P(hyllis) D(orothy) James Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Oxford, 1920. Education: Cambridge Girls' High School, 1931-37. During World War II worked as a Red Cross nurse and at the Ministry of Food. Career: Prior to World War II, assistant stage manager, Festival Theatre, Cambridge; principal administrative assistant, North West Regional Hospital Board, London, 1949-68; principal, Home Office, in police department, 1968-72, and criminal policy department, 1972-79. Justice of the Peace, Willesden, London, 1979-82, and Inner London, 1984. Chair, Society of Authors, 1984-86; governor, BBC, and board of the British Council, 1988-93; chair, Arts Council Literature Advisory Panel, 1989-92. Lives in London. Awards: Crime Writers Association award, 1967, Silver Dagger award, 1971, 1975, 1986, Diamond Dagger award, 1987; Grand Master, Edgar Allan Poe Awards, 1999. D. Litt.: Buckingham, 1992; London, 1993; Hertfordshire, 1994; Glasgow, 1995; Essex, 1996; Durham, 1998; Portsmouth, 1999. Associate Fellow, Downing College, Cambridge, 1986; Fellow, Institute of Hospital Administrators, Royal Society of Literature, 1987, and Royal Society of Arts; honorary fellow, St. Hilda's College, Oxford, 1996. O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire), 1983. Baroness, 1991. Agent: Greene & Heaton, Ltd., 37 Goldhawk Road, London W12 8QQ, England.
Cover Her Face. London, Faber, 1962; New York, Scribner, 1966.
A Mind to Murder. London, Faber, 1963; New York, Scribner, 1967.
Unnatural Causes. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1967.
Shroud for a Nightingale. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1971.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. London, Faber, 1972; New York, Scribner, 1973.
The Black Tower. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1975.
Death of an Expert Witness. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1977.
Innocent Blood. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1980.
The Skull Beneath the Skin. London, Faber, and New York, Scribner, 1982.
A Taste for Death. London, Faber, and New York, Knopf, 1986.
Devices and Desires. London, Faber, 1989; New York, Knopf, 1990.
The Children of Men. London, Faber, 1992; New York, Knopf, 1993.
Original Sin. London, Faber, 1994; New York, Knopf, 1995.
A Certain Justice. New York, Knopf, 1997.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Moment of Power," in Ellery Queen's Murder Menu. Cleveland, World, 1969.
"The Victim," in Winter's Crimes 5, edited by Virginia Whitaker. London, Macmillan, 1973.
"Murder, 1986," in Ellery Queen's Masters of Mystery. New York, Davis, 1975.
"A Very Desirable Residence," in Winter's Crimes 8, edited by Hilary Watson. London, Macmillan, 1976.
"Great-Aunt Ellie's Flypapers," in Verdict of Thirteen, edited by Julian Symons. London, Faber, and New York, Harper, 1979.
"The Girl Who Loved Graveyards," in Winter's Crimes 15, edited by George Hardinge. London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.
"Memories Don't Die," in Redbook (New York), July 1984.
"The Murder of Santa Claus," in Great Detectives, edited by D.W. McCullough. New York, Pantheon, 1984.
"The Mistletoe Murder," in The Spectator (London), 1991.
"The Man Who Was 80," in The Man Who. London, Macmillan, 1992.
A Private Treason (produced Watford, Hertfordshire, 1985).
The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811, with Thomas A. Critchley. London, Constable, 1971; New York, Mysterious Press, 1986.
Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography. New York, Knopf, 2000.
P.D. James by Norma Siebenheller, New York, Ungar, 1981; P.D. James by Richard B. Gidez, Boston, Hall, 1986.
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Starting from a conventional first detective story, Cover Her Face, P.D. James has moved toward fiction in which criminal investigation provides merely a loose structure for characterization, atmosphere, and theme, which now seem most important to her. In this assault on generic boundaries, she resembles, but is more determined than, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Ngaio Marsh. Consequently, James's detectives—Cordelia Gray (private and young) and Adam Dalgliesh (professional and middle-aging)—have been absent from or muted in recent works.
