The world of crime writing bid goodbye to its high priestess last week. P.D. James, creator of the gentlemanly detective Adam Dalgliesh, whose exploits she described through 14 books, died aged 94. James got into writing in her late thirties, starting off with detective fiction as an apprenticeship for writing more ‘serious’ novels, but the apprenticeship turned into a lifelong affair.
For those who have grown up on a diet of Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, P D James’ style of writing is initially difficult to digest. Unlike Hercule Poirot and occasionally Sherlock Holmes, James’ creation, Adam Dalgliesh, did not deduce the identity of the killer from a boot print or a discarded cigarette. James’ writing was more grounded in reality, with Dalgliesh indulging in solid, occasionally slow, detective work, relying on his intellect over coincidences to solve mysteries. Her descriptions of the murder scenes were graphic, highlighting the brutality and the violence of the crime. She was occasionally accused of elitism because she wrote about middle-class well-educated murderers who meticulously planned their crimes, but her books were appreciated for the painstaking research that went behind it and the vivid descriptions of location and character that they provided. Her writing served as inspiration to many other detective writers, including Patricia Cornwell and Val McDermid, and most of her books have been adapted into television series and movies.
For newbies to P D James’ writing, here are some books you can start with
- Cover Her Face: Begin where it all started, with the first Adam Dalgliesh book. It’s a classic locked door murder mystery, set in an English manor, begins with the death of Sally Jupp, a servant at Martingale Manor set to marry the heir, and features all the layers and nuances that came to characterize her later works.
- Death of an Expert Witness: Dalgliesh investigates the murder of a highly-disliked biologist, in a story where everyone wants the man dead and nobody has much of an alibi (Murder on the Orient Express turned on its head, we’d say), this is one of James’ best known works
- Death in Holy Orders: James takes us into the heart of the working of the Church of England and its training of students as Dalgliesh investigates the murder of an archdeacon. The book tackles controversial subjects, including mental illness and child abuse, and is said to be a very personal one for the author.
- Death Comes to Pemberley: James tries her hand at a Jane Austen adaptation, in this rare non-Dalgliesh novel. Six years after Darcy and Elizabeth get married, a murder shatters their cosy abode, and the Pride and Prejudice couple have to piece together the clues to figure out what happened.
Arundhati is a member of LSD. She was in love with Holmes before Cumberbatch made him all sexy.