Tuesday, March 10, 2015

P.D. James: In Memoriam

Right Honorable Phyllis Dorothy, Baroness James of Holland Park, died in her home in Oxford, England on Thursday, November 27 at the age of 94. Ever since that day, I've been meaning to write about my love of James and her books, but for some reason kept putting it off. My March has opened up with open blog spots, so here goes.

James was the person who introduced me to the world of British classic crime stories. I can't remember now which one I picked up first, but I do remember falling in love with her elegant prose, her erudite references, her characterization, attention to detail, and her intricate plotting. Every book I read of hers has never failed to renew my enjoyment in her writing. I enjoyed the energy of her Dalgliesh series more than her Cordelia ones, so I was glad to see the latter a short-lived series. Adam Dalgliesh, the poet scholar and Scotland Yard sleuth, will forever be remembered as an expert policeman and crime solver. His love life, will he / won't he, was the tension that ran through the series.

I was at loose ends after that, till I discovered Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy Sayers. And also Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie, modern authors writing in the similar police procedural style. I gave romantic suspense a try, cozy mysteries, thriller mysteries, and hardboiled American detective stories all a try, but I keep on

Since that first public library James discovery, for months, I read nothing else but James. Then I followed it up with her memoirs and then her musing on detective fiction. Recently, I was among the few who enjoyed her Death Comes to Pemberley. While I loved her mysteries, it were her memoirs, Time to be in Earnest that really made me like her as a person. It's a day-by-day (sort of) accounting of her activities, which act as jumping off points for a discussion on diverse issues.

In her book on detective fiction, James dismisses the boundaries between literary fiction and genre fiction. "And it is surely the power to create this sense of place and to make it as real to the reader as is his own living room—and then to people it with characters who are suffering men and women, not stereotypes to be knocked down like dummies in the final chapter—that gives any mystery writer the claim to be regarded as a serious novelist."

In James's work, a murder story is not merely a well-plotted tale. Murder is the start of the exploration of the minds and the hearts of her characters and the emotions it arouses in them. It explorers what makes her characters human—their foibles, their peccadilloes, their joys, their fears, their sorrows—and when life is shattered, these rise to the surface as never before.

In an interview she said of her detective Dalgliesh: "From the first I was aiming at credibility," she told the Guardian newspaper. "I thought, amateurs don’t really have the resources to investigate a murder. I must have a professional. And I couldn’t have a woman because there were no women in the detective force then. I simply produced the kind of hero I’d like to read about: courageous but not foolhardy, compassionate but not sentimental. I thought if I got fed up or bored with this man, the readers would too."

In her real life, she had to deal with a mentally ill husband, while holding down high-profile civil service jobs, raising her two daughters, and doing all the work that involves running every aspect of a household. In addition to this, in her early forties, she started writing. How in the world, did she find the energy and the courage to write Cover Her Face, her first book? Amazing woman, amazing writer, and I mourn her passing.