Requiescat in Pace
P.D. James, 1920-2014

By Sue Careless

“Murder is the unique crime. It is the taking away of something which we as humans haven’t the power to give and cannot possibly restore. Murder is also a contaminating crime. It touches the lives of every character, even the innocent.”

Acclaimed British murder mystery writer P.D. James spilt a lot of ink and fictitious blood. And as patroness of the Prayer Book Society in England, her religious and moral sensibility permeates much of her own dark prose.

Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park (she was so honored for her public service), died of natural causes on Nov. 27 at her home in Oxford, the city of her birth. She was 94.

“The mystery novel is a modern morality play,” she told me in an interview in 1998. “It is about the restoration of order out of disorder and about the attempts of human beings to achieve justice, even though the justice they achieve is only the terrible justice of men and not the divine justice of God.” Her 14th novel, A Certain Justice, particularly underscores this point.

She believed she could be a serious writer within the restraints of the detective novel. And the critics agreed.

Globe and Mail crime books reviewer Margaret Cannon reads 500 to 600 novels a year. Most remain a blur, but she recalls James’s works with remarkable clarity. “The best writers are always worth rereading,” said Cannon, who reads James again and again on the strength of her characters and the rich complexity of their relationships. “Her characters are totally realized. Her minor ones are particularly memorable.”

Cannon appreciates how James’s novels explore “the big themes of heaven, hell, death and judgment. Her people must confront their mortality, their mistakes. Ms. James doesn’t walk away from evil.”

A Taste for Death “transcends the genre,” Cannon said. “It is a brilliantly realized study of sin and redemption. The incredible characters are all flawed; they each have their own sins to expiate. All come to redemption; all are saved from themselves. In the last third of the book, the ‘whodunit’ doesn’t matter. Motivation is more important. In a split second, by a cardinal act of mercy, a soul is saved, although all are forced to pay a terrible price. Fifty years from now, A Taste for Death will still be standing.”

James’s detective hero, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, is a clergyman’s son who respects people of faith. She describes Dalgliesh as a “reverent agnostic. He’s respectful of the Christian religion and of the church of which his father was part and in which he was brought up.”

In contrast, Christianity is not part of Detective Inspector Kate Misken’s world. “She was not brought up with it.”

James was. Her parents took her weekly to Evensong, where young Phyllis found the prayer book more interesting than the sermon. At her state school, each day began with a Bible reading and prayer “so that even if you didn’t come from a very religious home, you were brought into touch with religion and, to some extent, a religious education,” she said.

“We were required to learn by heart the collect for the week, those short prayers where great subtleties of meaning are expressed concisely and simply. … I doubt whether the discipline improved our behaviour, but it certainly opened one child’s imagination to the richness and beauty of English prose” — a prose James continued to enrich.

Although a bright student, she left school at 16 because her cash-strapped father did not believe girls needed much education. She married a medical student and gave birth to the first of two daughters during the London blitz. In the war she served as a Red Cross nurse but her husband returned from the battlefield shell-shocked and was mostly confined to psychiatric institutions until his death in 1964. To support her family James worked for 19 years in hospital administration while her in-laws babysat her girls.

James was reticent about these hard times, saying simply in her memoir: “They are over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always known that happiness is a gift, not a right.”

It was not until 1962, when she was 42, that she completed her first mystery, Cover Her Face. It proved a great success. And thanks to her day job, three of her early novels have remarkably realistic hospital settings.

In 1964 she transferred to the forensic science and criminal law division of the Department of Home Affairs, a career that enriched the procedural accuracy of her detective fiction enormously. She managed to write no less than eight books after work, but in 1979 retired from the civil service to focus on her writing. That said, for many years she also served as a local magistrate, a governor of the BBC, and — as a baroness — sat in the House of Lords.

James had a tremendous following in crime fiction, but her dystopia, The Children of Men, did not achieve the sales of her mysteries despite good critical press. It is an Orwellian tale in which infertility seems to doom the aging human race.

“People were very much hoping for a new Adam Dalgliesh,” she said. “Some found it very disturbing. I didn’t set out to write a Christian fable at all. I set out to write a novel which is also a crime novel of a rather different kind, but in the end, that is what it turned out to be. I think it will last.” It was made into a critically acclaimed film in 2004, but the adaptation seemed a far cry from her book.

