In the decades since the publication of her first book, Cover Her Face, P. D. James has become one of the mystery genre’s most popular and critically acclaimed writers, considered by many to be the heir apparent to such enduring figures as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Yet while James uses the conventions of the traditional British murder mystery—a murder or series of murders, a detective, and a group of suspects, each with a possible motive—her novels are more firmly grounded in reality than those of either of her predecessors. Drawing on her earlier career as a hospital administrator and her work in a forensic laboratory and the British government’s Criminal Policy Department, James gives her books a level of realistic detail that separates them from the cozy, comfortable tone of many classic mysteries.
Phyllis Dorothy James is the daughter of Sidney James, an employee of the Inland Revenue office, and his wife Dorothy. James was educated at the Cambridge High School for Girls and at the age of sixteen went to work, like her father, in a tax office. After a brief stint as a stage manager at the Cambridge Festival Theatre, she married Ernest Conner Bantry White in 1941.
White, a physician, returned from his service in World War II with severe psychological problems. His young wife became the sole support of the family, which by that time included two daughters. Over the next thirty-five years, James worked at various times as a medical administrator in hospitals and forensic laboratories, a senior-level police department employee, and a London magistrate. Although her first novel was published in 1962 and her husband died in 1964, it was not until 1979 that she retired and began writing full-time.
The majority of James’s mysteries feature Scotland Yard investigator Adam Dagliesh. Unlike the amateur detectives favored by many crime writers, Dagliesh is a professional,...
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