P.D. James

Yesterday I at long last dipped my toe into yet another author I’ve been meaning to explore for (quite literally) many decades: P.D. James (1920-2014). My dad — from whom I inherited my love of mysteries — thought she was pretty good, so she’s been on my list for a long time.

While not nearly as prolific as the great Dame Agatha Christie, James very much follows in, and even extends, the tradition of British murder mysteries.

So far, I’ve only read a bunch of her short stories and gotten started on one of her novels — which I’ll be returning to and curling up with as soon as I finish this (hopefully short) post.

Phyllis Dorothy James (Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL) is best known for the 14 novels (and some short stories) she wrote about her fictional police detective Adam Dalgliesh (“dal-gleash” … except I can’t help thinking of it as “dog leash”).

Christie didn’t limit herself to Hercule Poirot (or Miss Marple, her other very famous detective), and James didn’t limit herself to Dalgliesh. She wrote a pair of novels about Cordelia Gray, a young private detective. Differently from Christie, there is apparently some crossover between the two (Poirot and Marple never met nor showed any indication of knowing each other).

Although I’ve met Dalgliesh in some of her short stories (and certainly in the novel I started), I have yet to meet Gray. Looking forward to it, though. I thoroughly enjoyed the short stories and am anxious to return to the novel.


I’m inclined to call her writing a bit subversive. Not in the radical sense of the word, but in that she (to a degree) subverts our expectations of the “cozy” British murder mystery Christie was so famous for. The stories have the shape of cozy mysteries, but James has a way of dipping into the darkness of the human soul that goes a bit beyond Christie.

[Not in any way casting shade on Christie. She also knew very well what motivated people to murder, but James seems to take it just a bit further into “Whew! Nasty!” territory. James is obviously more contemporary than Christie, so she benefits (if that’s the right word) from the increased sexuality in more modern writing.]

I can’t yet speak to her novels, but her short stories often have twist (and twisted) endings. For example [spoiler warning], in one the narrator tells a Rear Window type tale wherein, illicitly in his office late over multiple Friday nights (because he was reading through a discovered a cache of pornography belonging to a former employee whose desk he was told to clear out), he witnesses an apparent weekly tryst between a woman and a younger man. The woman is found brutally raped and murdered, and the young man is charged with the crime. But the narrator knows he didn’t do it because he saw the young man arrive and then leave after failing to gain entry (because the woman was already dead at that point).

The tale seems to be about the narrator’s struggle to decide what to do. He knows the young man is innocent, but stepping forward could mean his job and reputation (because he wasn’t supposed to be in the office at night). He keeps assuming justice will prevail, but as the case progresses, the young man is charged, tried, and convicted.

But by now the narrator has waited too long to feel comfortable stepping forward and begins to relish the power he has over the young man’s life. Ultimately, he does nothing, and the young man is imprisoned for the murder.

The story is told as a flashback. The narrator, now much older, happened to be in the neighborhood of that old office building and sees a “For Let” sign on the building where the murder occurred. On impulse he visits the real estate agent to get the key so he can view the scene of the crime.

Which, it turns out, he committed!

As a final twist, the murdered woman was the wife of the real estate agent. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. It’s almost a final aside (or perhaps I’m missing something; always possible). The story works fine without it, and I don’t see what that last bit adds. A dash of “whoa!” maybe?

It’s good example of the kind of twisted storytelling James does. In a number of her short stories, things definitely are not what they seemed to be. Even a story involving a jilted husband who determines to murder his rival (and successfully does) has something of an unexpected twist at the end.


I have no idea where I got the idea, but I somehow picked up a belief that James wrote forensic pathology stories (sort of like the Bones TV show — which I’ve never seen — or Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli & Isles stories — which I’ve both seen and read). As far as I can tell, I was completely mistaken about that. Wonder where I even got the idea.

I’ve posted a bit about Agatha Christie, and I suspect I’ll post more about P.D. James as I work my way through her oeuvre. The library has most (but sadly not all) of her books (at least in terms of what’s available online).

§ §

My dad and I were pretty different people. We didn’t clash so much as not intersect much during my formative years. (Our childhood, my sister and I, was filled with love and laughter. No complaints there, but high school is tough for all concerned.) We connected more as I got older, but by then he was (unbeknownst to us) already starting to suffer from Alzheimer’s. My mom once mentioned she noticed how his handwriting changed around the time I was in high school.

On some level I never really got to know my dad, which is sad, but a key legacy I did receive was his love of mystery novels. (And a strong moral foundation.) It’s through him I got into Robert B. Parker (who was instrumental in my thinking about being a man) and Tony Hillerman (whose Navajo Tribal Police novels are among my all-time favorites).

He used to rave about The Name of the Rose (1980), by the brilliant Italian author Umberto Eco (1932-2016). It was one of his all-time favorites. (He loved the movie, too.) I thought a medieval murder mystery involving monks in a convent sounded very dull and decided to give that one a pass.

Until, several years ago now, it showed up as a free read on Amazon Prime and I thought I’d give it a try. And was wowed by it. It doesn’t rank among my favorites, but I can see why it was one of his. It’s really good and utterly engrossing. (And the movie is pretty good, too.) I would recommend it for any genre fan.

