Studying the Masters – Part 15 – P.D. James


1-pdjamesPhyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL was born on August 3, 1920. She was better known as P. D. James and was an English crime writer. She rose to fame for her series of detective novels starring police commander and poet Adam Dalgliesh

1-pdjamesbooksJames was born in Oxford, the daughter of Sidney James, a tax inspector, and educated at the British School in Ludlow and Cambridge High School for Girls. She had to leave school at the age of sixteen to work because her family did not have much money and her father did not believe in higher education for girls. She worked in a tax office for three years and later found a job as an assistant stage manager for a theater group. In 1941, she married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an army doctor. They had two daughters, Clare and Jane.

When White returned from the Second World War, he was experiencing mental illness, and James was forced to provide for the whole family until her husband’s death in 1964. With her husband in a psychiatric institution and their daughters being mostly cared for by his parents, James studied hospital administration and from 1949 to 1968 worked for a hospital board in London. She began writing in the mid-1950s. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, featuring the investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, named after a teacher at Cambridge High School, was published in 1962.

Many of James’s mystery novels take place against the backdrop of UK bureaucracies, such as the criminal justice system and the National Health Service, in which she worked for decades starting in the 1940s. Two years after the publication of Cover Her Face, James’s husband died, and she took a position as a civil servant within the criminal section of the Home Office. She worked in government service until her retirement in 1979.

Her 2001 work, Death in Holy Orders, displays her familiarity with the inner workings of church hierarchy. Her later novels were often set in a community closed in some way, such as a publishing house or barristers’ chambers, a theological college, an island or a private clinic. Talking About Detective Fiction was published in 2009. Over her writing career, James also wrote many essays and short stories for periodicals and anthologies, which have yet to be collected. She revealed in 2011 that The Private Patient was the final Dalgliesh novel.1-pp In 2008, she was inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame at the inaugural ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards.

In August 2014, James was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to September’s referendum on that issue.

James died at her home in Oxford on November 27, 2014, aged 94. She is survived by her two daughters, Clare and Jane, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

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