P.D. James took the classic British detective story into tough modern terrain, complete with troubled relationships and brutal violence, and never accepted that crime writing was second-class literature.
James, who has died at age 94, is best known as the creator of sensitive Scotland Yard sleuth Adam Dalgliesh. But her wickedly acute imagination ranged widely, inserting a murder into the mannered world of Jane Austen in Death Comes to Pemberley and creating a bleak dystopian future in The Children of Men.
Publisher Faber and Faber said James died peacefully on Thursday at her home in Oxford, southern England.
Faber, James’ publisher for more than 50 years, said in a statement that she had been “so very remarkable in every aspect of her life, an inspiration and great friend to us all.”
James’ books sold millions of copies around the world, and most were just as popular when adapted for television.
An Early Love for Crime, but a Late Start
Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford on Aug. 3, 1920. Her father was a tax collector and there was not enough money for her to go to college, a fact she always regretted.
Even as a child, she said, she had been interested in death. As a little girl, when someone read “Humpty Dumpty” to her, she asked, “Did he fall or was he pushed?”
But she did not start producing her mysteries until she was nearly 40, and then wrote only early in the morning before going to the civil service job with which she supported her family. Her husband, Connor Bantry White, had returned from World War II mentally broken and remained so until his death in 1964.
“It was a late beginning for someone who knew from early childhood that she wanted to be a novelist, and, looking back, I can’t help regret what I now see as some wasted years,” James wrote in a 1999 autobiography, Time to Be Earnest.
Her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962 and was an immediate critical success, but she continued to work as a civil servant until 1979.
In 1980, with the publication of her eighth book, Innocent Blood, her small but loyal following exploded into mass international popularity.
An Honored and Beloved Storyteller
The Crime Writers’ Association gave James its Diamond Dagger award in 1987 for lifetime achievement, and in 2005 the National Arts Club honored her with its Medal of Honor for Literature.
Queen Elizabeth II made her Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991, in recognition of her work as a governor of the BBC, a position she held from 1988 to 1993.
James was often spoken of as an heir to classic mystery icons Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, but her admirers thought she transcended both.
“Doyle and Christie are genre writers – clever, yes, but one must suspend considerable disbelief right from the get-go when reading their works,” said author Anita Shreve. “No such acrobatics are necessary with a James novel.”
James is survived by two daughters and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.