Why PD James wasn’t just a great writer of detective fiction. She was a great writer

She soared above the conventions of the crime novel to create a canon that earned her a large and loyal readership.

PD James died on Thursday, November 27, at 94, having written 20 books.  She was a writer of detective fiction, but for those of us who read her obsessively, she was so much more. She was, in fact, a great writer. Period.

I was in my teens when I read my first James.  Until then, detective fiction for me ‒ like for so many of us ‒ was Agatha Christie:  light, cosy, quick reads.  Fun, fabulous even, but not literature. Then I read my first James, and discovered that detective fiction could be as ambitious, dark, and poignant as any Booker winning novel. This then, was literature.

I wasn’t the only one to notice this. For years now literary critics have commented on how James transcended the conventions of detective fiction. Indeed, she soared above them. When she wrote her first novel in 1962, women writers wrote “cosies”, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Christie herself. But James broke away with her first Dalgliesh novel, Cover Her Face, exploring illegitimate pregnancy.

In her later novels, she covered nuclear power, drug smugglers, the NHS, and legal services. Believing readers preferred male authors, she used her initials instead of her real names, Phyllis Dorothy.

Timeless characters

And yet her themes were irrelevant. It was her characters and settings that will live after her. The poetry-loving, solitary Adam Dalgliesh, of course, was the thinking woman’s crumpet, long before the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch came along. Then there was Kate Miskin, the working-class girl who moved from council estate to Dalgliesh’s right hand woman.

James’s early novels featured Cordelia Gray, one of the first women detectives, in the aptly named An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.  And underpinning all that were James’s incredible backdrops ‒ country manors, hospitals, courts of law ‒ all sketched in convincing detail, drawing from her own experiences as a hospital administrator and, later, working in the Home Office.

For motives, James thankfully stuck to the four Ls of classic detective fiction: love, lust, lucre, and loathing.  No psychopathic lunatics who hated their mothers or serial killers who chained women up in their dungeons. While her murders were sometimes brutal ‒ in Shroud for a Nightingale, for instance, where a victim was poisoned through a hospital feeding tube before a shocked audience - her murderers were proud, self-possessed, intelligent: worthy adversaries to Dalgliesh.

She was also endearingly ready to switch genres. Her 1992 work, Children of Men was a dystopian fantasy that focused on the results of mass infertility. And her last book, Death Comes to Pemberley, written when she was 91, was a daring retelling of Pride and Prejudice framed as a murder mystery.

Perhaps what I will remember most fondly about her novels is their bracing unsentimentality. You can almost hear her saying, “Mustn’t grumble” in true British tradition, and she once confessed that she hated being out of control.  In a delightful interview with the Canadian magazine, MacLean’s, she criticised “the modern tendency to stereotype senior detectives as solitary, divorced, hard-drinking, psychologically flawed and disillusioned. And they all have trouble with their children!” Often, the tough Kate Miskin told sniveling characters, “You have brains, health, youth, a roof over your head.  That’s more than half the world has.”

Life and art

One can’t help realise that James drew inspiration from her own difficult life. When she was 14, her mother was committed to a mental home. At 16, she left school to support her family. At age 44, her husband, a schizophrenic, committed suicide, leaving her with two children to support.  She wrote ‒ and stayed in control, always ‒ because she had no choice.

She had her critics. She was often accused of being snobbish and elitist, with some merit. Her characters talked about Handel and Shakespeare, and sipped fine reds, even as around her most of Britain was eating Big Macs, chugging lagers and watching reality shows.

But it was perhaps in that her charm lay, and always will. As psychopaths and paedophiles take over detective fiction, and real life, I can’t think of a better escape than Dalgliesh, reserved, controlled and above all, civilised. The best of British.

Kavitha Rao is a journalist from Bangalore.

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