Commander Dalgliesh resembles other detectives created by women writers: tall, dark, attractive, and frangible (he is ill, bashed, or burned in half his novels). "When the Met … want to show that the police know … what bottle to order with the canard à l'orange …, they wheel out Dalgliesh," a hostile chief inspector says. Sensitive under seeming coldness, he has published several volumes of poetry. Before his first appearance, Dalgliesh's wife has died in childbirth, but in successive novels her presence dies away. At one time readers hoped that Cordelia Gray would take her place, but romantic notes have ceased to be struck; Cordelia has disappeared, and Inspector Kate Miskin, introduced in A Taste of Death, has not replaced her. In fact, few James characters are happily married, and there are no juvenile leads to assert the normality of love. There are, however, close, psychologically incestuous brother-sister relationships.
James once told an interviewer that she believes detective fiction can lessen our fear of death. Yet her details of what happens after death—the doctor's fingers penetrating the orifices of the female body, the first long opening cut of an autopsy—are scarcely reassuring. Other shocks of mortality include the skulls of plague victims packed cheekbone to cheekbone in the crypt of Courcy Castle in The Skull Beneath the Skin, James's most gothic novel, and boatloads of the elderly sailing out to die in The Children of Men.
Although few of James's settings are as conventional as the house party in Skull, her action generally takes place in closed, often bureaucratic communities: e.g., a teaching hospital , a psychiatric clinic, a forensic laboratory, or a nuclear power station, organizations which draw, no doubt, upon the author's own administrative experiences.
In terms of plot, James is most successful when dealing with the processes of investigation and is weakest in motivation. She has said she thinks in terms of film sequences; her latest novels contain variants of the "chase," and the long "panning" shots and close-ups in which she relentlessly describes interiors have become at times an intrusive mannerism. Perhaps her best, most controlled use of domestic detail occurs in Innocent Blood, where Phillipa furnishes a flat to greet her just-released murderess mother. Indeed, this violent Lehrjahr with its slower discoveries, its ambiguities, and its psychological images in "the wasteland between imagination and reality" is James's best claim to consideration as a "serious" novelist.
James's characters have always thought and talked about truth, faith, responsibility, and justice, even if not profoundly. But in the books that follow Innocent Blood, plot is almost lost amid talkiness and theme. The nature of Sir Paul Berowne's religious experience in A Taste for Death, for instance, is more important and less explicable than the identity of his blood-happy killer. In Devices and Desires (title drawn from the Book of Common Prayer), a nuclear power station and a ruined abbey confront each other, perhaps adversarially, in one of James's bleak coastal landscapes. They are surrounded by serial murder, terrorism, anti-nuclear and pro-animal protesters, cancer, drowning, anti-racism, a libel suit—all pretexts and conveniences for a plot which the novel is not about. Dalgliesh is present, but almost a bystander, although he finds a corpse and almost dies in the fire that consumes the killer. Since then he has appeared in Original Sin, heading the investigation into the deaths of a young publisher and his sister, but is even more detached, except for brief bravura scenes, which demonstrate his sureness of touch and of technique. Instead, Kate Miskin is to the fore, with a Jewish detective who tries to be an atheist. The "original sin" is presumably the Nazi murder long ago of a woman and her two children, whom her husband finally avenges by murdering the two children of the man responsible. Ironically, however, they had merely been adopted to satisfy a childless wife, whose infertile husband is not particularly fond of his "offspring."
In The Children of Men, a futurist thriller, published between Devises and Desires and Original Sin, James opts for brutality. The year is 2021; mankind has lost the power to reproduce, and Xan is Warden of England. The narrator, Xan's cousin and once his advisor, is attracted to a tiny protest group, "The Five Fishes," and particularly to Julian, who is almost miraculously pregnant. To escape Xan's protective care, they embark on a wild drive, during which the religious Luke is bludgeoned to death by a band of "Painted Faces." Julian bears a son, but her midwife is murdered. When Xan appears, the narrator shoots him and becomes Warden in his stead. He signs a cross on the newborn's head. But, the reader wonders, will the state of the world really improve? In a 1985 interview, James described herself as born with a sense "that every moment is lived, really, not under the shadow of death but in the knowledge that this is how it's going to end." This sense now dominates her fiction.
—Jane W. Stedman