LONDON, ONTARIO – Not that she was around to blow out all those candles (having slipped off this mortal coil six and a half years ago) but earlier this month Phyllis Dorothy James (1920-2014) turned one hundred. I was alerted to this anniversary – which I too would like to salute – when the great Mark Steyn paid tribute to her last week in a wittily entitled essay, A Baroness on Barrenness, which primarily discussed P.D. James’ least typical (which is to say her only non-detective) novel, 1993’s The Children of Men.
Troubled by a report she had read about plummeting sperm counts in Western men, P.D. James speculated in this worst-selling but most controversial novel of her career (Steyn is convinced, and I wouldn’t gainsay him, that it is the one that is most certain to endure) about what the psychological, social, sexual, political and spiritual implications might be for an omega generation which understood itself to be the end of the human line. In what sort of nutty and desperate ways might people behave if they believed there was no future for human beings? In this thoughtful and troubling book, James imagined a richly bizarre and howlingly neurotic world that is just familiar enough to us already as to be all too hauntingly plausible.
With its christening ceremonies for kittens, its dogs decked out in bonnets and pushed around in prams, its jolly final excursions in self-dumping barges for unloved seniors . . . disturbing scenes from The Children of Men often pop into my mind unbidden when I scan Free Press obituary notices and read of people who are mourned by their four-legged friends or who have died “at a time of their own choosing”. And in this eerily quiet time of Wuhan batflu lockdowns, taped off playgrounds, shuttered schools and all kinds of kid-friendly events from fireworks displays to the Western Fair being muffled and pointlessly rejigged as virtual presentations, the echoes from James’ dystopian novel are only multiplied. And – oh, yes – just in case you’re getting a little panicky about when the restraints of this joyless, desiccated half-life of ours might finally be lifted, The Children of Men is set in the year 2021.
Though it took Mark Steyn a few years to really twig to the prescient insight and power of The Children of Men, James’ novel eventually proved to be purest catnip to this self-proclaimed “demography bore” who – particularly in the wake of 9/11 – has specialized in charting the galloping enfeeblement and suicide of Western culture.
“It is a profound work,” Steyn wrote in his column last week, “certainly when compared with the non-fiction title that generated all the buzz on the op-ed pages that year, Francis Fukuyama's fatuous thesis on The End of History. While Fukuyama was cooing that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked "the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government", Lady James discerned, at the very moment of triumph, a fatal enervation in the "free world". Three decades on, The End of History is too ridiculous to read, while The Children of Men endures as a meditation on the West at sunset. It is a quick read – a short book on a bigger question than anything roiling the news cycle.”
While I believe Steyn is quite right in lavishing praise on The Children of Men, I would like to spread some glory around in the balance of this essay on the rest of her ‘corpus’ of work. (I usually resist Latin tags but that one was – shall we say? – irresistible.) If her death at the ripe old age of ninety-three and a half did not set off paroxysms of grief in the public at large, it was only because she had enjoyed such a long and productive run – publishing her last novel, Death Comes to Pemberley (a sleuth-erific continuation of her beloved Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) in 2012 – and so clearly accomplished everything that was within her scope to achieve. James left us with more than twenty books – eighteen of them detective novels; the genre in which she distinguished herself as the foremost practitioner of her era.
But her pre-eminence in that one field (which she probably would have branched out of after two or three novels if the success of her earliest books hadn’t been so spectacular) should not blind us to the depth and breadth of her profound appreciation for all kinds of English literature. From William Shakespeare to P.G. Wodehouse, from Samuel Johnson to Nancy Mitford, from George Herbert and John Donne to G.K. Chesterton and Philip Larkin, James read widely and avidly and discernedly throughout her life.