She described herself as “a communicant member of the Church of England, but not a very good Christian.” She explained: “Living lives in conformity to the gospel of Christ makes huge demands on us and, in all humility, very few of us can say that, in that sense, we are good Christians.”

Archbishop Robert Runcie appointed James to the Church of England’s liturgical commission, but James said: “I don’t think they wanted my opinion on anything.” James considered the Anglican Service Book that the commission produced “banal” and “not worthy of the church.”

Her first and only liturgical love was for the Book of Common Prayer. She wrote these words in the introduction to a guidebook I had written about the BCP:

For over four hundred years Cranmer’s Prayer Book has solaced, sustained, rebuked and exalted Christians throughout the English-speaking world, providing for all the rites of passage in this our earthly journey in cadences of incomparable beauty, dignity and grace. For many of us this marvelous book of prayer and praise is part of our early childhood, so that in our private and spontaneous prayers the well-known words of the Book of Common Prayer come readily to our lips and minds. … To imagine that people cannot understand [it], or that its language is so archaic as to be irrelevant to the twenty-first century, is disproved every day by the millions who love and use it in their corporate and private worship.

In an interview last summer with C. Peter Molloy for Anglican Planet, James said of her fiction, “somehow Christianity is always in the book. There is always a character who is genuinely Christian — sometimes a humble one, sometimes a less humble one.”

James gave her male sleuth the qualities that she admired in both men and in women: “courage, reticence, generosity of spirit, and sensitivity without sentimentality.” Of her 14 Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, 12 have been adapted for television. Roy Marsden portrayed Dalgliesh during the 1980s and 1990s while Martin Shaw starred as the Scotland Yard detective and poet in the two most recent TV adaptations, Death in Holy Orders and The Murder Room.

These last two mysteries show Dalgliesh, who began the series as a widower bereft of wife and child, now becoming attracted to Emma Lavenham, a professor of metaphysical poetry. James admitted that while it was not her original intention, Lavenham is a type of Beatrice that might draw Dalgliesh further into the faith of his youth.

She spoke with Molloy of hoping to find time to write one final book featuring Dalgliesh in which he would “die facing the certainty of death” and might then pray, “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief.” Yet she admitted that faith “has to be a gift from God. … I don’t think you can talk yourself into it; you bring what you can to him.”

In Talking about Detective Fiction (2009) James not only critiqued the notable crime writers who had preceded her such as Doyle, Chesterton, Sayers, Christie, Hammett, and Chandler, but also addressed many of the questions raised about the genre.

While it is not known if there are any unfinished manuscripts on her desk, a number of her published short stories and essays have yet to be collected into book form. She never kept a diary, except in her 77th year, which was published as the memoir, Time to Be in Earnest (1999). Her fans hope two of her Dalgliesh mysteries, The Lighthouse and The Private Patient, will be adapted for the screen, as might The Skull Beneath the Skin, one of her two Cordelia Gray mysteries.

James wrote 22 books in all during her 33-year writing career — not bad for a late starter.

Her last, Death Comes to Pemberly (2011, adapted for television in 2013), is a murder mystery with a regency twist. James so admired Jane Austen she gave a speech to the Jane Austen Society on “Emma Considered as a Detective Story.” James was granted permission by Austen’s estate to write a sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

In it we find Elizabeth and Darcy, now married with small children, grappling with the unprincipled George Wickham and Elizabeth’s foolish sister, Lydia, who threaten once again to bring shame upon Darcy and his innocent sister, Georgiana. The authors wrote two centuries apart, yet the moral dilemmas James devises ring true to the characters Austen originally created.

P.D. James acknowledged to Molloy that her gift for writing was God-given:

It is a gift. I never, ever, ever feel it has anything to do with my cleverness at all …. I feel that gratitude to God is the very heart of my faith … to be allowed to live in this wonderful world for 90 years, to have known the love of family and friends and to have a talent and the strength to follow it …. I have no doubt that creativity comes from God, the great Creator — and I do believe that profoundly — and I believe I have a responsibility to do the best I can with the talent he has given me.

She said her religious life is “really dominated by worship and gratitude. I do, in my prayers night and morning, always thank God for bringing me through the night to a wonderful day and I pray that I can live each day with love, with gratitude, with courage, and with generosity.”

Veteran journalist Sue Careless, based in Toronto, is author of the series Discovering the Book of Common Prayer: A Hands-On Approach.

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