“But one thing in particular sets P. D. James apart from the mainstream tradition of Golden Age English crime fiction, with its stately homes and bourgeois villages where reality never rears its ill-mannered head. She understands that murder is nasty and brutal, that it is fueled by the most malevolent of motives, and she’s not afraid to face that darkness head on.”
In the preface of the edition of “The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories” by Val McDermid.
I’m very particular in what I read fiction-wise, and therefore I avoid most genre fiction. P.D. James, however, brought such grace and style to the mystery that I became a true fan. This is the last P. D. James I hadn’t read yet (it was published this year, collecting some of her short fiction). Back in the day, I’d to pace myself slowly to make them last because I knew in my heart she wouldn’t last forever... P. D. James was so brilliant that the Agatha Christies I read as a teen now seem flat and characterless. Christie was at least a good plotter, but James was better. She produced the kind of thing that I liked. I continued to read her books just to see if she would ever allow Adam Dalgliesh to be truly happy and settled (he will be floating in a kind of limbo state now, nothing in his personal life resolved).
The thing that made her writing (and Sayers) stand above the rest of the fodder was that she was a surprisingly realist writer. Why surprisingly? Because my first reaction was that she was just following in the Christie/Sayers tradition of snobbish 'country-house' crime novels, where murders took place in close-knit communities. Not so. In a nutshell: Sense of place. Despite Dalgliesh not being really viable as a policeman, she made him believable on the page. She was also quite capable of facing the sordid details (I remember, in one Cordelia book, she comments on a victim's soiled underwear…). I could say she modernised the genteel English 'country-house' novel and also took some tough, realist stuff from the American tradition.
One of her non-fiction books, 'Talking about Detective Fiction', made me think a lot. Her words flow by smoothly, but they reveal a stiletto-sharp, subtle intelligence. She criticises US hard-boiled writers (who prided themselves on their realism), remarking that one body in a vicarage is much more realistic & believable than dozens of corpses strewn around city streets.
Thank you for all the pleasure you give me every time I read (and re-read) your books! P. D. James' books enthralled me since I was a teenager. P.D. James has given me a lot of pleasure over the years. Definitely one of the great detective novelists. Dorothy Sayers, another favourite of mine, was quite obviously in love with her own detective creation Lord Peter Wimsey; it doesn't affect the books too much, but it's clear how much she identifies with Lord Peter's difficult, intellectual Great Love, Harriet. On the other hand, P.D. James doesn't allow Dalgliesh this kind of (ultimately happy end) relationship, but still. I always preferred to believe it was because she wanted to keep Dalgliesh for herself. So anyway, is she at all in love with Dalgliesh…?