PD James (1920-2014)
PD James, one of Britain’s most prominent and respected crime writers, passed away on November 27 aged 94. Her novels have deservedly enjoyed much success and critical recognition. Bridging the gap between genre fiction and literary fiction, PD James’ work illustrates the nuance and complexity of crime fiction at its best.
Referring to PD James as the ‘Queen of Crime’ Marilyn Stasio wrote in her obituary for The New York Times that: ‘Many critics and many of her peers have said that by virtue of the complexity of her plots, the psychological density of her characters and the moral context in which she viewed criminal violence, Ms. James even surpassed her classic models and elevated the literary status of the modern detective novel.’ Fellow crime writer Val McDermid remembers her long-standing friendship with PD James in her recent tribute in the newspaper The Guardian. McDermid lists PD James among a group of writers which transformed crime fiction in Britain in the contemporary era. She states that, ‘Four writers of her generation reshaped the way we experience the English crime novel – PD James, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter.’
One book which gave me invaluable insight into PD James’ writing and personal story is her Time to be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography. I contributed a chapter to a critical volume, edited by Dr Christiana Gregoriou, called Constructing Crime: Discourse and Cultural Representations of Crime and ‘Deviance’ (Palgrave, 2012). In my chapter I explore three crime authors’ intellectual, political, and aesthetic engagement with discourses of gender and crime through the prism of life writing. My chapter is called: ‘A Life of Crime: Feminist Crime/Life Writing in Sara Paretsky, Writing in an Age of Silence, P.D. James, Time to be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography, and Val McDermid, A Suitable Job for a Woman: Inside the World of Women Private Eyes’. Researching this essay gave me fresh insight into the complex interrelationship between crime writers’ personal experience and their fiction.
Students on my second-year Crime Fiction module have not been slow to realise the importance and impact of genre fiction and PD James’ place within it. Nor has the literary merit and worth of her oeuvre escaped their notice. On my Crime Fiction module, we have studied PD James’ iconic novel from 1972 featuring a female detective character, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. This year, to mark PD James’ passing, we shall be studying another of her novels. This will provide a welcome opportunity for a new cohort of students and avid crime fiction readers to explore her oeuvre.
Having written about PD James in the past, I am still discovering treasures in her extensive body of work which I would like to examine and unpack in the future. Her books will continue to fascinate new generations of readers and capture their imaginations.
© Dr Charlotte Beyer