P.D.James - a life in crime

22/07/2011 by Simon Savidge

P.D. James, or to give her her full title Baroness Phyllis Dorothy James of Holland Park OBE, last night became the winner of the second Theakstons Old Peculier Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award. This should come as no surprise as James has an extensive back catalogue of books, which includes 18 novels and three works of non-fiction, something that seemed unlikely when she started writing while a working mother in the 1960s.

It is probably for the Adam Dalgleish crime novels for which James is the most well known and loved. Her poem-writing detective first appeared in her debut novel Cover Her Face in 1962, though as more of a walk-on part, and seemed to take hold of James and has done so for another 13 books since.

Recently re-reading Cover Her Face it's amazing that it hasn't aged, especially with its sense of being a "manor house murder mystery" which was so prevalent in the genre's past. It could be the fact that James' novels always seem to have a sense of a closed community, even if they take place in one building, and this gives them a real timeless quality. It could also be the modernisation of the stereotypical Agatha Christie manor murder and the mix with police procedural. These appeal to two big readerships and combine them, something which was quite new upon the book's release. It also makes them prime for adaptations.

Both James' Dalgliesh series and Cordelia Gray mysteries have been adapted, but it is the one P.D. James novel that isn't a "crime" novel, though very much still a thrilling read, which has become the most successful of the adaptations. This is the dystopian Children of Men, which became a film with Clive Owen in 2006. The novel focused on mass infertility in a familiar yet strange world and marked a real change in James' writing. It's a book I would heartily recommend to anyone who loves Margaret Atwood.

What for me adds to the wonder of P.D. James is her personality and attitude to life. Seeing her in conversation its hard to believe that she is 91 years old, yet age doesn't seem to be stopping her. At a recent event she said “the only problem with aging is that sometimes I tend to forget the titles of the books I have written previously, but never the plots” before adding “I tend to think each book I write might be the last one, yet I seem to then write another”.

Her huge fanbase certainly wants them to keep on coming.
 

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