The author P. D. James died on Thanksgiving day. She’s British so she didn’t know she was dampening a holiday for me. I’m sure she didn’t plan on dampening anything for anyone. As a Christian she passed into her next life and I’m happy for her. What she left me was a gift I will cherish for the rest of mine.
I’m not easily pleased as a reader. I’m more suited to, and give greater latitude to, movies. I have all or most of the films of several actors, but James is the only novelist I’ve even made the same attempt with. It was reading James from her first novel to the last I learned how much an author improves and refines themselves over the course of their work. James went from a clumsy earnestness in “Cover Her Face” to to a sleek, albeit tired sort of ease in “The Private Patient.” Her hero, Adam Dalgliesh, is a policeman and a poet, the son of a vicar, and a widower who over time found love again. The crimes she wrote of were sometimes notorious and very public, other times they were quiet, unnoticed, and sad.
Sadness is, in my experience, one of the toughest emotions to write. Keeping the attention of readers when the hero is sad, or just dealing with sadness is difficult. Sad people are rarely if ever a lot of laughs and they can be tiresome to be around. When the real life escapades of a reader’s cat become more interesting than the story you’re telling, you lose them. Sad characters can lose you readers. James knew this, I think, but she was courageous in that she told the truth. The truth is, this world is riddled with sadness. That’s why this is one of my favorite passages from “Original Sin,” my favorite of her Dalgliesh mysteries:
“…He (Dalgliesh) glanced at the books. The shelves were paperback copies of crime and detective stories, but he noticed that few of the writers were living. Mrs. Carling’s taste was for women writers of the Golden Age. They all looked well-read. Below them was a shelf of real-crime: books on the Wallace case, on Jack the Ripper, on the more famous Victorian murderers, Adelaide Bartlett and Constance Kent. The lower shelves held leather-bound and gold-titled copies of her own works, an extravagance, Dalgliesh thought, unlikely to have been subsidized by Peverell Press. The sight of this harmless vanity depressed him, evoking a spasm of pity. Who would inherit this accumulated record of a life lived by murder and ended by murder? On what shelf in a drawing-room, bedroom, or lavatory would they find an honoured or tolerated place? Or would they be bought as a job-lot by some second-hand bookseller and priced as a set, their value enhanced by the horror and appalling appropriateness of her death? … He told himself that she had probably given pleasure to more people with her mysteries than he had with his poetry. And if the pleasure was of a different kind, who was to say that one was inferior to the other. She had at least respected the English language and used it as well as lay in her power. In an age rapidly becoming illiterate that was something. … He hoped that when she had come as last face to face with reality the encounter had been brief and merciful.”
In this paragraph is the encapsulation of a life. You know nothing about her really, but you know all you need to. The woman wrote stories that barely supported her, and it’s very likely their value now will be measured in how much a potential buyer cares about the way she died.
The entire chapter in Original Sin is very sad. But you stay with it because you suspect James is writing about herself as an author. She didn’t look it, but in many ways she was fearless. She knew her monetary value was weighed by the fickle public. I suppose she also knew what it was like to be measured by other wordsmiths who considered writing mysteries to be less than.
Anyway, enough of the maudlin. I am grateful to have read her books, seen her read a passage from “In Holy Orders” in person, and have her characters nudge me intellectually. If you’ve never read anything by P. D. James, I encourage you to do so. Original Sin is, IMO, her best mystery novel. The adaptation by Masterpiece Mystery is great, though not perfectly faithful, and stars my favorite Anne Elliot, Amanda Root. “The Children of Men” is a great speculative fiction novel.
Try James if you’re looking for a new-to-you writer.
Thank you, Lady James.