all things are possible.
It is not individual death that James confronts in her new novel[, The Children of Men,] but the potential death of the human race itself. Suddenly, mysteriously, humankind has stopped bearing children. Values have collapsed. Apathy blankets what activity remains.
There is, of course, no art; museums and all our grand ambitions stand unattended; government-sponsored porn shops attempt to flog what sexual, creative drive lies dormant. "Human mules deprived of posterity," men and women endure the rag ends of their lives. Women push dolls in elaborate prams about the streets; men preserve what empty social forms they can. In a few the sense of despair is so great that they ally themselves to horrendously doomed causes.
The stage is set, then; we are prepared for a sweeping, perhaps ultimately poetic evocation of mankind's twilight, something in the vein of Stapledon, or of George Stewart's Earth Abides.
What would society be like, what might it become, or unbecome, under absolute sentence of death? Able to pass...
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SOURCE: "On the Case of the Baroness," in Observer Review, October 16, 1994, p. 19.
[In the following interview, Kellaway discusses with James setting, the enjoyment of detective fiction, and research.]
In P D James's outstanding new novel, Original Sin, set in London, she writes about buildings with detailed attention, as if they were suspects. Her imagination is a zealous architect. Original Sin is dominated by a stupendous, white pseudo-Venetian edifice by the Thames, occupied by a publishing company and called, with stark irony, Innocent House. She says: 'Houses betray character so clearly, they really do.'
Her house in Holland Park, built in 1830, is grand and green with white slatted shutters, a square, reliable face with a faded burglar alarm on the wall. Baroness James of Holland Park is small, vigorously intelligent and benign (she addresses me soothingly as 'dear').
We settle in her sitting room on a sofa, upholstered in linen, in a leafy beige-and-green William Morris design. In the infrequent pauses in the conversation, I try to apply P D James's own methods to her sitting room—an autumnal room full of antiques. I scribble particulars: a red-and-gold mirror, imitation primroses popping cheekily out of a box, a solitaire board with plain glass marbles; two Staffordshire dogs on the mantelpiece, noses sniffily held high.
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SOURCE: "The Fast River and the Tranquil Lake," in Observer Review, October 23, 1994, p. 20.
[In the following essay, Gerrard contrasts the work of P. D. James and Walter Mosley, focusing on her Original Sin and his Black Betty.]
Baroness P D James writes novels that are like reservoirs: pleasant, contained, uninfested, damned up, with the occasional controlled trickle of water releasing pressure. Walter Mosley writes novels that are like fast rivers: out of control, dirty with the discharges of human lives, flooding and parching with the seasons, rushing to a polluted sea. In P D James's fiction, bodies are fished out of the water, which then resumes its customary tranquillity. In Walter Mosley's, corpses are tugged past on swollen rapids, irrecoverable and part of the tide in the affairs of men.
She's white, English, Conservative and conservative. He's black, American, radical and with the dubious blessing of being President Clinton's favourite living writer. She writes old-fashioned detective stories of order disrupted then restored, which are essentially and wonderfully reassuring. He writes ragged thrillers in which domestic violence and political corruption are the norms.
She uses the language of the Prayer Book and Palgrave's Golden Treasury. He turns to the language of the street, sing-song patois of despair. Her settings are vaulty...
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SOURCE: "Look, No Handcuffs," in Spectator, October 29, 1994, pp. 39, 41.
[In the following review, Waugh lauds James for "deliver[ing] a tightly woven plot, with no unnecessary digressions" in Original Sin.]
What a relief! The mooning poet, uninterested in murder, of Devices and Desires, is hardly glimpsed in P. D. James' new novel, Original Sin. Instead she delivers a tightly woven plot, with no unnecessary digressions.
Chief Inspector Adam Dalgleish and his team are called in to investigate the death of Gerard Etienne, the good-looking, hard-nosed chairman of the old-fashioned, privately owned publishing house. Peverell Press. It is not initially clear (except to the reader who can see it coming) whether Gerard's death is murder or accident, although Dalgleish does know that the firm is already contending with the suicide of one of its editors and a malicious practical joker out to embarrass the company and make it look incompetent. To temporary secretary Mandy Price (who is the unlucky discoverer of two of the four bodies that punctuate the narrative), her fellow employees seemed an odd bunch right from the start. The Peverell Press, founded in 1792, is housed in Innocent House, a mock Venetian palace on the Thames at Wapping. The chairman, Henry Peverell, has just died and his partner, a reclusive hero of the French Resistance, Jean-Philippe Etienne, has retired to...
