PD James (1920-2014) remembered

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pdjames200No one was surprised at the outpouring of emotions and tributes following the sad passing of Baroness PD James last week. Over the course of five decades she had burrowed herself into our hearts and minds with her complex and subtle crime novels. She is generally regarded as the grande dame of crime, the link between the Golden Age of detecting and modern psychological thrillers, yet she always remained modest about her accomplishments.

Though universally revered in recent years, her work has not always met with great acclaim within the UK. However her attention to detail in recreating settings, in-depth examination of the psychology of her protagonists, and willingness to discuss broader societal issues in her work made her appeal more to readers in other countries, who saw in her a typical example of Englishness. By the mid-1990s her novels were considered by some readers to be too old-fashioned and slow-paced compared to modern thrillers. Her main creation, Commander Dalgliesh, was described as a ‘cold fish’, although the author said that in him she had described her ideal man.

Although she always enjoyed the puzzle elements of detective fiction, PD James was a late starter in writing and didn’t initially think she would remain within the genre. She soon realised, however, that it is one of the best ways in which you can say something true about men, women and the confused society in which we live, without preaching. And she certainly did just that, entertaining, informing and delighting us in the process, but also constantly pushing the boundaries of crime fiction. Her output was not very prolific. Her poetic detective Adam Dalgliesh appeared in 14 novels, while Cordelia Gray stars in just two books. James also wrote three standalone mysteries that don’t quite fall within the crime genre, and a brief memoir.

At the Crime Festival in Lyon in April 2013, PD James made an emotional promise to the audience: ‘I will make every effort to write one last Dalgliesh. The setting, the plot, the ending are all there, but I don’t have a lot of energy or time left.’ Sadly, it seems that she was not able to write that novel, so we only have 20 books to reread.

If you haven’t yet been introduced to the work of PD James, here are five of her finest novels.

shroudforanightingale100Shroud for a Nightingale (1971)
This was the first novel to garner awards for the author, and deservedly so. PD James takes the locked room mystery trope and makes it resolutely her own. During an inspection at the Nightingale Nursing College, the mock patient in a classroom demonstration of tube feeding is fatally poisoned. Who would want to murder an inoffensive student nurse? Then it emerges that she had been a last minute replacement for another student. Everyone has something to hide in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the college, and Dalgliesh has quite a job distinguishing important facts from trivial details. Read more about why this novel is considered a classic here.
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anunsuitablejobforawoman200An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972)
This book introduces us to Cordelia Gray, who has inherited a detective agency and decides to make a going concern of it. At first shy and inexperienced, she develops tremendously in terms of confidence and maturity in the course of the story. Although some readers feel Cordelia is still very much a product of her time, she deserves credit as one of the first female private detectives, paving the way for other feisty women such as VI Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone. It would have been interesting to see her continue to develop, but it appears that PD James so disliked the TV adaptation of her Cordelia novels that she resolved to cease writing about this character entirely.
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blacktower100The Black Tower (1975)
This is another crime story set in a closed community; a nursing home this time. Dalgliesh is summoned there by an elderly friend, who is already dead by the time he arrives on the Dorset coast. Further fatalities follow, but what makes this book so compelling is not just the sinister location, but the Commander’s journey of self discovery. Dalgliesh is not quite his assured, calm self, as he is just covalescing after a serious illness. This is the novel in which we see him at his most vulnerable, beset by doubts and thoughts of his own mortality.
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atastefordeath100A Taste for Death (1986)
A quiet little community church becomes the scene of a double murder, but what could possibly unite a homeless vagrant with a Tory baronet and government minister? Dalgliesh not only discovers a tissue of lies, class snobbery and double standards, but also asks very pertinent questions about the choices we make in life, the power of family to both nourish and destroy, and the fascination we all seem to have with death. This novel also introduces Kate Miskin as a new member of Dalgliesh’s team, and explores in some detail the sacrifices and compromises the young woman has had to make to advance her career, in contrast with her more privileged male colleagues.
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childrenofmen100The Children of Men (1992)
This dystopian novel may be a stretch for fans of crime fiction but is worth the effort because it shows PD James at the height of her powers. It is the year 2021 and, as a result of global infertility, no human being has been born on earth for 25 years. The old are apathetic and despairing, the young spoilt and cruel, and England is ruled by a tyrant. Historian Theo Faron has resigned himself to a life without hope, but then becomes involved with a small band of resistance fighters. The build-up of suspense is masterly, and the author proves to be as adept at describing imaginary worlds as she is at analysing the thirst for power and perverted politics of a corrupt system.
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We reviewed PD James’ continuation of Jane Austen’s story, Death Comes to Pemberley, here.


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