PD James has died

by Henry on November 27, 2014

Guardian story here. Harry is, I think, the official Crooked Timber PD James aficionado, and likely has far more interesting things to say than I do. Obviously, I disagreed with her politics, and I disliked her main character, Adam Dalgliesh, in direct proportion to the tender regard that she lavished on him. But she was excellent in describing disagreeable but interesting characters, and especially disagreeable but interesting women. She also had an astute sociological eye for the distinctive worlds that middle-class women in certain vocations and professions (viz. nursing in Shroud for a Nightingale) created amongst themselves in the interstices of the workplace before feminism. While she was unsentimental about the dynamics of mutual dislike and competition among women in these worlds, I felt that she missed them, and I sometimes wondered how much of her conservatism was grounded in a positive sense of loss.

{ 28 comments }

1

tony lynch 11.28.14 at 1:05 am

The suggestion about James’ conservatism is interesting – especially so because as far as I can see James (like Iris Murdoch) couldn’t write a male character that was anything more than the way a certain kind if woman thought a male character ought to be – and so we end up with Dalglieshand his poetry and Murdoch men who obsess on types of fabric, etc.

2

Belle Waring 11.28.14 at 4:44 am

She used the word “exopthalmic” at least once per book. I know because I have read them all and noticed.

3

derrida derider 11.28.14 at 6:45 am

That’s an interesting point tony lynch makes about James’ cripplingly limited range with male characters; and it’s definitely true of Iris Murdoch. Of course there have been plenty of good – even great – male writers with the corresponding limitation with women.

It is certainly not true of all authors but it is surprisingly common to encounter otherwise fine ones incapable of transcending gender in their understanding.

4

PlutoniumKun 11.28.14 at 9:07 am

Interesting comment about her male characters – it is many, many years since as a bored student I went through a phase of reading lots of detective books, including James, and I remember very little about any of them except one striking chapter in one of her books (I can’t even remember which one). It was a scene when a body is found by a young man walking by a canal – she devoted a few pages to the young man – someone from a working class background who was walking the canal to swallow his despair at finding out his girlfriend is pregnant and all his dreams for his future were now gone as he felt he had no choice but to marry too young. I have no idea why, but I found that short chapter very moving and brilliantly written and I read it over several times. At the time I thought it was brilliantly insightful psychologically, but looking back I think it maybe struck me more because it was so unusual to have a working class male character depicted sympathetically in her books (or the entire genre for that matter).

Apart from that, what I recall about her books is that Dalgliesh seemed impossibly dull as a detective, and it was rare that any of her characters stood out – however, she was a wonderfully skilled and subtle wordsmith, I found her books usually more interesting than any of her contemporaries (until I discovered Elmore Leonard that same summer).

5

Belle Waring 11.28.14 at 10:36 am

tony: dude, to women, almost all books are like this. Seriously. We’re contractually obligated to pretend not to notice.

6

Katherine 11.28.14 at 11:06 am

I don’t think she wrote women that well either to be honest. I read one of her novels and was so irritated by the cliche-ridden depiction of a particular female character I couldn’t be bothered with any more. There are better books to be read.

Belle – I agree. This is why I find myself mostly reading books written by women. Not all, but many. I just have better things to do with my time than read books that only treat half the population as real people.

7

Tony Lynch 11.28.14 at 11:10 am

My favourite novel is Anna Karenina. I think it the best novel ever. Tolstoy notices everything and isn’t, I think, contractually requiring anyone, male or female, not to notice anything. Maybe this means that it is a novel, and all those other “pretend not to notice” novels are something else.

8

Katherine 11.28.14 at 11:54 am

Tony: note the word “almost” in Belle’s comment.

9

stevenjohnson 11.28.14 at 2:28 pm

Not very familiar with English mystery writers here. But I must say that my favorites are (were, as time goes on,) Julian Symons, Peter Dickinson, Michael Dibdin, H.R.F Keating, Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, maybe Peter Lovesey. I also enjoyed P.D. James as much as Margaret Yorke, Robert Barnard, Val McDermid, (Sorry, no, never quite could tolerate Wimsey.) What I’ve never quite understood is why P.D. James received official honors. To my eye, she was something like a third person Sara Paretsky in this country, elaborate social settings, more or less acceptable plotting, concern with character as something apart from what one does, a little politically engage (opposite sides, though.)

Was it really because she was a judge of some kind?

10

jake the antisoshul soshulist 11.28.14 at 2:32 pm

Maybe it is just writers with the surname James, but I found PD James just as excruciatingly boring as a writer as I did Henry James. To be honest, my only contact with her was Children of Men, but I only made it about one quarter of the way through. And at that point, nothing interesting had yet occurred. I also have the same problem with Henry James. I was not even able to get more than a few pages into Turn of the Screw. Which, by all accounts is his most interesting work. And this is from a reader who made it all the way through Dune, which I found to be the literary equivalent of watching paint dry.

11

Tom Hurka 11.28.14 at 3:35 pm

I read many of the earlier PD James but then stopped because the mystery side of the books was getting so feeble; she was too busy doing the psychology. If Agatha Christie was mysteries without characters, James at the end seemed to be characters without a whodonit. I remember a NYRB review pointing this out — that she’d have an elaborate psychological profile of a character, e.g. a lighthouse keeper, who would appear for a couple of pages and then vanish.)

12

harry b 11.28.14 at 3:37 pm

She was a Consevative peer. The peerage system is complicated (ha!). Some people get peerages for being eminent in their field. But not many. Most have to be eminent in some sort of way, but are appointed by a party (and are expected, though this is unenforceable) to represent the party in the Lords. Personally, I am a huge fan of James — she’s one of the 3 or 4 really great 20th century detective writers. But I imagine that would not have sufficed. She was one of the great and good, as it were — lots of unpaid committee work.

