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Remembering P.D. James, grande dame of British detective fiction, dead at 94


British crime writer P.D. James (photo: Ulla Montan)

I saw the great British detective novelist P.D. James, who died today in Oxford at the age of 94, in person only once, at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. This was decades ago – I believe in the mid- to late-1980s – so my memory is fuzzy; it was certainly well before every minute detail of our lives was posted online, so the specifics of her appearance are impossible to verify. What I do remember precisely is being awed by the author’s dark, serious, psychologically acute novels, and trying to square this with the flesh and blood person, who was warm, congenial, and – most surprising of all – enormously funny.

As a teenager, I was heavily into crime fiction of all kinds, from the hardboiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard to the dark psychological thrillers of Ruth Rendell to the so-called “English cozies” of Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh (who was actually a New Zealander, but never mind). One figure who stood out was James, arguably the greatest practitioner of the classical British whodunnit since Dorothy L. Sayers.

Though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, one of the things that most fascinated me about James’s writing was the way in which she layered a literary sensibility onto genre tropes and conventions. In novels such as Cover Her Face, Shroud for a Nightingale, Death of an Expert Witness, and Innocent Blood, James constructed intricate, sometimes Byzantine plots, but never lost sight of the importance of character and language, infusing her stories with a sharply literary aspect that was often absent in the work of her less attentive contemporaries.

Though she disdained the artificial distinction between literary and genre writing, the twin poles of her sensibility are apparent in the opening chapter of Talking About Detective Fiction, her 2009 volume of criticism examining the type of writing she is most famous for. She begins by quoting Sayers, and goes on to mention Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and John le Carré. But she also intersperses names that might be less expected in an exploration of detective novels: E.M. Forster, Anthony Trollope, Thomas De Quincey, and Jane Austen.

Discussing Graham Greene’s separation of his more literary novels from what he called “entertainments,” James refers caustically to the distinction that is often drawn between literary (high) and genre (low) fiction:

I’m glad that Greene later repudiated this puzzling dichotomy, which picked out certain of his novels for disparagement and which helped to promote the still prevalent habit of dividing novels into those which are popular, exciting, and accessible but, perhaps for those reasons, tend to be undervalued, and those in a somewhat ill-defined category which are granted the distinction of being described as literary novels. Greene surely couldn’t have meant that, when writing an “entertainment,” he took less trouble with the literary style, cared less for the truth of characterization and modified the plot and theme to accommodate what he saw as the popular taste.