There are some writers whose books you can pick up without having to worry about the quality and style of writing and whether they may or may not have had their latest book ghost written (as sometimes happens with writers who become really popular and cannot keep up with the pressure of churning out new books). P.D.James was one of those who unfailingly satisfied her readers. She never thought she was writing genre fiction but wrote good novels for people who also enjoy reading detective stories. For her telling a good story transcended the horror of murder and as she herself said, it was more about “the puzzle, the bringing of order out of disorder.” As a result her books were always well researched and had detailed characterization.
P.D.James wrote fourteen murder mysteries with her detective, Adam Dalgliesh as the protagonist. Dalgliesh, a well-educated, poetry writing, Jaguar driving, aloof and chilly man, started off as Detective Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard and through the series kept moving up the ranks to finally become Commander in the later books. James also wrote two mystery novels (separated by a period of ten years) featuring Cordelia Gray. Unlike Dalgliesh, Gray is a young Private eye making her way in a man’s world. We always hoped that P.D.James would change her mind and write another book in the series but now unfortunately that will not be possible.
LL: Although she wrote so many Dalgliesh books, we somehow associated P.D.James with the two Cordelia Gray books ‘An Unsuitable Job for a Woman‘ and ‘The Skull Beneath the Skin‘. We found them more enjoyable.
PS: And we kept looking for a mention of her in the Dalgliesh books where she was in fact alluded to a couple of times. Cordelia Gray is definitely a more likeable character and you end up sympathising with her for the difficulties she faces due to her youth and being a girl.
LL: Unfortunately P.D.James felt she had lost the character of Gray, as she imagined her, when a TV series improvised to accommodate the pregnancy of the actress playing the part of Cordelia Gray and turned her into a single mother.
PS: It must be terrible for an author when somebody else starts to mess around with their characters. I find it very interesting that P.D.James was so clear about what she had envisioned for the character of Cordelia and also Dalgliesh. Perhaps the certainty and clarity in thought processes is what led to her very first book, ‘Cover Her Face’, being published by the very first publisher it was shown to in the 1960s.
LL: It is also interesting that Faber&Faber then continued to publish all her books and that the relationship was maintained throughout her life. It is fascinating that P.D.James only started writing in her forties and continued writing till her nineties!
PS: Her last book ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, though still a mystery novel, was a move away from her other books. It was meant as a continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with a murder thrown in.
LL: Just goes to show that no matter who you are you just cannot resist the allure of Austen.
PS: P.D.James will certainly be counted as one of the greats in the detective genre along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L.Sayers. And we hope her estate will let her characters rest with her. We will just be satisfied with re-reading her books.