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When I heard in November that P. D. James had died at 94, I knew I wanted to write a column about her, but it’s taken me a few months to get ready to do it. It’s difficult to say good-bye to writers to whom you’ve felt close for decades. Like millions of others, I’ve spent the last 40 years or so looking forward to the next James novel, wondering where she would take her poet-policeman Adam Dalgliesh next and, more recently, whether he would finally marry Emma Lavenham, the woman he met in Death in Holy Orders, and with whom he had found what he called a “precarious joy.” That last question was resolved in James’ final Dalgliesh novel, The Private Patient, but it didn’t stop me from wanting more.
On the surface, James’ novels, both the Dalgliesh series and those starring Oxford private detective Cordelia Gray, might seem old-fashioned. The Dalgliesh books, especially, follow a formula with roots in the classical mysteries of Agatha Christie: there is a murder, usually in a remote location or within an insular community; Scotland Yard Superintendent Dalgliesh and his subordinates arrive on the scene and methodically interview suspects; other murders or further violence occurs; and, finally, Dalgliesh exposes the killer. Yes, all the pieces of the traditional puzzle mystery are in place, and James plays them with careful attention to the rigors of formula, yet her novels are always more than their form, just as the best sonnets are more than 14 lines of tightly controlled meter and rhyme. As we learn about the various suspects, we’re not just building scenarios and detecting red herrings; we’re also learning about people, observing their frailties, recognizing their illusions, and, above all, feeling their pain. Order is always restored at the end of a James novel, as formula requires, yet it is never without an overpowering sense of loss. Perhaps that is the real mark of James’ genius and her enduring popularity in a very unclassical age: she gives us the comfort of the classical detective story, but it comes at a price, a quiet reminder that order—however we crave it—rarely penetrates the human heart. Or, as Dalgliesh puts it, “Murder is a contaminating crime.”
James herself took some umbrage at the comparisons of her work to Christie and others from the so-called Golden Age. “That kind of writing was unrealistic,” she said in an interview, “prettifying and romanticizing murder, but having little to do with real blood-and-guts tragedy.” While the actual blood and guts rarely are on view in a James’ novel, the tragedy is always there, in all its moral ambiguity and reverberating ramifications. One reads a lot today about how crime novels have become more complex, blurring the line between genre and literary fiction. That trend is probably most noticeable in literary thrillers, where writers like Daniel Woodrell don’t need to bother with clues and crime-solving, but the phenomenon is also evident in more straightforward genre fare. Whether in procedurals, hard-boiled detective novels, or even mysteries with a hint of coziness, the best of today’s crime writers strive for multidimensionality in their characters, nuance in their storytelling, and ambiguity in the way their tales are resolved. If P. D. James didn’t get there first, she was close, and her influence on the brightest lights in contemporary crime writing has been enormous.
The work of Louise Penny, to pick the most obvious example, grows directly out of the James tradition. Penny’s hero, Armande Gamache, chief inspector, until his recent retirement, of the Sûrete du Québec, is, in every way, a North American Dalgliesh: sensitive, literary, vulnerable, concerned about invading the sanctity of an individual life without what James called “emotional license.” And Penny’s most frequent setting, the isolated Québec village of Three Pines, is as insular and as full of multitextured characters as the various inbred communities where James found murder—a psychiatric hospital, a publishing house, London’s criminal courts, and many others. Above all, though, despite their subtlety and their sophistication, both Dalgliesh and Gamache are cops who know their stuff: intuitive, yes, but thorough and painstakingly detailed in their realistically portrayed investigations. Penny’s books are distinctly her own, in no way derivative of James or anyone else, but in the crime-fiction zeitgeist, there is a direct line running from London to Québec.
Even writers working in a distinctly different, more mean-streets tradition—writers such as John Harvey, Ian Rankin, and Michael Connelly, whose cops display a concern for the inner lives of those they encounter on the job—owe a debt of gratitude to P. D. James. They may not have been explicitly influenced by James, but she helped prepare crime-fiction readers for a kind of crime novel that looked not only outward to who did what to whom but inward to the psychology and humanity of the characters.
I’ll end on a personal note. In 1982, when I was a relatively fresh-faced Booklist editor, I had the opportunity to interview James, who was touring the U.S. to promote The Skull beneath the Skin, her second Cordelia Gray novel. The interview took place in my office, and, frankly, I was petrified. Even that long ago, James was already being called the “Queen of Crime,” and I was a librarian-turned-editor usually called Bill. She treated me kindly and very gently, even signing my copy of her novel with the words, “Thank you for a stimulating but all too brief interview.” Yes, I know she probably used that line in hundreds of autographs as she made her way across the country, but, like Adam Dalgliesh, she knew how to reach the emotional core of anyone she encountered.
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