Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Mind For Murder: Saying Good-bye to P.D. James


P.D. James died last week, "peacefully at home in Oxford," at age ninety four. But I'm sure you know this already. 

She was one of a kind. A seemingly gentle, charming and erudite woman who loved to talk and wonder and write about death. Violent death. 

 I love Elizabeth Renzetti's remark in her Globe and Mail article, in response to the press release that James had died peacefully.... "Peacefully. You have to laugh. It's not like she was ever interested in peaceful deaths- death by hanging, and stabbing and poison, yes." Renzetti, who interviewed James several times over the years, remembers her fondly... even reverently. You can read her full article here.


P.D. James workin' it old school in 1980

Yep, P.D James was a wonderful writer. Her settings are evocative, her characters believable, well drawn and interesting to "get to know," and her plots well-constructed. But, to me, it's her style that elevates her work. Her writing is so elegant, and her style so graceful, that you read it effortlessly. She makes good writing, which is very hard to do, look easy.

If you've ever read crime/detective/mystery fiction you've probably read P.D. James. And if you've not read her, but read other crime writers and, as a result, have underestimated crime fiction or dismissed it as a lesser genre than, say, literary fiction, you should definitely read P.D. James. As she said herself: "It's perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live." She certainly demonstrates this in her novels. 

Innocent Blood her eighth novel and the first to hit top the bestseller lists in the U.S.

I've been reading detective novels, and P.D. James, for years. I probably borrowed my first book of hers from my grandmother who loved reading in general, and crime fiction in particular.

 I think that my favourite book in James' Adam Dalgliesh series is Murder Room. I loved the setting- on the edge of Hampstead Heath in London, in the fictional Dupayne Museum, in a fascinating room that chronicles murders from times past. I agree with my friend K. that setting is often like another character in James' novels, and that's particularly true in this book.


But as much as I like the Dalgleish series, it's an older novel of James' that is closest to my heart. I simply loved An Unsuitable Job for a Woman when I first read it back in the eighties. And the sometimes hapless, always resourceful, trainee-detective Cordelia Grey is my favourite James character.


I also enjoyed reading James' non-fiction work on the history of detective fiction, and subsequently found and read several of the authors she explores in her book.



James certainly was the doyenne of the crime fiction world. "Queen of Crime Fiction" as Shelagh Rogers called her in a 1990 interview, in which James relates how she and Ruth Rendell laughed at the fact that they had both been awarded that title over the years. You can listen to Shelagh Rogers' interview with James here, as well as one with Peter Robinson in which he talks about P.D. James, and another with James herself on Jane Austen and her last book Death Comes to Pemberley. 

If you haven't read Death Comes to Pemberley, you should. My goodness, what's not to love about this book? Jane Austen's characters lovingly brought to life six years after the end of Pride and Prejudice to deal with a mysterious death in their midst. All masterminded by P.D. James, the mistress of detective fiction and lover of all things Austen. 

There's a wonderful discussion about the BBC production based on the book here. I haven't quite finished watching it on Masterpiece Mystery yet ... but the costumes and the settings are divine. And it was filmed at Castle Howard and at Chatsworth... (possible Mitford connection here?)  


www.telegraph.co.uk

So, with P.D. James gone... who will vie for the title "Queen of Crime Fiction?" Or will Ruth Rendell rule all on her own? 

I asked my well-read, mystery-loving friends S. and K. and J. that question.
And then I whittled the ensuing list down to five. 

And so ... the nominations are:

-Deborah Crombie for her Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series. I particularly loved last year's The Sound of Broken Glass, set in the Crystal Palace area of London and dealing with the fascinating history of the area, along with the murder, of course.

-Minette Walters whose books we eagerly anticipated after devouring her first novel The Ice House in 1992 . My two favourites of hers are Scold's Bridle and  The Shape of Snakes for their brilliant plot structure. But we haven't heard from Walters since 2007. Hopefully she hasn't given up on the crime genre. Minette, Minette.... please, do not abandon us. 

-Peter Robinson for his wonderfully atmospheric Alan Banks series set in Yorkshire. Hopefully he won't mind being nominated for the title of "Queen of Crime Fiction." 

-Tana French for her Dublin Murder Squad series. I've loved all of these , but Faithful Place, set in the Liberties area of Dublin, is my favourite.

-Kate Atkinson for her Jackson Brody series set in Edinburgh.

