P.D. James: setting is central to her novels

August 13, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

When author P.D. James began writing her first novel in the mid-1950s, she wrote later, “it never occurred to me to make a start with anything other than a detective story.”

James had been reading mystery novels for many years, and she believed that she could write one that would be good enough to find a publisher.

“I have always been fascinated by structure in the novel, and detective fiction presented a number of technical problems, mainly how to construct a plot which was both credible and exciting with a setting which came alive for the readers, in characters who were believable men and women faced with the trauma of a police investigation into murder.

I therefore saw the detective story as an ideal apprenticeship for someone setting out with small hope of making a fortune but with ambitions to be regarded eventually as a good and serious novelist.”

James certainly reached her goal to be regarded as a good and serial novelist. During the latter half of the 20th century, she became one of the most widely known and widely read of all detective story authors.

One of the things that distinguishes her novels is the intricate exploration of their settings, which can be as wide-ranging as a nuclear power plant, an Anglican church, or a London law firm.

“My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character; an example is Devices and Desires, which had its genesis while I was on a visit of exploration in East Anglia, standing on a deserted shingle beach. There were a few wooden boats drawn up on the beach, a couple of brown nets slung between poles and drying in the wind, and, looking out over the sullen and dangerous North Sea, I could imagine myself in the same place hundreds of years ago with the taste of salt on my lips and the constant hiss and withdrawing rattle of the tide. Then, turning my eyes to the south, I saw the great outline of Sizewell nuclear power station and immediately knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.”

James was born in 1920 in Oxford. Because her mother had to be committed to a mental hospital when she was in her mid-teens, James had to leave school at the age of 16 to take care of her younger siblings. In August 1941, after Great Britain had been at war for two years, she married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an army doctor.

White returned from World War II mentally and emotionally shaken and had to be institutionalized. James became interested in hospital administration and beginning in 1949 worked for a hospital board in London for nearly 20 years.

In the 1950s, while seeing after her husband and their two children, James began writing her first novel. Its protagonist was Adam Dalgliesh, a Scotland Yard detective. The novel was Cover Her Face, and it was published in 1962. Two years later, her husband died, and James felt free to change jobs. She worked as a bureaucrat within the British Home Office until her retirement in 1979.

She wrote and published novels on a regular basis from that time on. Fourteen of them featured Dalgliesh as the detective. Two of them centered around a female detective named Cordelia Gray. Three other novels, which did not feature either of these two characters, were also published.

Many of her novels were adapted for radio, television, and film, and the novels and their adaptations continue to attract a large and avid audience. James received many awards and honors for her writing, including a life peerage.

One of the few non-fiction works that she wrote is a small book titled Talking About Detective Fiction, which was published in 2009. It is an extended and learned essay from a master of the genre. (The quotations above are taken from the book.)

James died in 2014 at the age of 94.

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