[Speaking of good medieval stories, usually totally not my cup of tea, I do love (and have read several times now) The Pillars of the Earth (1989), by Ken Follett. It’s about the architecture and construction of a cathedral. There are apparently three sequels. Bought the first sequel but couldn’t get into it (because medieval is meh to me). HBO did a very serviceable adaptation of the first one.]

§ §

Speaking of Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) and his Navajo Tribal Police series (starring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee), I’m on (very likely) one last re-read of the whole canon.

What differs a bit this time is that now I own all the books, either in paperback or electronic. I became a fan long before ebooks were much of a thing, so most of the collection is paperback. But I never managed to buy all of them, so in the last decade or so I’ve filled in the collection with ebooks.

So, now I can read the series in the chronological order written and not miss any. And since most of them are in paperback, they make for nice bedtime reading (my phone at that point being plugged in to charge).

I don’t know if there’s something wrong with my brain or if it’s just how it works or maybe because I read so much stuff, but I rarely remember plots, so re-reading mystery novels is often like reading them for the first time.

I think maybe that, for me, it’s more about the characters and the flow of the story and not so much about “who dunnit”. I rarely make any effort to anticipate the author (and in fact count it against them when I can). I’m quite content to wait for the big reveal at the end.

Whatever the reason, it makes re-reading mysteries as much fun as reading them the first time.

§ §

And on that note my friends, it’s laundry day, and P.D. James is calling my name. Reading is more fun (and much easier) than writing, so that’s all for now.

Stay reading, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

16 responses to “P.D. James

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Once I get through the P.D. James oeuvre, next up is Dame (Edith) Ngaio Marsh. She’s another in the vein of Christie and very highly regarded (although I can’t recall my dad ever mentioning her).

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Two of the P.D. James short stories present as being narrated by published mystery authors, and both comment on a common question they get from fans: “Have you ever been involved in a real-life murder mystery?”

    In both cases (and I assume James is self-inserting a bit here), the supposed author goes on to comment that they usually blow of the question with some trite answer, but then go on to relate a real-life murder mystery they did, in fact, get involved in. (Complete with a P.D. James twist ending.)

    In one (“The Murder of Santa Claus”), early on, the author says: “I’m not H.R.F. Keating, no Dick Francis, not even a P.D. James.” Which is pretty funny considering. And her characters more than once comment they seem to be in an Agatha Christie story.

    That P.D. James,… she’s a sly one!

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    I, too, am a fan of Robert B. Parker’s books. My father turned me onto him, or maybe the TV series “Spenser” came first. Anyway, Parker’s other series, Jesse Stone, was seriously autobiographical. (more so than Spenser.) There are 2 movies on Prime for free. Tom Selleck plays Stone. Parker’s story is, well, his story. He wrote it down in the novels and they were put to film. Good stuff.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Are you sure about that? Spenser seems far more autobiographical than Stone based on what little I know about Parker’s life. For instance, Spenser’s relationship with Susan echoes Parker’s relationship with his wife and childhood sweetheart, Joan (to whom he dedicated every Spenser book). Spenser also very much shares Parker’s love of dogs (Pearl very much echoes Parker’s dog). I don’t know if Parker was ever a boxer (looks like he could have boxed), but he clearly shares an interest in weightlifting.

      Jesse Stone is an extremely damaged human being. His Wiki page states: The character of Jesse Stone, a deeply troubled man, was a departure for the author. Parker, comparing Stone to Spenser, the protagonist of his first series and the one for which he was best known, said, “Jesse is a much more damaged individual who is coming to terms with himself as he goes along.” And, as far as I know, Parker doesn’t share any backstory with Stone (was not a baseball player, was not a cop).

      So, I’m having a hard time seeing it. Have you got sources?

      I was already a fan of the novels by the time of the TV show (1985-1988). The first Spenser novel came out in 1973, and I think I started reading him somewhere around #3 or #4, which came out a few years later. The TV show was okay but took liberties. Parker once responded to a question about that saying that once a writer sold his work to TV it was just gone, not his anymore, so he was fine with whatever. That really stuck with me because I thought it was a smart way to be.

      I’ve seen several of the Jesse Stone made-for-TV movies (there are nine all told). They’re okay. I do like Tom Selleck, and the movies stuck fairly close to the text. Apparently, Parker was pleased with them. I also read several of the novels, but either I’ve outgrown Parker, or the Jesse Stone novels just weren’t that interesting to me. It makes me afraid to re-read the Spenser books. If I have outgrown Parker, it’ll be crushing to find Spenser no longer speaks to me. As I said in the post, much of my conception of being a man comes from Spenser (via Parker).

      In particular, the notion of your word being your bond. You don’t agree to do something unless you mean to do it, and if you say you’ll do something, then, by God, you move mountains to be sure you do. In a world where so much is beyond our control, one of the few things we can control is our word. Make it valuable. One of the best life lessons I ever learned.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ever read any of Parker’s third detective series, the Sunny Randell books? He created the character after actress Helen Hunt asked him to create a character she could play. Never did, as far as I know.