 But no matter which writer ascends the throne that P.D. James has so recently vacated, they will have a tough act to follow. James had a tremendously loyal following. 

For, besides the well-crafted characters and plot, the perfectly depicted setting and the elegant use of language, there is something deeper in P.D. James' books that appeals to her readers. She always seemed to understand us, the readers, and our need for a world to make sense, to add up. Our need for hope that we might be able to overcome evil, even if only in a small way. James said "the underlying message [of her books] is that no matter how difficult problems are in life- in your own life or in the life of a country or society- in the end they can always be solved, not by divine intervention or good luck, but by human intelligence, human courage, human perseverance."

Elizabeth Renzetti certainly feels that intelligence, courage and perseverance were embodied in P.D. James herself. As she says, "Those qualities lived in the woman and they're still alive now, in the books she left behind." 

Well, thank goodness for that.



I talked about both Tana French and Kate Atkinson in a post a couple of months ago, and I didn't want to be boring and repeat myself.... so, if you're interested, you can read that post here.





Linking up this week with Thursday Blog Hop.

10 comments:

  1. Here, here. She will be missed.

    Christy

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  2. I love this post because of all your recommendations--not that PD James died...that's sad :( . But I do adore crime/suspensr fiction so I will put her on my to read list. The Pemberley book has been on my radar for a couple years but I have read so many mixed reviews that I kept giving it a pass. I think I will try it soon as my first PD James book. Thanks!!

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    1. Oh, oh... the pressure is on now. Hope you like the book. I just finished watching Death at Pemberley. I had it pvr'd and did not have time to watch until last night. Not crazy about the way the film handled the ending, but overall I really enjoyed it.

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  3. Thanks so much for this post. It is a lovely tribute. I've just started to enjoy murder/crime mysteries and have not, as yet, read any of James'. I have added most of those mentioned to my list and also some of the other authors you mentioned on this post and the post you linked to. I've read 3 of the Dublin Murder mysteries and loved them. Also, I am now reading Ann Cleeves Raven Black and loving it. So glad when the books are part of a series so the enjoyment goes on and on :)

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    1. Thanks, Brenda. Glad you liked Ann Cleeves. I recently noticed that there is a TV show on BBC Canada based on her Shetland novels. Hope it's as good as those based on her Vera Stanhope novels.

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  4. I too love the Cordelia Gray books but sometimes found PD James admirable but a tad too macabre. Liked but didn't love Death at Pemberley and was disappointed by the adaptation's casting: everybody glossy and telegenic except for Elizabeth and Darcy who were, in my opinion, inappropriately plain and unappealing. Many years ago I read and enjoyed the Loretta Lawson mystery novels by Joan Smith. One or two were made for tv and starred Janet McTeer but apparently they were never shown in the US.

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    1. I'm not familiar with Joan Smith. I'll have to see if I can find them at the library. Thanks for stopping by.

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  5. Not quite sure why, but I stopped reading James quite a few years ago, although I did love her mysteries for the longest time. I very much enjoyed Renzetti's tribute column (but I've been enjoying Renzetti so much in general lately anyway).
    Your list is different than mine, but that just suggests what a rich and varied field of contenders there are. No Susan Hill? (I love her Simon Serrailler mysteries) and what about Val McDermid's Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. . . . Really surprised not to see Elizabeth George there -- was she at least on the list you winnowed from? Atkinson, yes, of course, except that she's pretty clearly going to abandon Jackson to our imaginations, so I hold a bit of a grudge. I liked Crombie when I read a few of her mysteries quite a few years ago, but I didn't feel compelled to follow her list. Maybe it's time to check again. Curious, though, are you limiting your Queen title to those who write about the UK? Because Donna Leon, whom I'm just getting into . . . . ;-)
    What fun!
    (and I second the rec of Joan Smith, although that's going back at least a decade for me, and I did get mine from the library at the time)
    (

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    1. I had never read Renzetti's column before this...and I just heard yesterday that she has a novel out this year, which I will definitely look for. Love Susan Hill, like Val McDermid but began to find her Hill/Jordan series getting a bit soap-opera-ish...same for Elizabeth George. Her last book was way too long and some of her characters (like her Deborah St James character) are beginning to annoy me. As for Crombie...I liked her early stuff but her last few books have been really good.
      I must confess to having BIG British bias when it comes to crime fiction.
      Thanks for weighing in... I love a good book debate!

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.