Friday, November 28, 2014

P. D. James (1920-2014)

I was very sad to learn, getting in late from Thanksgiving festivities, of the death of P. D. James.  I have enjoyed reading her crime fiction since becoming acquainted with it in the 1990s, and some of her earlier titles, like A Mind to Murder (1963) and Shroud for a Nightingale (1971), are among my favorite modern detective novels, beautifully plotted and movingly narrated, confirming that the detective novel can fruitfully blend the probing of puzzling incident with the scrying of perplexing character.

In Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery and the introduction to Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene, I query much in James' views of detective fiction, particularly her relative dismissal of "ingenuity" in favor of "credibility," a view that would have been anathema to many Golden Age mystery fans; yet there is no question that the modern Crime Queen was one of the most important figures in the history of British crime fiction and a remarkable person in her own right, someone who not only in her life overcame considerable personal adversity, but positively triumphed over it, becoming in the process an inspiration to us all as she advanced indomitably into her nineties. Her presence in this world will be much missed.

Previous P. D. James articles at The Passing Tramp:

A 2012 Salute to P. D. James
P. D. James: Cozy Writer?
Follies: A Review of The Black Tower (1975)
A Review of The Maul and the Pear Tree (1971)
P. D. James' 2002 BBC Desert Island Disc Discussion


  1. Nice roundup, I enjoyed the archive pieces. I didn't like Black Tower when I read it, but now you've persuaded me I need to give it another chance...

    1. Black Tower is so grim! But I found it an interesting book, one which memorably encapsulates so many of her attitudes about mortality and murder.

  2. Some of the numerous tributes make James sound as if she invented "naturalism" in crime fiction. I won't deny that James is a pioneer and rightly deserves a place in the Crime Fiction Hall of Fame, but I get rankled by all the exaggeration. I enjoyed reading the more truthful assessments of her work as in . Mike Ripley's perspicacious essay at the Shots Mag blog. He noted his favorite among her novels is INNOCENT BLOOD and I may just try reading that one next month.

    1. John, I agree with you re: naturalism and I also think there were quite a few limits to James' "naturalism," including Innocent Blood, which I found, to be honest, her worst book, full of unbelievable characters and events. It's a problem when you spend most of the book hoping someone will push the protagonist, presumably meant to be sympathetic, off a cliff or under a train!

      I think Mike Ripley and, apparently, Ruth Rendell, if Mike's recollection is correct, liked Blood best because it's a thriller (ostensibly), rather than a detective novel.

      I would go with any of James' earlier books over Blood, personally. But it was a real breakthrough book for her, her first bestseller, I believe, in the US. After that there was no turning back for her; it was bestseller after bestseller. And it started when she was 60!