      Parker was rather prolific: 41 Spenser books (1973-2013), 9 Jesse Stone books (1997-2010), and 6 Sunny Randell books (1999-2007). All three are set in the general area of Boston, and there is some crossover between the three series.

      IIRC, Parker once said he wrote five pages a day every day. Longhand! No outline. And since his death other authors have taken up the Spenser mantle (although I’ve never gotten into any of them; generally, for me, a character dies with the author).

      • Mark Edward Jabbour

        I did read at least one Randell novel. I have many books in my garage, all my Spenser novels, a couple Stone ones. It’s been a while since I read any.
        But I did just watch the Selleck movies. I think I found the background on WordPress. A real fan, maybe even a friend of Parker’s. It was fascinating. True? Parker died at his desk- writing. We should all be so lucky.
        🙂 there’s a new Magnum PI coming. Oh boy. Not with Selleck, though.
        Cheers 🍻

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Man, I dunno… What are the supposed parallels between Parker and Stone? What do their lives have in common? Stone was raised in Arizona and California, is divorced from his actress wife, and works in law enforcement. Parker was born in Massachusetts, married his childhood sweetheart, and was a teacher at Northeastern University. I’m not seeing much intersection.

        The only thing I found is that Parker did play first base (I don’t know at what level) and part of Stone’s backstory is that he was an up-and-coming shortstop until a shoulder injury ended that career. (Spenser, of course, is a Red Sox fan.)

        So, how is Stone autobiographical? 🤔

      • Wyrd Smythe

        FWIW, I’ve been poking around the web, and I can’t find a single reference to Jesse Stone being in any way autobiographical of Robert Brown Parker. And, as I’ve already said, it doesn’t make much sense given what we know about Parker’s life compared to Jesse Stone’s backstory. So, dude, I think this is an idea you’re going to have to give up on. Because it’s not true.

      • Mark Edward Jabbour

        Alright. We’ll have to disagree on that.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Seriously? Neither facts nor logic matter because you read something on a blog somewhere? Wow.

      • Mark Edward Jabbour

        No, both matters. Have it your way. 🍻

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, they do. Common sense and physical reality should be everyone’s guiding stars. A large part of the world’s current troubles trace to that too often not being the case.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    While I did enjoy reading her short stories, the novel I read didn’t grab me as much. Very (very) long, lots of digressions into character backstories and ponderings, and way, way too much description of things for my liking. And I think her writing has something of an elitest tone — literary writing for people with a lot of knowledge about long-dead poets, authors, and painters.

    P.D. James may be more of a writer’s writer than a people’s writer, which may be why she isn’t nearly as popular as Agatha Christie (who was very much a people’s writer and whose writing was so accessible that many incorrectly think she wasn’t a good writer).

    Granted, it’s just one novel, but I don’t think I’m destined to be much a fan. The one I’m reading now (another 1000-page monster of a book), I’m 22% through it, over 240 pages so far, and it’s all character and backstory. No murder yet, and of course we haven’t seen Adam Dalgleish. It’s worse than a Columbo episode!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Well, now I’ve read three and started a fourth. I have to stand by the previous comment. Worse, her stories tend to be grim and unhappy. She has none of the light touch Christie had that made reading her books such a joy. There is no joy in Jamesville.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    So, now I’ve read #7 through #10 of the Adam Dalgliesh novels, all of which were bloated with too much description and digression. Then I read #1, Cover Her Face and enjoyed it a bit more because it wasn’t so bloated!

    I’ve got #2 and #3 on hold and will read them, but after that I think I’m done with P.D. James. Can’t say I didn’t give her a fair shot. She may be some people’s cup of tea, but not mine.

    One note I made while reading says: “All her characters are constantly reading into things. They’re burdened by implications and meaningless crap. The characters are all overly self-aware and introspective.” It makes for heavy-handed writing, all that long-winded implication and introspective.

    [A good example from another source: On the TV series NCIS, the fraidy cat Tim McGee is disturbed to find out he slept in a “coffin” when he stayed overnight at Abby’s place. She’d told him it was a wooden box-bed. Once he learns it was actually a “coffin” he’s upset. I don’t understand that even a little. It’s stupid. It’s all implication — what fraidy cat McGee “thinks” about coffins, even new unused ones. So stupid. That’s the sort of thing James’s characters do. They’re upset by implications with no real meaning. It makes me wonder if James herself lives in a fearful world where the implications of meaningless things affect her.]

    In one book, a character writes what amounts to a confession/suicide letter. It goes on for 80 pages like a mini-novel in the P.D. James style of over-describing and over-explaining. 80 pages! So tedious.

  • Ngaio Marsh | Logos con carne

    […] Back in February I posted about how I was starting to explore murder mystery author P.D. James (1920-2014). As it turned out, I decided she wasn’t really my cup of tea. I’ll say a bit more about that later in this Mystery Monday post, but the main topic today is Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), a murder mystery author from New Zealand who definitely is my cup of tea. […]

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: