P. D. James James, P(hyllis) D(orothy) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James, P(hyllis) D(orothy) 1920–

James is a British crime novelist. Characters and locales are painstakingly described in her fiction that is often compared to that of Dorothy L. Sayers. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Cover Her Face"] is a literate and not unpromising first novel, but modeled firmly upon the detective story of 30 years ago at its dullest. No forward plot, nothing but 80,000 words of relentless (and non-procedural) investigation leading to the final assembly of all the characters and the unbelievable confession…. When I keep urging a return to the formal detective story, this is not what I mean.

Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large: 'Cover Her Face'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 24, 1966, p. 29.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To prove that the British mystery in the grand [Dorothy] Sayers line is not altogether dead, there is P. D. James's "Shroud For a Nightingale."… Mrs. James works in the old tradition. She takes all the time in the world to establish her plot, her people and her locale. False clues are liberally seeded. The author goes into the background of the characters. Some are literate in the best British tradition….

Mrs. James's style is ultracivilized, and "Shroud for a Nightingale" would be hard to overpraise. If her Adam Dalgliesh keeps up the good work, we will have a figure to take the place of the late Mr. Campion and—who knows—even Lord Peter.

Newgate Callendar, "Criminals at Large: 'Shroud for a Nightingale'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 16, 1972, p. 42.

John Welcome

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss P. D. James is the leading present-day practitioner of the feminine character novel that is also a detective story.

By and large she is, indeed, the only member of her clan who has substantial claims to rank alongside [Dorothy] Sayers and [Margery] Allingham. She writes and plots, usually, with a gem-like clarity that compels both attention and admiration. Unfortunately in [An Unsuitable Job For a Woman] the gem is flawed. Private detection is indeed no job for the dear little thing who is employed to uncover the motives behind the apparent suicide of a likeable dropout. The atmosphere of suspicion and brooding violence surrounding a Cambridge clique of trendy youths is excellently conveyed, the background and switching scenes are handled with the same impeccable skill as ever. One is about to hail a minor masterpiece of the genre when, suddenly, the whole carefully constructed edifice collapses into an unlikely solution and an unsatisfactory aftermath. It looks, for once, like too-hasty plotting and one has, too, the horrible suspicion that Miss James is about to commit the cardinal sin of falling in love with her great detective. Let her beware and take thought of Miss Sayers who did just that and neither she nor Wimsey were ever the same afterwards.

John Welcome, "Quick and the Dead," in The Spectator (© 1972 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 229, No. 7539, December 23, 1972, p. 1011.

Jean White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An Unsuitable Job for a Woman] shows what a suitable job it is for P. D. James to be a mystery writer. Her fifth book honorably carries on the tradition of the classic English mystery—literate, intelligent, with shrewdly observed characters and sound plotting—as she deals with contemporary university students during a summer at Cambridge, and the puzzling suicide of a young man….

P. D. James is a mystery novelist of substance, an acute observer of scene and character, and she writes with style.

Jean White, "With Intent to Kill," in Book World—The Washington Post (copyright © 1973 The Washington Post Company), April 15, 1973, p. 12.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Trouble with really good writers is that they sometimes can get so involved with techniques and style that they tend to forget the raison d'être of the crime novel. So it is with "The Black Tower."… Mrs. James is an exceedingly good writer, and her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, is one of the more unusual ones in action today. Nevertheless, "The Black Tower" is so slow-moving that it will try the patience of most readers—and that has to be the besetting sin of a crime novel.

In "The Black Tower," Dalgliesh is recovering from a serious illness. He is on a convalescent holiday when an old friend dies. There are curious circumstances; there are poison-pen letters; there is a missing diary; and there is unfortunately almost a total lack of action for a good half of the book. It's heavy going, and one says this with some sorrow, for P. D. James is one of the better writers of mystery stories. Such previous books of hers as "Shroud for a Nightingale" are minor classics.

Newgate Callendar, "Criminals at Large: 'The Black Tower'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 23, 1975, p. 52.

Robin W. Winks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[P. D.] James's Death of an Expert Witness is quite possibly her best book: certainly the characters are the most credible, the writing is the most controlled (after a slight lapse in The Black Tower), and the sense of rhythm is the most subtle. There is an unexplained red herring early on and the reader is told a little too clearly that the solution is buried in the past, in a scene in which a scientific officer examines a coerolith, the skeleton of a microorganism from ancient seas now found in the chalk of East Anglia. But all else is perfect….

Adam Dalgliesh is a sensitive, keenly intelligent officer from Scotland Yard whose growth is palpable from book to book; he is also a poet,...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Thomas Lask

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

P. D. James's first omnibus volume ["Crime Times Three: 'Cover Her Face', 'A Mind to Murder' and 'Shroud For a Nightingale'"] will make clear why this English writer is cutting such a sure and distinctive way in a crowded field. Her style is what we think of as typically British. Her writing is ample, leisurely and full of loving descriptions of house and countryside. There is, in fact, a certain 19th-century ease to her books, as if she were inviting the reader to settle down near the fire and enjoy a good long read. Her people are educated, voluble and articulate. They speak faultless English; there is no low life in these pages, no conventional heists take place, no cheap killing merely for gain.

