Phyllis Dorothy James

Friday May 01 2009
by Jack Bumsted

Phyllis Dorothy James (aka Phyllis Dorothy White, her married name) was born in Oxford on 3 August 1920. Her father was a civil servant with the British Inland Revenue. As is true with many female writers, she was influenced by her father far more than by her mother. As is also true with many writers, she had an unhappy childhood; her mother was committed to a Victorian asylum when she was in her teens. James has described her father as "never cruel but authoritarian."  The family moved to Cambridge, and James attended Cambridge High School, never graduating. She did not go on to university, although she had lived in two university towns. She met her husband, Connor Bantry White, who was a medical student, while working for the Cambridge Festival Theatre. They married in 1941 and moved to London, where Phyllis spent "a very happy war" because of the camaraderie associated with the bombings.  The couple had two daughters.

James’ husband spent the latter years of the war with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Africa and India, and soon after his return to civilian life began suffering a series of debilitating emotional breakdowns. According to his wife, "It was hard, very hard. He’d be all right for a while, then there was a big explosion." The children were sent to boarding school at an early age, and Phyllis went to work for the National Health Service in 1949, becoming a successful hospital administrator. Connor White died in 1964, and his widow took the national Civil Service examination in 1968, finishing third in the entire nation. The authorities offered her a choice of employ-ment. She chose the Home Office police department as being particularly useful to her blossoming career as a writer. By this point she had written three highly successful crime novels featuring Commander Adam Dalgleish, who by her own account was endowed with all the characteristics she most admired: "high intelligence, sensitivity but not sentimentality (which I loathe), compassion, courage, and reticence."  She retired from the Home Office in 1979.

From the beginning James wrote books in the classic "Queens of Crime" mode.  They were highly literate puzzles set in closed universes, and over the course of her lengthy career she would explore many of these settings: hospitals, offices, churches, colleges, clinics, and the like. Curiously enough, she has claimed that the chief influence on her crime writing was not one of the Queens, but Cyril Hare  (1900-1958), who wrote a series of legal thrillers set mainly in courtrooms. Certainly any attempt to compare James to Agatha Christie soon founders, since the writings of the two are quite different. Probably the Queen of Crime James most resembles is Dorothy Sayers. Both tended to be prolix (James’s books got much longer as she went along), both were high Anglicans, and both likely had secret love affairs with their principal character.

James is not usually regarded as very innovative, but in 1972 she introduced a new sleuth in the person of Cordelia Gray, a young woman who unexpectedly inherited a private detective agency – and a gun. Gray was one of the first generation of young female private eyes, and she starred in two books, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and The Skull beneath the Skin (and subsequently on television) before retiring, never to be heard from again.  Why this occurred is not known.  James went back to Dalgleish, and has stuck with him over the years, although many fans still long for more from Cordelia. In total there are fourteen Dalgleish novels. Most of them have been made into television movies. In some of them Kate Miskin appears at the Commander’s right hand. An interesting character in her own right, with an aged mother who needs taking care of, James has never used Miskin as a major protagonist.

Like many British crime writers, P. D. James sees crime, and especially murder, as "deeply contaminating," an evil intrusion into life.  She also sees murder investigations as deeply intrusive into the lives of the suspects, both the innocent and the guilty. It is the trauma of the investigations that provides her with an opportunity to explore the inner lives of her characters. She is not particularly squeamish. While she seldom describes the actual murder, her novels spend a lot of time describing the corpse and the finding of the body; her years in the Home Office have proved extremely helpful here.

James has not written only crime fiction, but has ventured into several other genres. Her science fiction novel, The Children of Men, was a best-seller made into a popular film, and she has written non-fiction crime as well.  Her fragment of autobiography, A Time to be in Earnest, was published in 1999. One major difference between her and earlier generations of crime fiction writers is that she has never had to make some of her money by writing short stories, for which a major market no longer exists.

It is hard to think of a British crime novelist who has received more honours, literary and otherwise, over the years than P. D. James.  She made an officer in the Order of the British Empire in 1983 and was created a life peer (Baroness James of Holland Park) in 1991.  Agatha Christie never advanced beyond being a Dame of the Empire. A lifelong Anglican, James hosted a tea for the wives of bishops attending the 2008 Lambeth Conference.  

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