P. D. James James, P. D. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

P. D. James with Jane S. Bakerman (interview date January 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Erlene Hubly (essay date Fall-Winter 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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P. D. James with Rosemary Herbert (interview date Fall 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julian Symons (essay date 5 October 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James F. Maxfield (essay date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Betty Richardson (essay date Fall-Winter 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christine Wick Sizemore (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Michael Wood (review date 7 December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Judith Crist (review date 28 January 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Hilary Mantel (review date 26 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?...

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Kathryn Hughes (review date 25 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Walter Wangerin, Jr. (review date 28 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."


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James Sallis (review date 4 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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P. D. James with Kate Kellaway (interview date 16 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Nicci Gerrard (essay date 23 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Harriet Waugh (review date 29 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 2 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Malone (review date 2 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Ward (review date 9 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Geoffrey Robertson (review date 5 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Harriet Waugh (review date 18 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ben Macintyre (review date 7 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joyce Carol Oates (review date 5 February 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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