British novelist P.D. James died last Thursday, November 27, at age 94. Best known for her crime novels, particularly the Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries, she didn’t start writing until she was in her 40s, and even then she said she only wrote detective fiction as “practice for a serious novel.” James was in many ways a link between the slightly earlier generation of crime novelists Dorothy L. Sayers (who died in 1957) and Agatha Christie (who died in 1976). After Christie’s death, James reigned as the “Queen Of Crime.” Many of her novels were adapted for television by BBC in the ’80s, starring Roy Marsden in the role of Adam Dalgliesh. In the early ’00s, the BBC also adapted her books Death In Holy Orders and The Murder Room, starring Martin Shaw.
James said that she knew she would be a novelist from the time she could read, but wasn’t able to start until after World War II and after securing a more stable job in hospital administration. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962, when James was 42; though she apparently did not intend to make a career of detective fiction, she admitted that crime suited her natural skepticism and “perhaps slightly morbid imagination.” James sought to provide excitement to a tired form, and was interested in both the mechanics of detective fiction and the examination of human emotion and the society in which we live.
From 1988 to 1993, James served as a BBC governor—one of the governing body of the BBC, which oversees its strategy and policy—and during a guest-editing stint on BBC Radio 4 in 2009, she confronted the director-general, saying it was “really quite extraordinary” that 37 BBC executives earned higher salaries than the prime minister. She also accused him of dumbing down the BBC’s programming with shows like Britain’s Most Embarrassing Pets, and of axing a judge on Strictly Come Dancing (Britain’s Dancing With The Stars) because of her age.
Most recently, Death Comes To Pemberley, an adaptation of James’ book of the same name, aired on BBC One in December 2013 and on PBS this October. The story, a murder-mystery sequel to Pride And Prejudice, picks up six years after Pride And Prejudice ends with the marriage of Mr. Darcy (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Bennet (Anna Maxwell Martin).
Although she never truly attempted to break away from the crime genre, her dystopian 1992 novel, Children Of Men, was adapted in 2006 by Alfonso Cuarón and starred Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. It garnered three Oscar nominations, including one for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Highly decorated with literary awards, James wrote more than 20 books in her lifetime. James told the BBC in a 2013 interview that she was working on still another novel, and that it was “important to write one more.”