P. D. James (1920-2014) was born in Oxford and educated at Cambridge High School for Girls. From 1949 to 1968 she worked in the National Health Service and subsequently in the Home Office, first in the Police Department and later in the Criminal Policy Department. All that experience was used in her novels. She was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Society of Arts and served as a Governor of the BBC, a member of the Arts Council, where she was Chairman of the Literary Advisory Panel, on the Board of the British Council and as a magistrate in Middlesex and London. She was an Honorary Bencher of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple. She won awards for crime writing in Britain, America, Italy and Scandinavia, including the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Award and The National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature (US). She received honorary degrees from seven British universities, was awarded an OBE in 1983 and was created a life peer in 1991. In 1997 she was elected President of the Society of Authors, stepping down from the post in August 2013.
Tributes to P.D. James (1920- 2014)
From Stephen Page's Tribute to P.D. James , given at the Memorial Service in London
on 29th April, 2015
Phyllis had a long writing career of over fifty years that began surprisingly late. She embarked on Cover Her Face in her mid-thirties. In her autobiography, Time to Be in Earnest, she admitted some regret that she didn't start earlier, saying that 'a streak of indolence . . . made it more agreeable to contemplate the first book rather than actually write it'. Yes, the well-known indolence of P. D. James!
Despite a later start she leaves an impressive body of work comprising nineteen brilliant and original novels, and three works of non-fiction, all of which continue to be read throughout the world. To her the choice of detective fiction was simply obvious, but she made it her own and stamped an originality and literary quality upon the genre like no other writer before her. She said that she wrote detective novels for the reasons readers are fascinated by them, for what she called 'the catharsis of carefully controlled terror' and the bringing of order out of disorder.
The story of her arrival at Faber is well known. At a dinner at All Souls, Elaine Greene, Phyllis's newly acquired agent, sat next to Charles Monteith, a director from Faber. He said that Faber was looking for a new detective-fiction writer since the recent death of Cyril Hare, and Elaine replied, 'I think I have what you are looking for.' Faber took on Cover Her Face in 1960, prompting the marvellous image of Phyllis, in her own words, 'prancing up and down the hall' on hearing the news. A treasure in the Faber Archive is the first book report, written by a perceptive female editor who quickly saw Phyllis's talent, and also perhaps one of the less discussed keys to the success of the Dalgliesh books. She commented that maybe it required a male editor's opinion, and I quote, 'I . . . got rather carried away by the inspector's compelling blue eyes.'
Inspector Dalgliesh was never far from Phyllis's thoughts, and not, I think, for his blue eyes. He is a good man, a poet, and he stands and speaks for Phyllis's humanity, a humanity that meant she could imagine what it was to be so overrun by desire or envy or anger or vengefulness that a person would commit a terrible crime. This gives the books their toughness and believability, and makes the reader's feeling for Dalgliesh all the greater as he seeks to restore order. Phyllis's compassion and love is visible both in and for Dalgliesh. Her kindness to her hero in the last three books, with his marriage to Emma - with more than a nod to her beloved Jane Austen - is so moving, and gives her readers the most encouraging and deeply affecting portrait of love's healing power. It's a gift to us all, as also are the final pages of Death Comes to Pemberley where Darcy and Elizabeth survey their world kindly despite the preceding traumatic events. The belief that good can prevail in a difficult world remains Phyllis's central message.
Phyllis was a good person and a great writer. She was an inspiration to readers, publishers and to our nation's literary culture. In Time to Be in Earnest she refers to W. H. Auden's essay on detective fiction from 1946 in which he says, 'The phantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the phantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law.' The Private Patient, her final Dalgliesh novel, ends, 'The world is a beautiful and terrible place . . . If the screams of all earth's living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love . . . we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have.' Phyllis knew love as love, and was able to give it, both in her life and in her fiction. We will all miss that; her beloved family, her friends, those she worked with, and her readers. But the joy is that her love remains in the lives of those who knew her and, more lastingly even, in her books, which will continue to thrill, nourish and entertain each new generation of readers, as is the gift of all great literature and great writers.
From the Daily Telegraph
During more than 50 years as an author, her books showed an elegance of characterisation and an aptitude for capturing atmosphere that blurred distinctions between classic detective stories and the conventional novel. She admitted that she had started writing crime fiction because she thought it would be easier to have a story published in that genre before going on to produce "proper" novels.
Becoming a pillar of the literary establishment rather late in life - she set up as a full-time writer only after retiring from the Civil Service in 1979, shortly before turning 60 - P.D. James threw herself into literary life with remarkable zest. She became chairman of the Society of Authors at 64, joined the board of the Arts Council at 68, and in 1978 chaired the judging panel for the Booker Prize ... In these and other public roles she proved both fluent and forceful, and perennially good-humoured. While guest editor of the Today programme in 2009, she memorably took the BBC director-general Mark Thompson to task over the corporation's failings. She was awarded the Nick Clarke journalism prize for the interview.
From the Daily Mail (by Jennifer Smith and Mia de Graaf)
The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor of St Paul's Cathedral and a friend of Baroness James, said 'Her creative genius put her alongside the great authors of detective fiction, not least Dorothy L. Sayers whom Lady James greatly admired. She was a woman of sharp intellect and profound grace and those of us who met her here at St Paul's were hugely privileged to have done so.'
Baroness Stowell, Leader of the Lords, said: 'In addition to being an acclaimed novelist who brought so much pleasure to so many through her writing, P.D. James also made a great contribution to public life as a civil servant, a BBC Governor and as a peer of the realm.'
From My hero: P.D. James (1920-2014) by Val McDermid , the Guardian
Four writers of her generation reshaped the way we experience the English crime novel - P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill and colin Dexter. When we awarded Phyllis the outstanding contribution award at the Theakstons Harrogate crime-writing festival, I was responsible for escorting her to the signing table afterwards. The room was packed, I shouted, "Make way, legend coming through." They parted like the Red Sea for Phyllis in a way they would have done for few others."
From Fellow authors lead tributes to P.D. James - the Guardian
James worked as a civil servant for three decades before her first novel was published by Faber & Faber in 1962. The author remained with Faber throughout her career and the company said it was a very sad day: "It is difficult to express our profound sadness at losing P.D. James, one of the world's great authors. She was so very remarkable in every aspect of her life, an inspiration and great friend to us all. It is a privilege to publish her extraordinary books."
A.S. Byatt described her friend's writing as "terribly good": "Phyllis was on the borderline between crime fiction and literary fiction," she told BBC News. "She said crime fiction should win the Booker and tried to have it taken seriously. She attended to detail and knew about chemistry and the nature of poisons and stabbings. She was always in control and always knew where she was going and what would happen."
From Any of the Events in Phyllis's books might have happened by Ruth Rendell, the Guardian
I've known Phyllis for about 40 years. We met at a book festival, probably one of the first I ever attended. It would have been a very commonplace thing for her to go to a festival, but nobody knew me then, and she was so nice to me. That is the thing I always will most remember about her: what a kind woman she was, how she did her very best to make you feel good.
She did not write sensation novels, she wrote books about real things, things that could have happened. She didn't write at all like Agatha Christie. Christie had the most magnificent plots and great stories, but I don't think anyone would say that she wrote believable stuff, people didn't want that from her.
But any of the events in Phyllis's books might have happened - and I think people liked that because they'd never had it in crime fiction before. Dorothy Sayers was a marvellous crime writer, whom both Phyllis and I admired very much, but she hadn't got the same reality, and she also had that peculiar snobbishness that made her have her detective the son of a duke. Phyllis would have nothing of that.