P.D. JAMES took the classic British detective story into tough modern terrain, complete with troubled relationships and brutal violence, and never accepted that crime writing was second-class literature.
James, who has died aged 94, is best known as the creator of sensitive Scotland Yard sleuth Adam Dalgliesh. But her wickedly acute imagination ranged widely, inserting a murder into the mannered world of Jane Austen in Death Comes to Pemberley and creating a bleak dystopian future in The Children of Men.
James told the Associated Press in 2006 that she was drawn to mystery novels because they “tell us more … about the social mores about the time in which they were written than the more prestigious literature.”
Publisher Faber and Faber said James died peacefully on Thursday at her home in Oxford, southern England.
Faber, James’ publisher for more than 50 years, said in a statement that she had been “so very remarkable in every aspect of her life, an inspiration and great friend to us all.”
James’ books sold millions of copies around the world, and most were just as popular when adapted for television.
Because of the quality and careful structure of her writing — and her elegant, intellectual detective Dalgliesh — she was at first seen as a natural successor to writers like Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, in the between-the-wars “Golden Age” of the mystery novel.
But James’ books were strong on character, avoided stereotype and touched on distinctly modern problems including drugs, child abuse, terrorism and nuclear contamination.
Novelist A.S Byatt said the realism of James’ writing was one of its strengths.
“When people in her books died the other characters’ lives changed as they would in real life,” Byatt told the BBC. “Phyllis (James) was working with real people that she cared about.
“The world will be a worse place without her.”
Although there was nothing remotely genteel about P.D. James’ writing, she was criticised by some younger writers of gritty urban crime novels.
They accused her of snobbery because she liked to write about middle-class murderers, preferably intelligent and well-educated, who agonise over right and wrong and spend time planning and justifying their crimes. Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, hero of more than a dozen of James’ 20 novels, is a decidedly gentlemanly detective, who writes poetry, loves jazz and drives a Jaguar.
James was unapologetic. She said her interest was in what made people tick.
“The greatest mystery of all is the human heart,” she said in a 1997 interview, “and that is the mystery with which all good novelists, I think, are concerned. I’m always interested in what makes people the sort of people they are.”
Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford on August 3, 1920. Her father was a tax collector and there was not enough money for her to go to college, a fact she always regretted.
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