P. D. James’s novels are intricately plotted, as successful novels of detection must be. Through her use of extremely well-delineated characters and a wealth of minute and accurate details, however, she never allows her plot to distort the other aspects of her novel. In this meticulous attention to detail, James writes in the tradition of Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, and the nineteenth century realists. She is the acknowledged master of characterization among contemporary mystery writers. She also creates a very powerful sense of place. Because the characterizations and setting of a James novel are so fully explored, it tends to be considerably longer than the ordinary murder mystery. This fact, along with Dalgliesh’s increasingly distant presence in the midst of so many other deeply nuanced and compelling characters, accounts for what little adverse criticism her work has received. Some critics have suggested that the detail is so profuse that the general reader may eventually grow impatient—that the pace of the narrative is too leisurely. These objections from a few contemporary critics further attest to James’s affinity with the novelists of the nineteenth century. Quite a few of her novels have been adapted for television, with as much fidelity to the depth and psychological complexity of the original works as possible.
Although P. D. James is known principally as a novelist, she is also a short-story writer and a playwright. The great bulk of James’s work is in the form of the longnarrative, but her short fiction has found a wide audience through its publication in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and other popular periodicals. It is generally agreed that James requires the novel form to show her literary strengths to best advantage. Still, short stories such as“The Victim” reveal in microcosm the dominant theme of the long works. James’s lone play, A Private Treason, was first produced in London on March 12, 1985. In 2000, her eightieth year, Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography, her second work of nonfiction, appeared.
P. D. James’s first novel, Cover Her Face, did not appear until 1962, at which time the author was in her early forties. Acceptance of James as a major crime novelist, however, grew very quickly. 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. In the novels that have followed, James has shown an increasing mastery of the labyrinthine murder-and-detection plot. This mastery is the feature of her work that most appeals to one large group of her readers, while a second group of readers would single out the subtlety and psychological validity of her characterizations. Critics have often remarked that James, more than almost any other modern mystery writer, has succeeded in overcoming the limitations of the genre. In addition, she has created one of the more memorable descendants of Sherlock Holmes. Like Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, James’s Adam Dalgliesh is a sleuth whose personality is more interesting than his skill in detection.
Every P. D. James mystery novel includes red herrings—distractions that lead investigators away from the central crime. In a James novel you have read, identify two red herrings and explain how they distract.
Choose a novel, like Death in Holy Orders or The Murder Room, in which teamwork is important to solving the mystery. What division of labor takes place, and what key pieces of evidence do individual members contribute?
Despite such teamwork, personality differences and competition create tensions, like those between Kate Miskin and Francis Benton-Smith. Choose two such members of Dalgliesh’s team, provide evidence of such tension, and explain the reason for it.
In The Children of Men, which particular government rules or actions do the rebels protest against? Why?
In your favorite James mystery novel, enumerate the pieces of information that lead to the identification of the murderer.
Theodore Faron in The Children of Men carries Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) around with him, and Austen is Inspector Dalgliesh’s favorite author. Select one way in which a later James novel, such as The Murder Room, echoes an Austen novel and explain how.
How does Kate Miskin change as a character from A Taste for Death to The Murder Room? Cite a couple of changes and illustrate them.
Bakerman, Jane S. “Cordelia Gray: Apprentice and Archetype.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 5 (Spring/Summer, 1984): 101-114. A study of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which discusses James’s female detective as the heroine of a Bildungsroman, or apprenticeship novel.
Barber, Lynn. “The Cautious Heart of P. D. James.” Vanity Fair 56 (March, 1993): 80. A profile of James in her seventies—commercially successful, titled, and highly honored as a literary craftsman. Includes a contemporary portrait of the novelist.
Benstock, Bernard. “The Clinical World of P. D. James.” In Twentieth-Century Women Novelists, vol. 16, edited by Thomas F. Staley. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1982. Discusses James’s use of setting, her narrative technique, and the relationship between the two.
Gidez, Richard B. P. D. James. Boston: Twayne, 1986. An entry in Twayne’s English Authors series. Chapter 1 examines James’s place within the tradition of the English mystery novel. Chapters 2 through 10 discuss in chronological order her first nine novels. Chapter 11 is devoted to her handful of short stories, and chapter 12 summarizes her work through The Skull Beneath the Skin.
Herbert, Rosemary. The Fatal Art of Entertainment: Interviews with Mystery Writers. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Interview discusses her writing style and habits, the nature of detective fiction, and her personal life.
Horsley, Katherine, and Lee Horsley. “Mères Fatales: Maternal Guilt in the Noir Crime Novel.” Modern Fiction Studies 45, no. 2 (1999): 369-402. Looks at the representations of mothers in noir novels written by women; analyzes Innocent Blood.
Hubly, Erlene. “Adam Dalgliesh: Byronic Hero.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 3 (Fall/Winter, 1982): 40-46. The brooding Dalgliesh, aloof, often forbidding, constantly bearing the pain of a deep tragedy in his personal life, has often been likened to the heroes of nineteenth century Romantic fiction. Hubly’s article treats the appropriateness of this comparison.
James, P. D. Time to Be...
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