P.D. James - A Tribute

There will be plenty of tributes to the remarkable P.D. James by people who were fortunate enough to meet the great lady. Although it is a great shame to hear of her passing, Baroness James of Holland Park as she was also known, has left us, besides her wonderful books, a wealth of insight about her remarkable work and how she set about writing her novels.

In her nineties, P.D. James was still renowned for her intelligence and sense of morality which was still razor sharp. Lady James (as I was instructed to call her when I was fortunate enough to visit her home in Holland Park) was also noted for not suffering fools gladly. Her annihilation of the BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson over executive’s high salaries on Radio 4 in 1990 at the ripe age of 90 is legendary! Having again listened to Lady James’ slaughtering (there is no other word for it) of this man who she turned in to a stuttering wreck, you can only cheer on Lady James as she berates him for wasting licence fee payers money. James showed that even though she was a great-grandmother, she was no pushover, either.

Alongside Ruth Rendell, P.D. James transformed the detective novel and the boundaries of crime fiction. James showed that one could write a ‘literary’ piece of work wrapped around the puzzle of a murder. Many of her novels tackled the ‘morality’ of the current times and this was an issue that James was constantly fascinated with due to her religious leanings.

Whenever I had the good fortune to speak to the great lady she would always state that the place was most important to her and usually the starting place for her novels. In ‘Devices and Desires’ she juxtaposed a nuclear power station with the natural grandeur of the British coastline. In an interview she said,

‘Almost always, the idea for a book comes to me as a reaction to a particular place…’

Whether it was a publishing house on the Thames (Original Sin) or in a London church (A Taste for Death) James had to get the setting right before starting any novel. From there she could begin the book.

Many of James’ novels, in particular her later ones, the ‘crime’ would possibly not be committed until a hundred pages in to the story. For James, the important part of her books was the interaction of her characters. How they behaved towards one another, the arguments they had and the animosity between the players in her drama. She would weave petty jealousies and disputes well before any body was discovered. As with life, it was these interlocking relationships that would define the crime that would happen during her novel. You needed to feel and in some part understand; the people populating her book before any crime were committed.

The first time I met P.D. James was during the nineties at a signing for ‘A Certain Justice’. I mentioned that my favourite book of hers was her 1992 novel, ‘The Children of Men’. She was thrilled to say the least. Why? She informed me that it hadn’t sold as well and her publishers had advised her not to write anymore standalones but to keep to the Dalgliesh series. James felt that ‘The Children of Men’ was one of her better novels and a personal favourite.

Jump forward nearly ten years later to 2006 with the release of the film of her book. The film was released to rave reviews and her book sky-rocketed in the paperback charts. I did mention our previous conversation when I visited Lady James at her Holland Park home in 2011. She didn’t say anything but there was definitely a twinkle in her eye and a little mischievous grin. I can only imagine how secretly thrilled she must have been that with this late success she had been proved right by writing the book she wanted rather than listen to those against the idea.

Despite my love for the Dalgliesh series, ‘The Children of Men’ is still my favourite novel of hers to this day. It is visionary, frightening and by the end, heart-warming. She holds a light to humankind and poses the question: what would we do if we as a species were on the brink of extinction? This novel, a lot shorter than usual, gripped me until the last page. I intend to read it again in her honour. And if you haven’t read it – then I suggest you do so without delay!

In her last Dalgliesh, ‘The Private Patient’, she more or less drew a line under the end of this book, sending her detective off to happier and more fulfilled times. There felt no ambiguity, Dalgliesh had not been killed off as James said she wouldn’t do, but had allowed him finally to find happiness and love. Which I believe shows just how much Dalgliesh meant to her – although unlike Dorothy L. Sayers, Lady James scotched any ideas that she had ‘fallen in love’ with her creation, but I think there was definitely much respect for the poetic detective.

The last time I met P.D. James was during a talk for her last novel, ‘Death Comes To Pemberley’. A new direction for James who had from a young age enjoyed Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and cited it as her favourite novel.

Ever the worker, James announced that she had started planning a new detective novel. How far down the road she got with these plans, maybe we will never know. If only in the note stage, then that is where they should stay as nobody would be able to emulate the great lady’s writing and I am sure that anything ghost-written by another would always seem to be a weak carbon copy of her work.

P.D. James was always so pleasant and polite to talk to. It always struck people how such a woman could look so genteel and behave so kindly and yet hide such an imagination that dispatched folk by fire, hanging, cut throat razor and in one, with a draft excluder! As the saying goes – never judge a book by its cover and you’d be wise not to judge P.D. James by hers. James’ mind was as razor sharp as most half her age!

So, thank you Lady James for the marvelous books. It was a great pleasure to have met you. You changed the face of crime fiction and the legacy you have left behind will be around for many new writers to learn from. Rest well, Lady James.


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