P.D. James was the Queen Mother of crime fiction. Her career as a writer stretched over half a century, and her death at the age of 94 deprives the country of an author who was cherished in person as well as for her books.
She was probably best known for her crisply-written and elegantly plotted series about the poet-policeman Adam Dalgliesh. Among other things, however, she was also an occasional contributor to the Spectator, which sometimes showed an unexpected side to her.
An early diary piece recalls her attempt to learn to drive in Dublin in the 1980s. The caretaker at her block of flats took one look at her Ford Fiesta and asked if she would like some holy water to sprinkle over it.
‘I said I would be grateful for any aid which might preserve me from the terrors of the Dublin streets where a red light seemed to be regarded more as a friendly warning than a prohibition… the Holy Water was produced and proved extremely efficacious.’
In a later item, she discussed the errors in her own books. In one novel she invented a reverse gear for a two-stroke motor cycle. In another, she wrote of a character, Miss Wharton, whom she sent by train to Nottingham, making her travel from St Pancras rather King’s Cross. One reader commented tartly that this would involve two unnecessary changes and make the journey last twice as long. Another, more charitable, wrote ‘I’m not in the least surprised that Miss Wharton decided to travel to Nottingham from King’s Cross. I, too, dislike St Pancras and always avoid it whenever possible.’
There was also a memorable account of a British Council event with Malcolm Bradbury in Buenos Aires:
‘…during our Ambassador’s speech, the Union Jack descended gently from its pole and wrapped itself round him. He continued unperturbed in his excellent Spanish…’
Later, a large rat distracted the audience by running to and fro on a girder above the speakers’ heads (‘the whole session was regarded as highly successful’).
P.D. James’s novels bridge the gap between the traditional detective story and the modern crime novel. But she was more than a writer. She worked as a senior civil servant at the Home Office. She served as a magistrate and on the BBC Board of Governors. (In 2009, as a guest editor of the Today rogramme, she subjected the then director general, Mark Thompson, to a memorable grilling about the corporation’s current failings – see below.) She sat in the House of Lords.
In an essay included in her autobiography, A Time to Remember, P.D. James argued that Emma might be considered as detective fiction. Every year, she re-read the novels of Jane Austen. Her last novel (as far as we know) was Death At Pemberley, a detective novel that is also a continuation of Pride and Prejudice.
The taste for Austen is revealing, for the two authors have much in common. Both wrote clean, effective prose capable of unobtrusive subtlety. Both had clear views about right and wrong. Both knew the value of well-made plot.
Finally, both Austen and James wrote genre fiction – romance and crime respectively – but did so in a way that frankly makes a nonsense of dismissive genre labels. Forget genre: this is what we should celebrate about P.D. James – that she wrote novels that are worth re-reading.