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SOURCE: "Death and Dire Doings?: Time to Call Dalgliesh," in New York Times Book Review, February 2, 1995, p. C17.
[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt complains that James's Original Sin contains too much clutter and irrelevant descriptions.]
The touch of symbolism is not gentle in Original Sin, P. D. James's latest mystery featuring Comdr. Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard. At the story's opening, Mandy Price, a young temporary typist, rides her motorbike to work at The Peverell Press, a venerable London publishing firm situated in a mock-Venetian palace on the Thames called Innocent House.
When Mandy arrives, she is taken upstairs by Claudia Etienne, a senior executive, to fetch a tape recording that needs transcribing. Miss Etienne pushes open the door to the archive room. As the text then reads:
The stink rolled out to meet out to meet them like an evil wraith, the familiar smell of vomit, not strong but so unexpected that Mandy instinctively recoiled. Over Miss Etienne's shoulder her eyes took in at once a small room with an uncarpeted wooden floor, a square table to the right of the door and a single high window. Under the window was a narrow divan bed and on the bed sprawled a woman.
It had needed no smell to tell Mandy that she was looking at death.
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SOURCE: "The Snake in the Archives," in New York Times Book Review, April 2, 1995, p. 11.
[In the following review, Malone praises James's Original Sin as a well-written mystery novel.]
The latest novel from P. D. James, Original Sin, is a portrait of Peverell Press, a venerable London publisher situated in Innocent House, a mock Venetian palace on the bank of the Thames. It is a complex, compelling novel with a murder investigation for a plot. Those who admire the book are likely to say it is "more than a mystery," but this fine novel needs no such excuses. How useful can our definition of the murder mystery be if every well-written instance must be praised by saying it "transcends the genre"? It is a porous form indeed if it can stretch from Charlie Chan to Crime and Punishment, and can include among its practitioners authors as various as Mickey Spillane and the stately Baroness James of Holland Park.
Original Sin does not zip by (the first murder is not revealed until a hundred pages into the story), but flows along in 19th-century style, wide, deep, magisterial, like the Thames that so atmospherically fills its pages. Indeed, as in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, the Thames becomes a powerful character in this novel. It serves not only to transport the players, hide the bodies and expose the secrets, but to place this narrative quite consciously...
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SOURCE: "Publish and Perish," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 9, 1995, p. 13.
[In the following review, Ward compares the publishing world portrayed by James in Original Sin to that portrayed by Zev Chavets in The Bookmakers, and discusses how the two books work as narratives.]
As we travel dazed, anxious and weary-eyed in our airbagged, steel-reinforced luxury cars down the blurry Information Superhighway, authors continue to do their less than fashionable job of measuring what will be lost in the new age of the megabyte and sound bite. Writers remain, thank old outdated God, exasperatingly human. They are going to have their own idiosyncratic emotions about the new age, and they are going to be stubborn and old-fashioned enough to actually write (the fools!) about all this. Some scribes are going to deal with it all head on, like the Cyberpunk gang (see William Gibson or my own favorite, Neal Stevenson), but others, like the two writers we consider here, will see the historical opportunity to write about the lost world of literature and the death of publishing as a moral force in the world … in the popular form of the crime novel.
Neither the English writer P. D. James nor the American Zev Chavets is being drawn gently into this particular good night. Though Original Sin and The Bookmakers couldn't be any more different stylistically, they...
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SOURCE: "The Psychos Are Nicer Than the Lawyers. So It's True to Life on that Score," in Observer Review, October 5, 1997, p. 16.
[In the following review, Robertson asserts that James's fans will not be disappointed with A Certain Justice.]
'Come off it, Piers! Oxford degree in theology? You're not a typical copper.' 'Do I have to be? Do you have to be?' Not in a P. D. James novel, you don't. This is the place where all our policeman are wonderful. [In A Certain Justice,] Inspector Piers the theologian and the deeply sensitive Constable Kate (who missed her vocation as a Jungian analyst) are helping our published poet Commander Dalgleish, the Yard's philosopher-in-residence, to crack a murder in the Temple. It is coppers like these (and Morse, of course) who make English detective novels so inherently unbelievable. But they read well, nonetheless. Since P. D. James is such a fine writer, does reality matter?
In this book more than most, perhaps it does. The plot is set so concretely in the legal profession—the Chambers rather than the Firm—that it invites comparison with Grisham and Turow and the American realist school of crime fiction, where gritty storytelling holds attention precisely because it does have the ring of truth (whatever it lacks in literary quality). Sadly, this novel's allegedly contemporary lawyers are set in a time-warp, somewhere between the Notable...