In short, this formidably well-read woman had a lot to draw on when she sat down to pen one of her mysteries. Here is an excerpt from a 2009 essay in which James reflected on what attracted her and challenged her when spinning out one of her tales:
“The classical detective story is the most paradoxical of the popular literary forms. The story has at its heart the crime of murder, often in its most horrific and violent form, yet we read the novels primarily for entertainment, a comforting, even cosy relief from the anxieties, problems and irritations of everyday life. Its prime concern – indeed its raison d'être – is the establishment of truth, yet it employs and glories in deceit: the murderer attempts to deceive the detective; the writer sets out to deceive the reader, to make him believe that the guilty are innocent, the innocent guilty; and the better the deception the more effective the book. The detective story is concerned with great absolutes – death, retribution, punishment – yet in its clue-making it employs as the instruments of that justice the trivial artefacts and incidents of everyday life. It affirms the primacy of established law and order, yet its attitude to the police and the agencies of that law has often been ambiguous, the brilliance of the amateur detective contrasted with dull official orthodoxy and unimaginative incompetence. The detective story deals with the most dramatic and tragic manifestations of man’s nature and the ultimate disruption of murder, yet the form itself is orderly, controlled, formulaic, providing a secure structure within which the imaginations of writer and reader alike can confront the unthinkable.”
Never one to put on airs, she read all of Charles Dickens and recognized the superiority of his creative genius but wasn’t ashamed to admit that if push came to shove, she actually preferred to spend her recreational hours with the ever so much more down-to-earth Anthony Trollope. Frequently tapped by publishers to provide introductions to classic reprints, just mooching around on my own shelves this week I have revisited her beautifully tuned prefaces to Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, and nine of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels as well as four volumes of Sayers’ Letters.
James also was regularly called on to judge literary competitions like the Booker and sat on countless boards and committees for the promotion of various literary, educational and charitable causes. Writers can often be notoriously self-absorbed but to a very rare degree, P.D. James was a grateful citizen and a community-minded soul with a wonderfully generous sense of what sort of causes deserved her help and support.
P.D. James’ first published book was 1962’s Cover Her Face, in which she introduced her Scotland Yard inspector (who would eventually rise to the post of commander) Adam Dalgleish. Agatha Christie (1890–1976), widely hailed as the previous generation’s ‘Queen of Crime’, still had fourteen years left to go when James appeared on the scene. James would lavishly attest to her high regard for Christie and four other distaff authors of the golden age of detective fiction (Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Nagio Marsh and Josephine Tey) in her simultaneously masterly and cosy 2009 survey, Talking about Detective Fiction; a short study whose proceeds she donated to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library where I picked up my copy during a book-hunting expedition that spring.
James was not blind to the occasional weaknesses of those great dames who preceded her (such as sloppiness and creaky contrivance in the probably too-productive Christie and a distasteful elitism that runs through Sayers’ novels) but she had the good sense to appreciate and learn from what her predecessors did best and then fine-tune her own writing so as to avoid their infelicities. Unlike Christie, James made it a point to usually wait at least two years between novels, to mix up the milieus in which she set them and to never repeat a stunt like Christie’s notorious denouements in which an entire book’s cast is assembled in one room while the attending detective (usually Hercule Poirot, sometimes Miss Marple) toys with them and the reader by pointing out how each one of them could or couldn’t be the criminal.
James’ appraisal of Christie was certainly critical and sometimes a little exasperated but she always took care to acknowledge what her forbear accomplished. “Above all [Christie] is a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practised cunning,” James wrote. “And her clues are brilliantly designed to confuse. The butler goes over to peer closely at a calendar. She has planted in our mind the suspicion that a crucial clue relates to dates and times, but the clue is, in fact, that the butler is short-sighted. Both the trickery and the final solution are invariably more ingenious than believable.”
And unlike Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion (or to a considerable degree, Christie’s semi-retired Poirot), James’ Adam Dalgleish is a working copper – not some silly-ass fop with a private income who takes on occasional detective assignments for amusement and to keep his mercurial mind ticking over. However, James discerned that as a literary creation, Wimsey was something much more sturdy and honourable than a fop. And of all of James’ celebrated predecessors, Dorothy L. Sayers was probably the closest thing she had to a model to be emulated.
Except for one sharply critical note about the sometimes preposterously complicated murders which Sayers was prone to invent, she regarded the “novelist, poet, dramatist, amateur theologian and Christian apologist” as “one of the most versatile writers of her generation [and] also one of the most controversial. To her admirers she is the writer who did more than any other of her age to lift the detective story from its status as an inferior puzzle to a respected craft with claims to be taken seriously as popular literature.”
