A seasonal tribute to one of my favourite authors
The author P.D. James continued writing books well into her nineties but very sadly, passed away earlier this year. She was born in Oxford in 1920 and in the 1950’s and 60’s she worked for the Home Office; firstly in the Police Department and latterly in the Criminal Policy Department. This experience clearly influenced the subject matter of her novels. P.D. James was made a life peer in 1991 and won many awards for her work internationally.
P.D. James is one of my very favourite writers. I’ve read every single one of her books and Adam Dalgliesh remains my preferred protagonist.
During the Christmas holidays, I’ve always loved to cosy up in the evenings with a good book. This year is no different, however, I have found it tricky to unearth a writer whose work I enjoy as much as P.D James and Ruth Rendell. Their styles of writing are similar in many ways and in real life the women were great friends. They are both superb storytellers and their observations on the quirks and eccentricities of human nature have always interested me. P.D James was an educated and clever woman, with a particular insight into the machinations of the British legal and police system. She was one of the first crime writers to emphasise the importance of procedure in her novels and utilised her knowledge of forensic science to great effect.
It was an incredible achievement for her to have written her novels over the space of six decades, writing about subject matter which might very well have been deemed inappropriate for a female author.
Indeed, the novel, ‘An Unsuitable Job For a Woman,’ which introduced the sharp-witted private detective Cordelia Gray, investigated that very concept.
P.D James’ novels have a wonderfully rhythmical style to them. They are full of literary references and reflect the full life that the author herself had lived. It was never any surprise to me that Dalgliesh himself was a published poet, giving him an artistic side to his character that other policeman lacked. This is a concept well-trodden now in crime fiction, but P.D James was one the first to create this kind of three dimensional, intellectual detective, along with the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham.
Once of the elements I like the most about James’ novels is the atmosphere and the sense of place that she creates. Her mysteries are set in locations spanning the length and breadth of the country. This allowed her to exercise her wonderful descriptive skills. As you read her books, you feel transported to those windswept, usually coastal settings and this was always a significant part of the pleasure in immersing myself in one of her tales.
In recent years, P.D. James set out on something of a departure from her usual genre. Her ‘sequel’ to Jane Austin’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ became an international bestseller. Sceptical at first, I discovered that ‘Death Comes to Pemberley,’ was entirely in keeping with the original, whilst injecting an excellent mystery into the story, adding a dimension that livened up the story in a refreshing way. The television drama based on P.D. James’ book aired last Boxing Day and this year we are noticeably lacking any equivalent.
With the sad passing of this wonderful writer I feel as if we are drifting away from a past era. There certainly are writers still out there who compete very well with these great crime authors, but they are getting harder to find. In fact, I couldn’t really tell you what it is about P.D. James’ prose style that I’ve always enjoyed so much, an element of it is probably nostalgia, having read her books since I was a teenager.
As far as the RetroReview is concerned, we could not have allowed 2014 to reach an end without paying tribute to this wonderful writer who certainly proved that unsuitable or not, she performed the job of creating gripping crime fiction extremely well.