Within two minutes of hearing the news on the BBC’s 2 p.m. bulletin yesterday, I was telephoned by the East Anglian Daily Times for a reaction to the death of Phyllis James. This interest by a regional newspaper was no random act of news-gathering as Phyllis is revered in East Anglia partly as a former resident of Southwold and partly because several of her famous crime novels had atmospheric Suffolk settings, not the least of them being the coastal village of ‘Monksmere’ in her 1967 Unnatural Causes which begins with the famously gruesome opening: The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast.
As she often said when asked the perennial question ‘How do you write your books?’ it was, for her, a question of place. Only when she had fixed on a setting – and not before – did plot, characters, suspense, and solution begin to coalesce. This was often, though not always, a distinctive physical, geographical place like the East Anglian coastline, which she caught so beautifully in Death in Holy Orders (2001) or other dramatic seascapes such as the Dorset coast of The Black Tower (1975) or ‘Combe Island’ off Cornwall in The Lighthouse (2005). She proved to be just as comfortable describing (or more accurately, letting her characters observe) urban settings, notably Cambridge in high summer in An Unsuitable Job For a Woman (1972) and London – and in Original Sin (1994) specifically the River Thames.
Sometimes the setting was a specific place, and as Phyllis James wrote crime novels, it could be a specific place where something very nasty has taken place, as in the bloodstained vestry of St Matthew’s church Paddington in A Taste For Death (1986) with its two almost decapitated bodies. I remember there was something of a furore when that book – with that opening chapter - came out for it gave lie to the suggestion that P. D. James was a writer of “cosy” mysteries. True, she wrote traditional English detective stories and did so with a skill, which did – and will forever – rank with the best of Allingham, Marsh, Sayers and Christie but she was far from a cosy writer. Murder, in her books, was never bloodless or provided simply as an artifice to the plot.
From Agatha Christie she learned the lesson not to make her series detective an eccentric, if not bizarre, character and from Dorothy Sayers she learned the danger of falling in love with her central protagonist. And so her hero Adam Dalgliesh was, from the outset, created as a professional policeman with an established (albeit tragic) family history whose career loyal readers would follow as he ascended the giddy heights of Scotland Yard over the years. His creator imbued him with the qualities she admired (in both sexes): intelligence, courage, sensitivity, and reticence.
When writing about this process and her own career in Talking About Detective Fiction (2009), she said, interestingly: If I started today it is likely that I would choose a woman, but this was not an option at the time when women were not active in the detective force.
Nor were they particularly dominant in crime fiction. It is easy to forget that when P.D. James’ first Adam Dalgliesh novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962; the best-seller charts were dominated (and internationally dominated) by male thriller writers. Alistair Maclean, Hammond Innes, and Ian Fleming were well into their stride and the careers of Len Deighton and John Le Carré were just taking off. True, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh were still active, but there seemed to be a trend towards spies rather than detectives and exotic thriller locations, from the Arctic to the Amazon, rather than small English villages like St Mary Mead. Also, most notable innovations in crime writing appeared to be taking place in America rather than Britain, spearheaded by Ed McBain and Ross Macdonald.
A woman writing traditional English detective stories with a strong sense of Christian morality seemed to be swimming against the tide, but that is exactly what Phyllis James did, although she once admitted to me that the real incentive to sell that first novel was to pay for a new carpet in the living room!
Although her skill as a writer was recognised by the critics, commercial success did not come overnight but by the time Anglia Television began to serialise her novels in the 1980s, she was well on her way to becoming a household name. She won three Silver Daggers from the Crime Writers’ Association, though amazingly never a Gold Dagger – and equally surprisingly was never elected CWA Chairman, something I had to look up, as it seemed so unlikely. She was, however, the 1987 recipient of the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement though at that time, her writing career was probably only just approaching the halfway mark.
In a writing career spanning 52 years, she was not a prolific author – certainly not by crime-writing standards – producing 20 novels, 14 of which featured Adam Dalgliesh.
