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.
Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford, England, on August 3, 1920. She graduated from Cambridge High School for Girls in 1937. She was married to Ernest C. B. White, a medical practitioner, from August 8, 1941, until his death in 1964. She worked as a hospital administrator from 1949 to 1968 and as a civil servant in the Department of Home Affairs, London, from 1968 to 1972. From 1972 until her retirement in 1979, she was a senior civil servant in the crime department. Since her retirement from the Home Office, James has served as a magistrate in London and as a governor of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Although she began her career as a novelist rather late in life, by 2008 James had authored eighteen mysteries, most of which had been adapted for broadcast on television. In addition, her heroine Cordelia Gray was featured in a series of television dramas—not adapted from stories actually written by James—produced under the overall title An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.
The temperament informing James’s fiction seems to be a conservative one, but she has stated that she belongs to no political party. Although not overtly a Christian writer, James, a longtime member of the Church of England, frequently touches on religious themes in her fiction. This tendency is more marked in the later novels and is reflected in several of the works’ titles.
James has been the recipient of numerous literary prizes and other honors. In 1991, she was created Baroness James of Holland Park. Since she received her peerage, her political conservatism has become somewhat more apparent in her work. Lady James is the mother of two daughters and has five grandchildren. She divides her time between homes in Oxford, her place of birth, and London, the city so intimately and lovingly described in her fiction.
Born in Oxford, England, on August 3, 1920, Phyllis Dorothy James attended Cambridge Girls School from 1931 to 1937, then clerked in a tax office for a few years until she found more interesting work as assistant stage manager of the Festival Theatre in Cambridge. She later was a Red Cross nurse during World War II and an assistant at the Ministry of Food. James married Ernest White, and the couple had two daughters, Clare and Jane. When White returned from the war, he was a severe schizophrenic and was permanently institutionalized, forcing James to provide for her family.
Thus, in 1946, James began her long civil service career, first as a National Health Service clerk and then, after earning diplomas in hospital administration and medical research, as a principal administrative assistant with the North West Regional Hospital Board in London. The latter position provided her with the detailed knowledge of illness, aging, and institutions that makes her novels authentic and credible. At forty-two, James published Cover Her Face (1962) and was immediately recognized as a major crime novelist.
James’s husband died in 1964. Four years later, she took the highly competitive Home Office exams and became a senior civil servant in the criminal department, specializing in juvenile delinquency and criminal law policy. This position, which she held until she retired in 1979, provided her with a working familiarity of forensic science laboratory routines, police procedures, and law. It also helped her understand the juvenile mind, depicted so effectively in Innocent Blood (1980) and Devices and Desires (1989). In 1979, she began writing full time but continued to serve as a fellow of the Institute of Hospital Administrators and as a London magistrate.
James was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1983, taught a detective fiction course at Boston University’s Metropolitan College in 1984, and became Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991, an honor that heightened her desire for community involvement. In addition, James received the Grandmaster Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1999. On her eightieth birthday she published her autobiography, Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography (2000). She was awarded the W. H. Smith Literary Award for Death in Holy Orders (2001), the British Book Awards Crime Thriller of the Year for The Murder Room (2003), and the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award for The Lighthouse (2005).
P. D. James’s novels are realistic studies of the hidden realities of the soul that compel forbidden acts of violence and murder. Yet despite their grim, clinical detail and their cynical, uncompromising study of behavior, they postulate, in sophisticated, literate prose, the civilizing influence of daily domestic acts and of art, architecture, poetry, and song.
A sense of irony and of existential absurdity lies behind James’s depiction of a civilized English facade that crumbles only slightly in the face of multiple murders by seemingly decent human beings. Her characters are three-dimensional, living and suffering in an imperfect world, one in which evil is a tangible reality and in which the diseased, the dying, and the maladjusted are simply part of what one of her characters calls the “progressive incurable disease” that is life. James’s genuine curiosity about human nature and motivations is sensitive to the density of human experience and the nuances that govern lives. She coldly dissects character and act but communicates understanding and compassion for frailty. Her knowledgeable treatment of technical procedure and forensics and her meticulously detailed descriptions of place are entirely convincing. As the Queen of Crime, James has made her crime novels uniquely effective studies of human interaction and psychology, setting very high standards for other practitioners attempting to write not simply detective fiction but true literature.