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SOURCE: "Who Caused the Deaths and What the Deaths Caused," in Spectator, Vol. 279, No. 8829, October 18, 1997, p. 48.
[In the following excerpt, Waugh praises James's A Certain Justice.]
P. D. James was an eminent civil servant during much of her writing life. I do not know whether it was on retirement from her job that a secret rebellion took place against the way the system works here, but it is odd that since she wrote A Taste for Death, published in 1986, no murderer of hers has had to face a jury of his peers in a criminal court or sweat it out behind bars. This could, of course, come out of a belief in good civil service economy. It is the taxpayer, after all, who finances the criminal justice system. So, instead, she dispenses with all that, and has her murderers die rather melodramatically. Oddly, this seems to give their deaths a sameness. Occasionally murderers remain unpunished:
Console yourself with the thought that all human justice is necessarily imperfect and that it is better for a useful man to continue to be useful than spend years in gaol,
one of them, who is not a danger to society, says to Dalgliesh. Could he be speaking for the author? Personally, I am shocked by the amoral pragmatism shown by Mrs James about the fates she bestows on her law-breakers. Despite this, admirers of her novels (amongst whom I...
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SOURCE: "Going Postal," in New York Times Book Review, December 7, 1997, p. 26.
[In the following review, Macintyre states that James resolves the plot in A Certain Justice, but ends the novel with moral and emotional questions left unanswered.]
For her latest murderous mise en scene, [A Certain Justice,] P. D. James takes us to a set of lawyers' chambers in London's Middle Temple, the heart of the English legal establishment, a closed and comfortable world encrusted with centuries of respectability, precedent and reasoned argument. There we find Venetia Aldridge, a celebrated and widely detested barrister, propped at her desk with a neat hole in her heart left by a letter opener, a sharpened replica of the sword of justice; on her head is a judge's horsehair wig dripping with fresh blood that, it swiftly becomes apparent, does not come from the veins of the late and unlamented Venetia Aldridge.
This macabre montage is vintage James: the language of ancient place and tradition—temples, chambers, oak paneling, afternoon tea—colliding with a grisly modern murder, inexplicably staged and defying logic. Here are intimations of desecration, of calm outward lives torn apart by inner violence: the genteel juxtaposed with the gruesome.
There are few more English writers than Baroness James of Holland Park. "The English … obviously regarded praying...
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SOURCE: "Inside the Locked Room," in New York Review of Books, February 5, 1998, pp. 19-21.
[In the following review, Oates traces several of James's novels and praises her A Certain Justice.]
So it is here at last, the distinguished thing!
—Henry James, on his deathbed
Henry James's famous final words might be the epigraph for the literary genre we call mystery/detective. In these usually tightly plotted, formulaic novels a corpse is often discovered as soon as the reader opens the book:
The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast. It was the body of a middle-aged man, a dapper little cadaver, its shroud a dark pin-striped suit which fitted the narrow body as elegantly in death as it had in life…. He had dressed with careful orthodoxy for the town, this hapless voyager; not for this lonely sea; nor for this death.
—P. D. James, Unnatural Causes (1967)
On the morning of Bernie Pryde's death—or it may have been the morning after, since Bernie died at his own convenience, nor did he think the estimated time of his departure worth recording—Cordelia was caught in a breakdown of the Bakerloo Line outside Lambeth North and was half an hour late at the office....
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Gidez, Richard B. "Selected Bibliography." In his P. D. James, pp. 148-51. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.
Contains a listing of sources by and about P. D. James.
Siebenheller, Norma. "Bibliography." In her P. D. James, pp. 145-49. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981.
Contains a listing of sources by and about P. D. James.
Campbell, Sue Ellen. "The Detective Heroine and the Death of Her Hero: From Dorothy Sayers to P. D. James." Modern Fiction Studies 29, No. 3 (Autumn 1983): 497-510.
Discusses the development of the detective heroine in the work of P. D. James and Dorothy Sayers.
Cooper-Clark, Diana. "Interview with P. D. James." Designs of Darkness.
Discusses with P. D. James the genre of detective fiction, the themes in her work, and her approach to writing.
D'Erasmo, Stacey. Review of Devices and Desires. Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 84 (April 1990): 10.
Presents the main questions James presents in Devices and Desires.
Ericson, Carl E. Review of A Taste...
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