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James, P(hyllis) D(orothy)

(British, 1920– )

Although P. D. James left school at 16, she went on to work in the criminal policy department of the Home Office. This experience fuelled her detective fiction writing, which began in 1962 with Cover Her Face. Introducing her poetry-writing detective Adam Dalgleish, the novel is set in a backward-thinking village where Sally Jupp, from a home for unmarried mothers, meets an untimely death. Many of James's stories have been dramatized for television. Her later work plays with expectations of detective fiction, dealing with more serious themes than have been traditionally addressed in this genre. Original Sin (1994), for instance, is a mystery story set in a publishing house, and considers the decline of the ‘gentleman publisher’. The Holocaust also appears as an important backdrop to this novel. Although this attracted praise from some quarters, it unbalanced the novel and added a worthiness that it could not quite carry.

The next Dalgleish novel, A Shroud for a Nightingale (1971), is a gripping story set in a nurses’ training school, and begins with the inexplicable death of a young student nurse. Move on to one of James's best novels, Devices and Desires (1989), in which Dalgleish escapes to Norfolk for a much-needed holiday only to encounter the actions of a pyschopathic strangler of young women; the campaign against the local nuclear power station features as an interesting sub-plot.

You may also like to try her novels in which the feisty private detective Cordelia Gray leads the murder hunt. Start with An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1981). Children of Men (1992) marked a new departure in James's writing. This futuristic novel is set in an authoritarian England where no children have been born for twenty-five years. The hero, an academic, attempts to change the course of history.

Ruth Rendell (writing as Barbara Vine), Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter.


Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (Ha-Ke)