November 27, 2014


PD James, queen of detective fiction, dies aged 94 : Creator of much-loved detective Adam Dalgliesh was one of the most successful British authors of crime fiction (Richard Lea, 27 November 2014, The Guardian)

It had always been her "intention" to become a writer, and she began writing about a detective partly as an apprenticeship for writing "serious" novels, as she explained to the Paris Review in 1994. James had always loved crime novels, was unwilling to explore the "traumatic experiences" of her own life in fiction and was well aware it would be easier to find a publisher for a detective story. But the genre also appealed to her taste for order.

"I like structured fiction, with a beginning, a middle, and an end," she said. "I like a novel to have narrative drive, pace, resolution, which a detective novel has."

Published in 1962, Cover Her Face opens "exactly three months before the killing", with a country-house dinner party which becomes, "in retrospect, a ritual gathering under one roof of victim and suspects, a staged preliminary to murder". The new parlourmaid announces her engagement to the manor house's eldest son at the village fete and is strangled the following night, a mystery resolved by the refined poet-detective Inspector Dalgliesh. "I gave him the qualities I admire," James explained in 2001, "because I hoped he might be an enduring character and that being so, I must actually like him."

The author's hunch proved accurate, Dalgliesh trading his Bristol Cooper for a Jaguar as he took on cases in hospitals, nursing homes and laboratories over the course of 14 novels.

The erudition of James's detective and the focus of her murder mysteries on the middle classes brought accusations of elitism, coming to the boil in 1995 after a radio interview in which the author suggested "you don't get moral choice" in what she called "the pits of the inner-city area, where crime is the norm and murder is commonplace". But the writer made no apologies, arguing "the contrast between respectability and planned brutality is of the essence" in a detective story.

"If you have appalling and violent events happening in a civilised place, it's a great deal more horrific," she explained. [...]

Writing outside the crime genre, her 1992 novel The Children of Men - set in a dystopian future - was adapted to critical acclaim for the cinema in 2006.

James's apprenticeship in crime fiction became a lifelong commitment, as she came to believe "it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live". To suggest that the formal constraints of crime fiction prevent its practitioners from producing good novels "is as foolish as to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to 14 lines" she argued.

Had she never written a Dalgleish novel--try Death in Holy Orders if you've never read one--she'd be remembered for Children of Men, which is for the current European moment what 1984 was in 1948.

Posted by at November 27, 2014 9:38 AM

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