Noted crime novelist P.D. James dies at 94

Posted at 10:38 AM, Nov 27, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-27 10:50:46-05

P.D. James, the British novelist renowned for her crime novels featuring detective Adam Dalgliesh as well as such works as “The Children of Men,” died Thursday. She was 94.

Faber & Faber, her UK publisher, reported her death on its website.

“It is difficult to express our profound sadness at losing P. D. James, one of the world’s great writers and a Faber author since her first publication in 1962,” the publisher said in a statement. “She was so very remarkable in every aspect of her life, an inspiration and great friend to us all. We will miss her hugely.”

The Guardian reported that James died at her home in Oxford, England.

“Saddened to hear of the death of P.D. James, one of the UK’s greatest crime writers, who thrilled and inspired generations of readers,” tweeted British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Over a five-decade career as a published writer, James won countless honors for her thoughtful, probing mysteries featuring Dalgliesh, a Scotland Yard detective who was also a poet. She was named a Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America, earned the Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association and received a life membership in the House of Lords in 1991, named Baroness James of Holland Park.

She was nicknamed “the Queen of Crime” and described as the Dickens of crime writing.

Her famed protagonist, Dalgliesh, is a complex, withdrawn figure, “a dedicated professional policeman, supremely efficient, sensitive but with reticence verging on coldness in personal matters,” The New York Times described him in 1986. He is widowed and childless. In his introspection and erudition, he was something apart from the usual British detective, even in a culture that created Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown.

“Dalgliesh is probably the most intelligent officer in modern detective fiction,” Ruth Rendell, no mean detective writer herself, told the Guardian in 2001.

James was following in the British mystery tradition even as she longed to tweak it, she told the Guardian.

“If I was starting now, I would almost certainly have a woman professional police officer” as the main character, James said. “But when I began, in the late ’50s, it was a very different world. Women in the police force mostly dealt with issues concerning women and children. I don’t think they were even in the detective force, so I had no choice about sex.”

The Dalgliesh mysteries include “The Black Tower” (1975), “A Taste for Death” (1986) and “Death in Holy Orders” (2001).

Her novel “Death Comes to Pemberley” (2011) continued Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice” as a murder mystery. It was adapted into a miniseries that aired on PBS in the United States.

Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford in 1920. At 16, she left school and went to work as a civil servant in the tax office. She married Ernest Connor White in 1941. She became the family breadwinner when White returned from World War II with mental problems. After years in and out of psychiatric hospitals, he died in 1964. James worked her way up through the civil service, spending 10 years as an administrator in a forensics department.

James didn’t publish her first novel, “Cover Her Face,” until 1962 — when she was 42 — but she always knew she wanted to be a writer, she told the Paris Review in 1995.

“From an early age, I used to tell imaginative stories to my younger brother and sister. I lived in the world of the imagination, and I did something that other writers have told me they did as children: I described myself inwardly in the third person,” she said. “I don’t know whether this is significant, but I think writing was what I wanted to do — almost as soon as I knew what a book was.”

And her subject, she said, was a natural for her.

As she told the Paris Review, “I had an interest in death from an early age. It fascinated me. When I heard, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, I thought, Did he fall, or was he pushed?”

Ironically, her breakthrough work was a non-Dalgliesh title, 1980’s “Innocent Blood,” which allowed her to retire to writing full time.

“At the beginning of the week, I was relatively poor, and at the end of the week, I wasn’t,” she told the Guardian.

Aside from the mysteries, her best-known work is probably “The Children of Men,” which was made into a highly praised Alfonso Cuaron film in 2006. It is set in a near future in which a disease has rendered women infertile and humanity is slowly dying off, erupting in chaos in the process.

It was making sense of chaos that she found the heart of her mysteries, she said.

“I think the main attraction isn’t the horror, it’s the puzzle,” she told the Guardian. “(It’s) the bringing of order out of disorder.”

James is survived by two daughters and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.