RIP P. D. James

The mystery writer P. D. James died on what was Thanksgiving, here in the U. S.

She was one of my favorite writers, and I was impressed (and heartened) as she continued to produce high-quality works well into her 90s, decades after most writers have to give it up, or are reduced to producing parodies of their older work.

James was a genre writer.  She wrote mysteries (and one SF book), but wrote novels that were mysteries, rather than just mystery novels. I write "just", conscious that that somewhat insults all of us genre writers, for our toy-like limited worlds that delight because of their very limitations and simplifications. Still, it's important to realize that you can focus on the things that make a genre pleasurable, and get a fair measure of novelistic breadth as well, as James did.

The first novel of hers I read was Death of an Expert Witness, which I pulled off my parent's bookshelf as a teenager.  Both my parents were big mystery readers. The most recent I read was just a month or so ago, a fairly early one, Death of a Nightingale, because somehow I had missed that one.

James had a fairly standard setup for these things:  a specific community of people, usually professionals in some business (forensics, nursing, running a nuclear power station, publishing, politics) in a specific venue, often a large Victorian structure, but also more modern buildings as well, with growing tensions that finally manifest themselves in murder. The murder does not remove the tensions, but makes them worse, bringing out the specifics of each character's personality and situation.

Then Dalgliesh shows up. If you want the antithesis to the jazz-listening alcoholic can't-get-along-with-superiors loner cop preferred by Americans, he is it. He is grave, private, and remorseless. Don't look for quirks. And P. D. James knew exactly who he was. The New York Times obit (linked above) quotes James critiquing the performance of the actor playing Dalgliesh in the BBC series: "[Dalgliesh] wouldn’t wear his signet ring on the wrong finger." Details matter, and Dalgliesh, also a poet, is all about the details.

James also wrote two novels about a young female detective, Cordelia Gray, and the first of these, Unsuitable Job for a Woman, is one of my favorites. She never wrote any more, which is a pity. I think about Cordelia sometimes, and what might have happened to her in later life. I think her outsider status, an appeal to some of us, was not entirely sympathetic to James, the consummate insider, and runner of systems. In addition to her writing, she was a successful and respected administrator, governor of the BBC, and later member of the House of Lords.

My move has left all of my James paperbacks inaccessible, so I will have to pick one of her novels up (maybe even her last, Death Comes to Pemberley, though I have a low tolerance for Austen pastiches, which seem mostly aimed at people who don't normally read Jane Austen--maybe James will be different) at the library. I'll let you know.