P.D. James, one of my favorite authors, died Thursday, November 27, 2014, at 94 years of age. The world has truly lost one of the greats—she was a master of the “classical detective story,” an accomplished author of a fine novel of dystopian speculative fiction, and, most recently, a beautifully written light mystery set in the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which, coincidentally, I finished reading the day before she died.
I also just finished teaching a class on Popular Fiction (as opposed to the other kind, that is, Literary Fiction). P.D. James was one of the few authors whom we discussed more than once, because of her ability to write in more than one genre.
I highly recommend her books, and when you read the detective novels pay particular attention to how she worked within the stringent confines of the genre. Her creative genius lay in her ability to be innovative and original even when adhering to the formulas and conventions of the classical detective novel.
These formulas and conventions include:
- The Hero — the detective — employs reason, logic, and ingenuity to solve the crime. He (or she) works by brain-power alone (unlike his counterpart in the Hard-boiled detective novel, who makes frequent use of brute force). Exceptions exist, of course, but the classical detective typically is neither physically attractive, nor sexually active. He may be weak or even disabled, and is often eccentric, fastidious or in some other way aloof from other people. Many classical detectives work independently of the official authorities of the law, solving cases for their own personal reasons. (examples of “classical” detectives: Sherlock Holmes, Adam Dalgliesh, Miss Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot).
- Even though the hero of the story is usually the detective—with whom the reader matches wits!—the story is frequently told from the point-of-view of the detective’s “sidekick,” — a close friend, relative, colleague or acquaintance of the detective. This character is never as smart as the detective. Indeed, his job is to ask the dumb questions and to say things like, “I don’t understand” and “I still don’t understand.” (examples: Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s friend and roommate; Captain Arthur Hastings, Hercule Poirot’s colleague who has “a talent for pointing out the obvious;” Detective Inspector Neele, a professional cop who serves as the foil for Miss Jane Marple)
- The action of the story takes place on a small stage with distinct edges, such as a charming English village, a large manor house in the country, a remote island resort, a cruise ship, or a transcontinental passenger train. The setting represents a world and a social structure with clear, comprehensible boundaries, into which the murder intrudes like a distasteful aberration.
- The story ends with the detective cleverly unmasking the criminal and explaining how he solved the puzzle. Once the distasteful business is concluded, the remaining characters all return to their upper middle-class lives, confident in the knowledge that God is an Englishman and that all is right with the world. To the reader, the book (if well-written) has been a satisfying and diverting intellectual exercise.
Of course, there are more conventions and formula elements, but I’ll save all that for later. For now, I just want to acknowledge the passing of a great craftsman in one of the most entertaining genres of popular fiction:
The Rt. Hon. Phyllis Dorothy, Baroness James of Holland Park (Aug 3 1920—Nov 27 2014). May she rest in peace.
This article touches on several conventions of the classical detective story.
The official P.D. James website. Contains excerpts and a trailer from Death Comes to Pemberley, a biography of James, a complete list of all her books, and a page of “Mystery Writing Lessons.” (The mystery-writing page contains a link to James’s 2004 essay “Why Detection?”)
Includes an interesting quote from James about how crime fiction confirms a certain worldview about the universe. Those of you who took my class may recall that one of the functions of the classical detective story is to confirm this worldview.
Books by P.D. James:
Classical detective mysteries featuring Adam Dalgliesh
Cover Her Face, 1962
A Mind to Murder, 1963
Unnatural Causes, 1967
Shroud for a Nightingale, 1971
The Black Tower, 1975
Death of an Expert Witness, 1977
A Taste for Death, 1986
Devices and Desires, 1989
Original Sin, 1994
A Certain Justice, 1997
Death in Holy Orders, 2001
The Murder Room, 2003
The Lighthouse, 2005
The Private Patient, 2008
Classical detective mysteries featuring Cordelia Gray
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, 1972
The Skull Beneath the Skin, 1982
Innocent Blood, 1980
Children of Men, 1992
Death Comes to Pemberley, 2011
The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811, 1971 (true crime, co-authored with T.A. Critchley
Time to Be in Earnest, 2000 (autobiography)
Talking About Detective Fiction, 2009
 Highlights of James’s career in this genre include Cover Her Face (1962), Unnatural Causes (1967), An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972), A Taste for Death, 1986), Devices and Desires (1989).
 Children of Men (1992)
 Death Comes to Pemberley (2011)