"Would you like to see the garden?" a character in "A Mind to Murder" asks Adam Dalgliesh, who is there to question her about a murder. "The light is fading, but we might just have time." Nor does the detective think it incongruous to enjoy the rose garden, with its hedges of yew and hawthorn and beech, while investigating a homicide. Nor is the effect lost on the reader as the two talk of murder in this lovely pastoral setting.

Equally, events are never so dire or matters so pressing that time cannot be taken for tea. In the middle of the most serious probings, one person is sure to say, "I'll make some tea." And rightly so. Making tea is one of mankind's most civilized traits, and the author is right in mentioning the cups and saucers, the china pot and the boiling kettle….

In spite of these domestic touches, however, Miss James's work is modern in the ambiguous makeup of her characters, their complex motives and the shrewd psychological touches of the relationship between the police and the criminals they pursue. There are no stark villains in her books, and not every cop is a paragon of virtue. In the first and third books, the victims are not very admirable; contrariwise, every reader will regret seeing the true murderer stand revealed in that first novel. It is a person easy to like.

Thomas Lask, "'Crime Times Three'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 18, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 7, 1979, p. 335).

Michele Slung

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are a number of good things to be said about … P. D. James, but that she is a "new Agatha Christie" is not one of them…. I'm not even sure if James is a "queen of crime," as a further bit of well-meaning puffery proclaims her. However, she is without doubt one of the genre's noblewomen, and if there's anyone her oeuvre does call to mind, it's a fine author whose own place at court is secure: the late Elizabeth Mackintosh, or Josephine Tey….

To my way of thinking, what keeps both James and Tey just beneath the throne, as it were, is their good taste. They both lack that slight edge of eccentricity that enabled Christie to dream up Poirot, Dorothy Sayers (whom James claims as an influence) to concoct Peter Wimsey, or Margery Allingham to delineate Albert Campion. Tey's Alan Grant and James's Adam Dalgliesh are a pair of handsome, brave, true, and intelligent Scotland Yard detectives; one wouldn't kick them out of bed and yet … even though Dalgliesh is a published poet who's won critical acclaim, one can't help having a fond yearning for Poirot's less intellectually taxing vegetable marrows or Lord Peter's languid babble about incunabula. Lovable idiosyncrasies command a space of their own and have a staying power unmatched by characters who make do without.

Michele Slung, "Midsummer Night's Scream: The 10 Best Whodunits: 'Crime Times Three'," in Ms. (© 1979 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. VIII, No. 2, August, 1979, p. 31.

Paul Bailey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are two novels fighting for dominance within the covers of Innocent Blood. One of them is rooted—just—in the everyday world; the other capers about in that no man's land to which Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers made such frequent excursions. The former conveys something of the messiness involved in being human; the latter looks at crime through a dusty lorgnette. For most of the book, the two go their separate ways, but every so often they merge—with embarrassing consequences.

Of that trio who flourished in what Julian Symons has called "the golden age of the detective story", it is Dorothy L. Sayers who has exerted the strongest influence on the work of...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

Maureen Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

P. D. James is a writer of sophisticated English mystery stories, the sort of books that abound with an intelligence the reader feels complementary to his own. Those who delight in such fiction do not ask for emotional depth or intensity of style, but for the reassurance that, even in a world of murder, insanity and intrigue, a civilized logic can prevail. Surely, a quiet dose of superior murder mystery is one of the liveliest, least sinful of addictions.

In "Innocent Blood," Miss James has written a novel vastly dependent upon the genre that she handles with such success, but a novel clear and true. It is immensely readable, bright, almost satisfying with its artful plot and careful psychological...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Oddly enough, it is the very qualities that make P. D. James's detective stories so good that undermine Innocent Blood, her first "serious" novel. The literacy that sparkles through An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, the psychological insight that renders the nurses of Shroud for a Nightingale so pitiably familiar, indeed, the technical ability that has informed all seven of her mysteries are here overevident, too obviously employed in the service of an end that remains obscure.

The biggest problem is Philippa Palfrey, the eighteen-year-old heroine of the book. Unable to remember anything that happened to her before her eighth year, when she was adopted by a famous sociologist and...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"He ought to be writing thrillers," reflects the heroine of "Innocent Blood" about the novel's putative villain. "He had the mind of a thriller writer, obsessive, guilt-ridden, preoccupied with trivia. He had lived too long with thoughts of death." Whether or not this derogatory judgment is shared by the author of "Innocent Blood," it is certainly consistent with what she has done in her latest novel. For after writing seven detective thrillers featuring Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard and establishing her as one of the most esteemed practitioners of the genre in the English-speaking world,… P. D. James has burst the bounds of her territory.

In "Innocent Blood" she has gone far beyond the...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Julian Symons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

P. D. James is a mystery writer who with [Innocent Blood] has abandoned mystery. She began as a writer of orthodox detective stories in the English tradition. Her first book, Cover Her Face, opened with a tea party, and offered fairly conventional characters in a rural setting. But this book and its immediate successors seem not to have satisfied her, and in Shroud For a Nightingale (1971) she used her professional knowledge as a hospital administrator to give a realistic portrait of the Nightingale Training College for Nurses. The Black Tower (1975) is set in a home for incurables, and the crime is investigated by a detective who has just been reprieved from what was in effect a death...

(The entire section is 825 words.)