Creator of much-loved detective Adam Dalgliesh was one of the most successful British authors of detective fiction
The writer PD James, who charted the transformations of British life through bestselling crime fiction starring the detective Adam Dalgliesh, has died aged 94. Her publisher Faber and Faber confirmed that she had died peacefully at home in Oxford on Thursday morning.
Her debut novel, Cover Her Face, was snapped up by the first publisher to set eyes on the manuscript, launching a career that advanced in parallel with that of her fictional police officer, Chief Inspector Dalgliesh. As he found himself promoted to superintendent and then to commander, so James accumulated a host of awards including the Crime Writers’ Association’s Diamond Dagger and the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster award. Many of the Dalgliesh novels were subsequently filmed for television, with Roy Marsden taking the role of the investigator.
James also won a good number of public honours, eventually finding herself elevated to the House of Lords in 1991, where she sat with the Conservatives.
Born in 1920, James left school at 16 to follow her father into a career in the Inland Revenue. She married Connor White at 21 and moved to London, giving birth to two daughters as German bombers pounded the British capital. Her husband returned from the war with mental health problems, leaving James to provide for her young family by working in hospital administration. With her daughters at boarding school and her husband in hospital, evenings become devoted to writing.
It had always been her “intention” to become a writer, and she began writing about a detective partly as an apprenticeship for writing “serious” novels, as she explained to the Paris Review in 1994. James had always loved crime novels, was unwilling to explore the “traumatic experiences” of her own life in fiction and was well aware it would be easier to find a publisher for a detective story. But the genre also appealed to her taste for order.
“I like structured fiction, with a beginning, a middle, and an end,” she said. “I like a novel to have narrative drive, pace, resolution, which a detective novel has.”
Published in 1962, Cover Her Face opens “exactly three months before the killing”, with a country-house dinner party which becomes, “in retrospect, a ritual gathering under one roof of victim and suspects, a staged preliminary to murder”. The new parlourmaid announces her engagement to the manor house’s eldest son at the village fete and is strangled the following night, a mystery resolved by the refined poet-detective Dalgliesh. “I gave him the qualities I admire,” James explained in 2001, “because I hoped he might be an enduring character and that being so, I must actually like him.”
The author’s hunch proved accurate, Dalgliesh trading his Bristol Cooper for a Jaguar as he took on cases in hospitals, nursing homes and laboratories over the course of 14 novels.
The erudition of James’s detective and the focus of her murder mysteries on the middle classes brought accusations of elitism, coming to the boil in 1995 after a radio interview in which the author suggested “you don’t get moral choice” in what she called “the pits of the inner-city area, where crime is the norm and murder is commonplace”. But the writer made no apologies, arguing “the contrast between respectability and planned brutality is of the essence” in a detective story.
“If you have appalling and violent events happening in a civilised place, it’s a great deal more horrific,” she explained.
With second-wave feminism at high tide, James flirted with a tough, working-class female lead. When Cordelia Gray made her debut in 1972’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, she became one of modern crime fiction’s first female private detectives, paving the way for Liza Cody’s Anna Lee and Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski. James managed only one more full-length outing for Gray, abandoning the detective after her television incarnation had an affair and became pregnant. “I realised my character had gone,” James said.
International success came with 1980’s Innocent Blood, in which a young woman discovers the murderous secret at the heart of her adoption. James sold paperback rights for £380,000 and film rights for £145,000 – more than she had earned in 10 years working at the Home Office – and promptly retired. “At the beginning of the week I was relatively poor and at the end of the week I wasn’t,” she remembered.
Writing outside the crime genre, her 1992 novel The Children of Men – set in a dystopian future – was adapted to critical acclaim for the cinema in 2006. She also scored a late hit in 2011 with Death Comes to Pemberley, a murder-mystery sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
James’s apprenticeship in crime fiction became a lifelong commitment, as she came to believe “it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live”. To suggest that the formal constraints of crime fiction prevent its practitioners from producing good novels “is as foolish as to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to 14 lines”, she argued.
Speaking in 2001 at the launch of Death in Holy Orders, her 11th Dalgliesh novel, James explained that her success was founded on the belief that plot could never make up for poor writing and that authors should always focus on the reader.
“At the end of a book, I want to feel, well that’s as good as I can do – not as good, perhaps, as other people can do – but it’s as good as I can do. There are thousands of people who do like, for their recreational reading, a classical detective story, and I think they are entitled to have one which is also a good novel and well written. Those are the people I write for. They don’t want me to adapt to what I think is the popular market. They want a good novel, honestly written and I think they are jolly well entitled to it.”