The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, November 27, 2014

In Memoriam, P.D. James

I was sorry to hear this morning of the death of the great crime novelist, P.D. James. I have long enjoyed her wonderfully complex characters, their ethically fraught interactions, and the slow, leisurely eliciting of the nature of her people. A James character, even the obligatory victim, is not a cipher. She spends time with them, and we get to know them. As the New York Times obituary phrases it:
Many critics and many of her peers have said that by virtue of the complexity of her plots, the psychological density of her characters and the moral context in which she viewed criminal violence, Ms. James even surpassed her classic models and elevated the literary status of the modern detective novel. She is often cited, in particular, for the cerebral depth and emotional sensibilities of Adam Dalgliesh, the introspective Scotland Yard detective and published poet who functions as the hero of virtually all of her novels.

Her intention with Dalgliesh, she told the British critic and writer Julian Symons in 1986, was to create a detective “quite unlike the Lord Peter Wimsey kind of gentlemanly amateur” popularized by Dorothy L. Sayers. Ms. James envisioned a realistic cop as her protagonist, a dedicated and skilled professional, and yet “something more than just a policeman, you see, a complex and sensitive human being,” she said.
James's work always struck me as Trollopian in this way, and indeed she paid handsome tribute to Anthony Trollope in a a 1994 interview with the Paris Review:


….I read Dickens and recognized his genius, but he is not my favorite. I find many of his female characters unsuccessful—wonderful caricatures, wicked, odd, grotesque, evil, but not true. There isn’t the subtlety of characterization you get, say, in Trollope, whose understanding and description of women is astonishing. Jane Austen never described two men talking together if a woman was not present—she would have thought that was outside her experience. In Trollope, by contrast, you get continual conversations between women—for example Alice Vavasor and Lady Glencora Palliser in Can You Forgive Her?—without a man there, and he gets it absolutely right. This plain, grumpy looking man had obviously an astonishing knowledge of women’s psychology.


Trollope has become a hero of the feminists, especially his The Way We Live Now in which he proclaims women’s rights before anyone else did.


I tend not to think of books in terms of contemporary issues and passions; it diminishes them. But that particular book is a kind of contemporary novel. The main character was a sort of Robert Maxwell, a monster. Trollope describes women’s lives at a time when marriage was the only possibility for personal fulfillment.
Apart from my enjoyment of her books (and by the way, although dwarfed in public perception by the Dalgliesh novels, her Cordelia Grey books are quite good as well), I owe her a personal debt. James's last novel, Death Comes to Pemberley (2011), was a Jane Austen pastiche, continuing Austen's Pride and Prejudice. When it came out, I had already written the first three chapters of my Trollope pastiche, Phineas at Bay. But James's publication of Death Comes to Pemberley was a real shot in the arm for my morale when I returned to the book in 2013. After all, if P.D. James could write a Victorian pastiche, who was to say the thing was not worth doing?

The best of James's work will, I think, live. I'm grateful for the pleasure she gave me as a reader, and the example she set me as a writer--reaffirming the Trollopian rule that the writer must give every character her due.

And my complete set of her work in hardback is on my shelves, where it will remain. I'll want to visit Adam, Cordelia, Piers, Kate, and the vivid characters she created again, and more than once.

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