Obituary: PD James (Lady James of Holland Park), author

PD James OBE, FRSA, FRSL: Novelist's work bridged the Golden Age of mystery fiction and modern crime writing. Picture: AP
PD James OBE, FRSA, FRSL: Novelist's work bridged the Golden Age of mystery fiction and modern crime writing. Picture: AP
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Born: 3 August, 1920, in Oxford. Died: 27 November, 2014, in Oxford, aged 94

P D James (Lady James of Holland Park), who has died at the age of 94, was the doyenne of English crime novelists. Her work bridges the “Golden Age” of detective or mystery fiction and the modern crime novel which at its best is a social novel also. Though she read the novelists of the Golden Age, admiring especially Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, and wrote well about them, she preferred to be called a crime writer rather than the author of detective fiction. Plot and puzzle are important in her well-structured novels but they are subordinate to her examination of human nature, psychology and morality.

She came to writing comparatively late, being 42 when her first novel was published. The daughter of an official in the Inland Revenue, she was educated at Cambridge High School for Girls, but her parents couldn’t afford a university education and she left school at 16.

Nevertheless, she had by then read more Shakespeare plays and more of the major English poets than many a university graduate today. “It astounds me”, she said in an interview published in the Paris Review, “how narrow and limited their reading is compared to ours.”

She worked in a tax office for three years, then married Ernest White, a doctor in the RAMC, in 1941. They had two daughters, but he returned from the war having had a breakdown and suffering from mental illness; he spent the rest of his life under psychiatric care.

To support herself and her family, Phyllis James trained as a hospital administrator, and worked for health boards in London for almost 20 years. Then she passed the Civil Service exam and worked in the Home Office, eventually in the police and crime department. When she retired from government service in 1979, she was already an established novelist.

Her novels did belong in some respects to the Golden Age tradition. Her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, is admittedly not an amateur like Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, but he is a published and respected poet. (I have sometimes wondered if she regretted making him a poet, and wouldn’t have done so if she had started writing 20 years later.)

Then her novels are mostly set in a closed community: a nursing home, a university college, a publishing house, a museum, a theological college, an island reserved for VIPs, a private clinic. This has the advantage of concentrating the action and narrowing the field of suspects.

As was usual in the Golden Age detective novel, the characters are apparently respectable, educated and mostly well-to-do. They don’t belong to the criminal classes with members of whom modern police procedurals are often concerned. One might say that in a James novel, there is rarely a criminal till murder is committed.

On the other hand, murder is serious; the mystery is not an intellectual puzzle. It is a disturbance of the moral order, and an offence against it which damages all those connected to both the murdered person and the killer. James was always more concerned with the “why?” of murder than with the “how? – though she was not averse to ingenuity – or even the “who?”

She recognised that many of the great classic novels are crime novels, even if not billed as such; even her beloved Jane Austen deals in deceit and deception. So she rejected the idea that there was a clear distinction to be made between the “serious or literary” novel and crime fiction. Her books were entertaining, but they were also deadly serious.

She was a person of great clarity of mind and strength of character. I was fortunate to have been a member of the panel of Booker Prize judges which she chaired. She did so in exemplary fashion.

At that time publishers, restricted to a certain number of entries, occasionally did not put forward a novel by a distinguished author, confident that the judges would call it in. At our first meeting Phyllis said: “We shall not call in any books. If publishers don’t know which are the best novels they have published, they should.”

None of us dissented. No books were called in. She had high standards and valued courage, intelligence, generosity, compassion, clear thinking and honesty; political correctness met with her contempt. It was often “a form of linguistic fascism”.

She was a devout Anglican and devoted to the Authorised Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, echoes of which are to found in her novels.

In 1991 she was given a life peerage and sat on the Conservative benches in the House of Lords.

She received numerous awards, an OBE in 1983 and honorary doctorates from seven universities, among them Glasgow. She was also an Honorary Fellow of four Oxford and Cambridge Colleges, president of the Society of Authors, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and of the Royal Society of Arts. Her crime novels regularly won prizes in Britain and the USA.

The young girl who was denied the university education she deserved came very good. She commanded enormous respect, admiration and affection from those who knew her; she gave deep delight to hundreds of thousands of readers.

She retained her clarity of mind into old age. Invited in 2010 to be guest editor of the Radio 4 Today programme she interviewed Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general at the time, and discomfited him, while delighting listeners, with her acute criticism of declining standards of broadcasting.

Her last intervention in public life was as one of 200 signatories of a letter in The Guardian in defence of the United Kingdom and urging us Scots to vote No in the referendum.

Her books will last because they are so well-made, so well-written, atmospheric and intelligent. They bear more than one reading. Indeed they demand a second and even third reading if you are to come to a full and proper appreciation of their merits.

She took the form of the classic detective novel, respected its conventions, and made truly serious fiction of it. If today the crime novel is treated as being as worthy of critical attention as the literary novel, if indeed the distinction between them is disappearing, that is her legacy and all serious writers of crime fiction are in her debt.