Born 3rd August 1920 in Oxford (England), Phyllis Dorothy James was the eldest of three children in a family that was, in her own words, 'not very close'. Her father was an Inland Revenue Officer, who 'did not believe in sending girls for higher education', and although educated at Cambridge Girls High School from 1931-37, at the age of 16 James was sent to work as a Government Tax Office representative. A few years later she was successful in an application for a job as Assistant Stage Manager at the Cambridge festival Theatre, where her love of drama, crime stories and fiction was developed.
James was just 19 years old when World War II began, and in 1941 she married Dr Ernest Connor Bantry White, a physician who served during the war in the Royal Army Medical Corps. James was already mother to the couple's first child (1942), and after the arrival of her second daughter, Jane Austin (1944), named after James' favourite author, her time was spent waiting for her husband to return home, and helping as much as possible with nursing the casualties of the war. Dr. White eventually returned from army service, but was a mentally sick man, suffering from what was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia. Until his death in 1964, White was repeatedly admitted and discharged from various mental hospitals, sometimes discharging himself, then having to be forcibly readmitted. Like many other schizophrenics, at times he was a temperamental and sometimes violent man. Her husband received no war pension, and the family was extremely poor. In the following years of turmoil, James had no alternative than to be the breadwinner of the family, and after deciding to move in with White's parents, sent the children to boarding school and worked as an administrator in the National Health Service from 1949 to 1968.
P. D. James died peacefully at her home in Oxford on Thursday November, 27, 2014. No cause of death was given. She was 94 years old.
James's thirty years of working experience, including the positions of a nurse during the war, a mental health administrator, her contact with government bureaucracies and various other sections of the British Civil Service, the Police and Criminal Law Departments of the Home Office, her service as a Magistrate and as a governor of the BBC has enabled her to write increasingly philosophical novels.
With her first novel, 'Cover Her Face' (1962), written when the stringencies of making a living had eased a little, was immediately accepted by the first publisher that read the manuscript, and introduced readers to her most famous character, Scotland Yard's poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, who appears in most of her subsequent books. The success of her debut novel was, according to James, the 'constant inspiration of her creative imagination' - her minutely detailed and loving elaborations on the descriptions of a place makes her unique among mystery writers, and is 'typical of her work in the factual exactness and brisk presentation of what the reader needs to know'. The format of James' novels is that of acutely observed characters, an atmosphere of menace, great attention to medical detail and an even greater attention to architectural details.
James has received many awards for her literary work over the years, including 3 Silver Dagger Awards, a Macavity Award for Best Novel and a Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement from the Crime Writers' Association in 1986. Her acknowledgements did not stop at her literary works, though, and James was awarded Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 1983, and in 1991, through her continuing work within the Government, P.D. James received a life peerage as Baroness James of Holland Park, and is now seated in the House of Lords. Baroness James has also been crowned 'The Queen of Crime' - a title awarded by publishers and readers alike.
In 2000, Baroness James celebrated her 80th birthday and the publishing of her autobiography, 'Time to be in Earnest'. Throughout her career as a crime writer, her work has been studied, criticised, loved and eagerly followed; several of her novels have been adapted for television, and many of her readers proclaim that she is 'the next Agatha Christie'. Baroness James' simply believes that 'you write as you need to write, and you do the best you can with your particular talent. You're lucky enough to have been born with a gift, and you should be grateful for it'.
Baroness James is the proud grandmother of 5 grandchildren from her two daughters, and since her official retirement from Governmental work, she is 'happy living alone' between her two properties in London and Oxford, and wishes to continue writing novels that offer 'the particular P. D. James touch that makes the reader shudder a little'.
"There are very few thriller writers who can compete with P. D. James at her best ... One of the things that sets P. D. James apart from other writers in this genre is the intellectual assurance of her work. This is manifest in her use of language - she writes beautifully - but also in the light touch with which she displays her learning..." Charlotte Joll, The Spectator
"James transcends the crime genre, in that hers are fully evolved novels and not just murder mysteries. They are packed with argument and insight and detail." Victoria Glendinning, The Daily Telegraph
The literary works of P.D. James:
Cover Her Face (1962)
A Mind to Murder (1963)
Unnatural Causes (1967)
Shroud for a Nightingale (1971)
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972)
The Black Tower (1975)
Death of an Expert Witness (1977)
Innocent Blood (1980)
The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982)
A Taste for Death (1986)
Devices and Desires (1990)
Original Sin (1994)
A Certain Justice (1997)
Uncollected Short Stories:
Moment of Power
A Very Desirable Address
Great-Aunt Ellie's Flypapers
The Girl Who Loved Graveyards
The Murder of Santa Claus
The Mistletoe Murder (1998)
A Private Treason
The Maul and the Pear Tree
The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811
Time to be in Earnest: the autobiography of P.D. James (2000)