Authors: P. D. James

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Cover Her Face, 1962

A Mind to Murder, 1963

Unnatural Causes, 1967

Shroud for a Nightingale, 1971

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, 1972

The Black Tower, 1975

Death of an Expert Witness, 1977

Innocent Blood, 1980

The Skull Beneath the Skin, 1982

A Taste for Death, 1986

Devices and Desires, 1989

The Children of Men, 1992

Original Sin, 1994

A Certain Justice, 1997

Death in Holy Orders, 2001


A Private Treason, pr. 1985


The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliff Highway Murders, 1811, 1971 (with T. A. Critchley)

Time to Be in Earnest: Fragment of an Autobiography, 2000


In the decades since the publication of her first book, Cover Her Face, P. D. James has become one of the mystery genre’s most popular and critically acclaimed writers, considered by many to be the heir apparent to such enduring figures as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Yet while James uses the conventions of the traditional British murder mystery–a murder or series of murders, a detective, and a group of suspects, each with a possible motive–her novels are more firmly grounded in reality than those of either of her predecessors. Drawing on her earlier career as a hospital administrator and her work in a forensic laboratory and the British government’s Criminal Policy Department, James gives her books a level of realistic detail that separates them from the cozy, comfortable tone of many classic mysteries.{$I[AN]9810001784}{$I[A]James, P. D.}{$I[geo]WOMEN;James, P. D.}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;James, P. D.}{$I[tim]1920;James, P. D.}

P. D. James

(Nigel Parry)

Phyllis Dorothy James is the daughter of Sidney James, an employee of the Inland Revenue office, and his wife Dorothy. James was educated at the Cambridge High School for Girls and at the age of sixteen went to work, like her father, in a tax office. After a brief stint as a stage manager at the Cambridge Festival Theatre, she married Ernest Conner Bantry White in 1941.

White, a physician, returned from his service in World War II with severe psychological problems. His young wife became the sole support of the family, which by that time included two daughters. Over the next thirty-five years, James worked at various times as a medical administrator in hospitals and forensic laboratories, a senior-level police department employee, and a London magistrate. Although her first novel was published in 1962 and her husband died in 1964, it was not until 1979 that she retired and began writing full-time.

The majority of James’s mysteries feature Scotland Yard investigator Adam Dagliesh. Unlike the amateur detectives favored by many crime writers, Dagliesh is a professional, and his direct, understated manner lends the books a gravity not often found in the genre. His success as a detective has led to his advancement over the years from the rank of detective chief inspector to commander, yet the job has at times also taken a physical and emotional toll. Dagliesh is an intriguing character, a reserved, intelligent man and a published poet whose life has been deeply marked by his wife’s death in childbirth.

Two of James’s novels, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and The Skull Beneath the Skin, have featured a young female detective named Cordelia Gray, a resourceful and intelligent private investigator whom many of James’s readers hoped might some day marry Dagliesh. James has remained noncommittal on the subject, although the two characters have crossed paths briefly.

What sets James apart from many mystery writers and earns for her a degree of acclaim and respect not generally accorded crime novelists is the seriousness with which she approaches her stories. For James, the mystery genre serves primarily as a useful format within which she is able to explore the complexities of human nature. The raw emotions called into play by the act of murder and the complicated psychological factors that can lead someone to commit such a crime offer James the perfect setting for her probings into the darker aspects of the human psyche.

Most of James’s books take place in relatively closed communities; James is fascinated by the many and varied ways in which people interact in these settings and the emotions that this interaction inevitably calls into play. In A Mind to Murder the setting is a prominent psychiatric clinic where a murder reveals the messy and complicated intrigues lying beneath the clinic’s surface. Shroud for a Nightingale takes place in a nurse’s training school, Death of an Expert Witness is set in a scientific laboratory, Devices and Desires unfolds in and around a nuclear power plant near a coastal village, and Original Sin sets its story in a London publishing house. The Black Tower and Death in Holy Orders take place in religious communities. Each of the books depicts a community torn apart by a violent crime, the solution to which lies buried in the intricacies of the relationships among its members.

James ventured outside the traditional mystery format for her best-selling suspense thriller Innocent Blood and the futuristic The Children of Men. It is her murder mysteries, however, that have established her reputation and won for her a loyal following among readers and critics alike. In 1991 she was made a life peer by Queen Elizabeth II. Acting on the conviction that a good mystery should also be a good novel, James has brought fresh insight and complexity to the conventions of the genre and established herself as one of its finest practitioners.