The first P.D. James book I read, though, was not a Dalgliesh but her stand-alone 1980 novel about adoption and ‘lost’ children, Innocent Blood. To this day I think it remains my favourite and I was rather proud to hear Ruth Rendell, in a radio tribute to Phyllis yesterday, say that it was also her favourite.
I first met Phyllis through the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, of which she was the Patron for many years. She gave the first annual Sayers Memorial Lecture at Witham in Essex (where Sayers had lived) and I gave the second. We both returned to Witham in 2007 to launch the Essex Book Festival and, after the formalities were done and dusted, she joined me in an impromptu question-and-answer session with visitors to Witham public library.
When one would-be novelist asked, rather plaintively: “What do you have to do to write a book?” Phyllis and I answered loudly and in perfect unison: “Read!” though we had not, honestly, rehearsed.
At the funeral of her friend and fellow Detection Club member Harry Keating in 2011, she gave a heartfelt oration of which I know Harry would have approved. At the wake after the service she was naturally sombre, but as charming and polite as ever. We talked about her forthcoming novel Death Comes to Pemberley and she hinted that not only did she have an idea for the ‘next Dalgliesh’ but also for the one after that.
I have no idea how far she got with the next Dalgliesh, but she always said in public that her detective hero “would die with her” and it seems, sadly as if he has.
I cannot say I knew Phyllis well. We were of very different generations and traditions when it came to crime writing, but British crime writing in particular is a broad church and Phyllis was a charming, wise, and supremely talented pillar of that church. I doubt we will see her like again.
Pictures courtesy of Mike Ripley and the Shots Collective.
Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, rose to fame for her series of detective novels starring policeman and poet Adam Dalgliesh. James began writing in the mid-1950s. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, featuring the investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, named after a teacher at Cambridge High School, was published in 1962. Many of James's mystery novels take place against the backdrop of the UK's bureaucracies, such as the criminal justice system and the National Health Service, in which James worked. In 1991, she was created a life peer as Baroness James of Holland Park and sat in the House of Lords as a Conservative.
She revealed in 2011 that The Private Patient was the final Dalgliesh novel. As guest editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme in December 2009, James conducted an interview of BBC Director General Mark Thompson, in which she seemed critical of some of his decisions. Regular Today presenter Evan Davis commented that "She shouldn't be guest editing; she should be permanently presenting the programme". During the 1980s, many of James's mystery novels were adapted for television by Anglia Television for the ITV network in the UK. The BBC has adapted Death in Holy Orders in 2003, and The Murder Room in 2004, both as one-off dramas starring Martin Shaw as Dalgliesh.
Her novel The Children of Men (1992) was the basis for the feature film Children of Men (2006), directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine. She wrote 14 novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh, 2 novels featuring Cordelia Gray and a number of non-fiction books.
P D James was the President of the Society of Authors between 1997 and 2013. She was a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts. She also held Honorary Fellowships of both St Hilda’s College Oxford and Girton College Cambridge to name a few.
Her books won a number of awards and were shortlisted numerous times as well –
1971 Best Novel Award, Mystery Writers of America (runner-up): Shroud for a Nightingale
1972 Crime Writers' Association (CWA) Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction: Shroud for a Nightingale
1973 Best Novel Award, Mystery Writers of America (runner-up): An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
1986 Mystery Writers of America Best Novel Award (runner-up): A Taste for Death
1987 CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger (lifetime achievement award)
1992 Deo Gloria Award: The Children of Men
1992 The Best Translated Crime Fiction of the Year in Japan, Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! 1992: Devices and Desires
1999 Grandmaster Award, Mystery Writers of America
2010 Best Critical Nonfiction Anthony Award for Talking About Detective Fiction
2010 Nick Clarke Award for interview with Director-General of the BBC Mark Thompson whilst guest editor of Today radio programme.
In 2008, she was inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame at the inaugural ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards.