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."