BibliographyBakerman, Jane S. “Cordelia Gray: Apprentice and Archetype.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 5 (Spring/Summer, 1984): 101-114. A study of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which discusses James’s female detective as the heroine of a Bildungsroman, or apprenticeship novel.Barber, Lynn. “The Cautious Heart of P. D. James.” Vanity Fair 56 (March, 1993): 80. A profile of James in her seventies–commercially successful, titled, and highly honored as a literary craftsman. Includes a contemporary portrait of the novelist.Benstock, Bernard. “The Clinical World of P. D. James.” In Twentieth-Century Women Novelists, vol. 16, edited by Thomas F. Staley. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1982. Discusses James’s use of setting, her narrative technique, and the relationship between the two.Gidez, Richard B. P. D. James. Boston: Twayne, 1986. An entry in Twayne’s English Authors series. Chapter 1 examines James’s place within the tradition of the English mystery novel. Chapters 2 through 10 discuss in chronological order her first nine novels. Chapter 11 is devoted to her handful of short stories, and chapter 12 summarizes her work through The Skull Beneath the Skin.Herbert, Rosemary. The Fatal Art of Entertainment: Interviews with Mystery Writers. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Interview discusses her writing style and habits, the nature of detective fiction, and her personal life.Horsley, Katherine, and Lee Horsley. “Mères Fatales: Maternal Guilt in the Noir Crime Novel.” Modern Fiction Studies 45, no. 2 (1999): 369-402. Looks at the representations of mothers in noir novels written by women; analyzes Innocent Blood.Hubly, Erlene. “Adam Dalgliesh: Byronic Hero.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 3 (Fall/Winter, 1982): 40-46. The brooding Dalgliesh, aloof, often forbidding, constantly bearing the pain of a deep tragedy in his personal life, has often been likened to the heroes of nineteenth century Romantic fiction. Hubly’s article treats the appropriateness of this comparison.James, P. D. Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. At the age of seventy-seven, James was not willing to sum up her life; presumably there will be much more to tell. She did, however, take up the task (for publication) of maintaining a diary for one year. The reader is privy to James’s opinions and reactions to the social and political events of that year, which she details between meditations on the writing process and recollections of her past.James, P. D. Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. At the age of seventy-seven, James was not willing to sum up her life; presumably there will be much more to tell. She did, however, take up the task (for publication) of maintaining a diary for one year. The reader is privy to James’s opinions and reactions to the social and political events of that year, which she details between meditations on the writing process and recollections of her past.Macintyre, Ben. Review of A Certain Justice, by P. D. James. New York Times Book Review, Dec. 7, 1997, 26. Macintyre’s review, as reviews often do with James’s mysteries, praises her characterization, observing that each character is himself or herself an embryonic novel. He also notes that, as in other of the later novels, the protagonist, Dalgliesh, has become a token presence in the last two-thirds of A Certain Justice, “oddly distant and preoccupied.”Maxfield, James F. “The Unfinished Detective: The Work of P. D. James.” Critique 28, no. 4 (1987): 211-223. Focuses on James’s realistic depiction of the challenges facing a female detective.Porter, Dennis. “Detection and Ethics: The Case of P. D. James.” In The Sleuth and the Scholar: Origins, Evolution, and Current Trends in Detective Fiction, edited by Barbara A. Rader and Howard G. Zettler. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. Pages 11 through 18 are devoted to Porter’s essay on James, a writer for whom moral principles are an integral part of the crime and detection story. Porter concentrates on Death of an Expert Witness, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and Innocent Blood. Robin W. Wink, who has written elsewhere on James, contributes a foreword to the book.Priestman, Martin. “P. D. James and the Distinguished Thing.” In On Modern British Fiction. New York: Oxford, 2002. A lengthy essay devoted to James and her place in the broader context of British literature. This is a piece of literary criticism that argues that James’s undoubted skill an an author is circumscribed by her choice of genre.Random House. The Official Website of P. D. James. The official Web site, hosted and maintained by her publisher. A flashy site that offers a very brief biography and a catalog of her books available through Random House. The brief book descriptions are somewhat helpful.Rowland, Susan. From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. This study focuses on the most prominent British women mystery writers, including P. D. James. Contains an interview with James.Siebenheller, Norma. P. D. James. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. The first four chapters discuss the eight novels, grouped by decades, that James had produced through 1980. Chapter 5 discusses the detective protagonists Adam Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray. Chapter 6 takes up the major themes of the novels; chapter 7, the major characters other than the two detectives. The final chapter deals with the James “style,” in the sense of both her craftsmanship and her elegance.Stasio, Marilyn. “No Gore, Please–They’re British.” The Writer 103 (March, 1990): 15-16. The basis of this article is an interview with James. In her questions and interpretations, Stasio stresses the elegant and highly civilized nature of James’s crime fiction.Wood, Ralph C. “A Case for P. D. James as a Christian Novelist.” Theology Today 59, no. 4 (2003): 583-595. Analyzes the moral and social concerns in James’s novels as reflective of Christian values.
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