And – perhaps most refreshingly of all – James never had a problem with popularity or entertainment value. She never considered it a mark against any writer if they moved books by the truckload which were eagerly snapped up by all kinds of people. And if that popularity endured over several generations, then all the better. Like Christie and Sayers before her, P.D. James sold books to a far wider swathe of the population than the vast majority of mystery writers who never make it onto the bestseller chart generally but are confined to the list for their own genre.
In a very astute appreciation of P.D. James written for The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999), Robin W. Winks declared that Adam Dalgleish, “is one of the most convincing detectives in modern fiction, a man who is never endearing but always intellectually compelling.” Winks here has identified the shift in detective fiction that James exemplified. The age of the lucky, artful amateur was over. The emphasis in all of her novels was on professional competence and ingenuity, not personal charm and intuition.
Winks also points out that, “Most of her books deal with the failure of one of the institutions by which society hopes to hold back death,” and then rattles off a list of the same that includes a home for unwed mothers (Cover Her Face), a psychiatric outpatient clinic (A Mind to Murder), a nurses’ training school (Shroud for a Nightingale), a home for the disabled and dying (The Black Tower), a forensic laboratory (Death of an Expert Witness), the courts and barristers’ chambers (A Certain Justice) and the Anglican church (Death in Holy Orders). James had considerable experience of all these institutions, either over the course of her remarkably wide-ranging working life or through more personal affiliations such as her devout Christian faith.
James always knew she wanted to write and from the very beginning of her reading life she was strongly drawn to detective novels. In more than one interview she said, “When I first heard that Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall, I immediately wondered: Did he fall – or was he pushed?” The line was well rehearsed and perhaps a little too pat but it does capture the seemingly constant cast of her mind; her innate scepticism that things were running quite as smoothly as certain authorities would have us believe. Though cognizant of her gifts and inclinations, the world was not about to make it easy for James to fulfill her literary aspirations. Though a constant reader and an excellent student, higher education was beyond the reach of her family to provide. And any confidence in her own potentialities was not so subtly sabotaged when, right at the beginning of her own adolescence when one cares so passionately about what other people must think, her mother was carted off for a thankfully short stay at a mental hospital.
Shortly after the war broke out she married a young doctor, Connor White, who was called into military service with the Royal Army Medical Corps. By war’s end, James would have two infant daughters and one mentally shattered husband who would spend the rest of his short life (he died at the age of 44) in and out of various psychiatric institutions and utterly incapable of working. James’ full time work – first as a nurse and eventually as an administrator with the National Health Service – provided her with lots of material for her novels which she finally got down to writing in her early 40s, waking up at 5 a.m. to get in a good shift at her typewriter before heading off to her very demanding day job.
She pulled herself up by her bootstraps because she bloody well had to and so far as I have been able to discern in all my reading of her work, never seems to have succumbed to anything like self-pity. In 1999 the then seventy-nine year-old James published one of my favourite of her works, a “fragment of autobiography” entitled Time to Be in Earnest. She took her title from Samuel Johnson who declared in his 70th birthday reflections (having racked up the Biblically allotted three score and ten and realizing that here-forward he was on borrowed time) that now he must stop backsliding and get down to the serious business of life as surely this was a “time to be in earnest”.
The book is cast in diary form, charting her comings and goings as she gives a talk here and helps out with a committee there. The amount of charitable and civic work that James undertakes in these pages – written, lest we forget, when she was almost eighty – is boggling. There are certain dates, like Connor’s birthday, that set off powerful and searching ruminations on various chapters of her life. On that day she talks about how grateful she was to certain institutions for helping her take care of him, and also frankly acknowledges the limits of what any institution can provide and how foolish we are if we ever expect the state or any of its agencies to adequately minister to our deepest human needs.
To the very depth of her being James understood that there are longings and even needs that can never be satisfied in this world and she quietly left those matters with God and got on with the immediate business of fixing what she could in the here and now and writing all those wonderful stories that only she could tell.
Portrait of P.D. JAMES in The National Portrait Gallery of London by Michael Taylor (1996)
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