Authors have a habit of living on through their works long after they’ve died. The likes of Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming (to say nothing of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc) still adorn the shelves of bookshops the world over, acquiring new readers long after their literary output has ceased. Like their living counterparts, some are defined by the genre in which they wrote, others less so.
P.D. James, who died last week at the age of 94, will be best remembered for her crime novels but she was always more than a crime writer. To her, it was perfectly possible to write good fiction that happened to come under the heading of ‘crime’. There are people who look down on crime writers and indeed crime fiction as a genre (those people don’t know what they’re missing, if you ask me), but from a literary perspective one really couldn’t look down on a writer as erudite as P.D. James.
Indeed, some of her books – always a treat to read – transcended the murder mystery genre; Innocent Blood dealt with a girl who finds out that her parents were murderers (James was not the sort of author to neglect looking at what effect the act of murder would have on ordinary people caught up in the story), while The Children of Men is best described as dystopian science-fiction.
But it was her other interests as well that made her more than a crime writer. P.D. James, who worked for the NHS and later the Home Office for many years, was also a Booker Prize judge (hardly a position one would usually associate with a crime novelist), a BBC governor and a Tory peer (she sat in the House of Lords as Baroness James of Holland Park). Five years ago she grilled the Director-General of the BBC on the Today programme, and earlier this year she was one of 200 public figures who signed a letter to the Guardian opposing Scottish independence. She was also a committed Anglican, which explains the church-related theme running through several of her works, and not just relating to her principal detective being the son of a rector – for example, the two bodies (one an MP, the other a tramp) at the start of A Taste for Death are found in a church vestry, while Death in Holy Orders is mainly set in a theological college in rural East Anglia – a location also used for Devices and Desires (the title of which was derived from a passage in the Book of Common Prayer; James, apparently, was rather put out when hardly anyone picked up on this after the book’s publication).
Similarly, her main protagonist, Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, was somehow more than just a detective – he was also a published poet and, being a cerebral type, was often compared to Inspector Morse (and like Morse’s creator, Colin Dexter, P.D. James was never a one-novel-a-year author; her 19-novel output was spread between 1962 and 2011).