The other greats?
Sayers (sorry stevenjohnson), Symons, Tey. Others? Dickinson is massively underrated (I once wrote to him expressing my complete dismay that he had given up on adult novels; and he was nice enough to write back apologizing!)

Christie is in a league of her own, its just not clear to me which league it is.

I have been wondering for the last couple of days — given the choice, would I want a new Hill, or a new James. And I know the answer is that if I had a week to live, I’d want a Hill. But if I had 20 years, I think I’d go for the James. If I could get a new Symons, I’d go for that over either of them (despite the risk that it would be short and frivolous).

I don’t think I’ve met anyone who likes Dalgliesh (including me). The key is to watch a couple of the Roy Marsden TV adaptations, and imagine that he is Roy Marsden.

13

John Quiggin 11.28.14 at 4:36 pm

Not surprisingly, perhaps, George Eliot is my pick for a writer who creates great characters of both genders.

14

novakant 11.28.14 at 5:51 pm

Henry James is a bit like Eric Rohmer: not for everybody, nothing much happens, sometimes difficult to endure, but very rewarding if one is interested in psychology rather than plot – there is not much like it on the same level of detail and sophistication.

And Henry James was also able to create complex female characters.

15

Mr Punch 11.28.14 at 6:05 pm

Tony writes that we “end up with Dalgliesh and his poetry” – but we don’t do we? We end up with Dalgliesh without his poetry. When Dorothy Sayers’s characters write a poem, she gives us a poem; not P.D. James. I’ve always thought that making Dalgliesh a poet was a disastrous decision, along with dropping Cordelia Grey and the whole it’s-presented-as-a-detective-story-but-really-its-an-actual-novel thing.

16

Mary 11.28.14 at 7:18 pm

Belle,
I found the overuse of “exopthalmic” an annoying tic.
She also overused classicists as murderers.

17

Wallace Stevens 11.29.14 at 4:39 am

I’ve never read any of P.D. James’ books. But I found the premise of “Children of Men” fascinating as a thought experiment. Does anyone know if she was the first to raise this “what if…?” You feel that someone must have–it leads to such important questions. Are there philosophers who have analysed this?

The first, obvious thing that you think of is how quickly, relative to how long we’ve been around, the whole human enterprise will be over if women are no longer able to conceive. And of course you can imagine how difficult things will be for those few left in the final years, as there are fewer and fewer people with the necessary skills to maintain what we think of as normal life. But the most striking thing for me at least is how devastating the mere knowledge of the end of humanity–early on, before any adverse effects were apparent–would be. Everything is like it has always been; you and those dear to you are under no threat and will die whatever death they were eventually going to die. But now you know that humanity is finished. So how much of what you do, and what you think about what you do, is bound up with the idea that you are part of some larger, human project that goes on after you and is, in theory at least, eternal? It has to make a difference, even if, as immersed as we are in the day-to-day, we never think about it. This is not the concern of the person who wants their fame, them, in whatever field, to live forever. Most of us are not concerned with that kind of continuity. But my own feeling, when I projected myself into the world of Children of Men, was one of futility and deep loss. I realised that, in some important sense, my life would lack an object if I didn’t believe that humanity would continue on without me.

18

Neil Levy 11.29.14 at 9:24 am

@Wallace Stevens,

Robert Wilson’s Spin is another book examining the question what is like for humanity to be aware of impending doom well before there are any adverse effects. Children of Men predates it, though.

19

Tom Slee 11.29.14 at 1:44 pm

Elizabeth Renzetti has a good appreciation of James in today’s Globe and Mail.

20

Nigel Holmes 11.29.14 at 4:00 pm

Wallace Stevens at 17: I haven’t read Children of Men, but it sounded like Greybeard, a 1964 novel by Brian Aldiss.

21

Dave Heasman 11.29.14 at 4:47 pm

There’s a Cordwainer Smith story about a colony where all the women died and the men found a way to reproduce. With unfortunate results. The crime of Commander Suzdal perhaps.

22

novakant 11.29.14 at 4:50 pm

Also:

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

23

Friend and Retaliation 11.29.14 at 9:13 pm

24

Matt 11.29.14 at 11:26 pm

Wallace Stevens asked about the “Children of Men” scenario: Are there philosophers who have analysed this?

This is one of the main topics of Samuel Scheffler’s recent Tanner Lectures, Death and the Afterlife. I think his discussion (which specifically mentions the James book, but is broader than that) is very good, but I’m not sure the sort of despair and loss he (and James) suggests is really necessary. With the right mind-set, it seems like it would be a chance to be free, and to spend down humanity’s store of wealth, living rich and interesting lives until the end. It’s not obvious to me why the death of humanity _must_ be more depressing than the death of an individual. Of course, many individuals face their own deaths with dread (I can’t say I wouldn’t) but some don’t, and they often seem extremely admirable.

25

Teachable Mo' 11.30.14 at 2:44 am

Characters in detective stories, male or female, tend to be excruciatingly lonely. The outliers stand out: Dr. Watson, Nick and Nora, and Archie Goodwin. (The bonhomie of Albert Campion and Peter Wimsey being completely contrived.)

I haven’t read or seen much of James, but what stood out from that small sample was her willingness (almost eagerness) to kill off children. From that it looked to me as if abortion and cruelty were her great themes.

26

Tony Lynch 11.30.14 at 4:05 am

Teachable Mo’: Robert Parker’s Spencer may be an outlier here who is, in all other ways, a full on Marlowe style character.

27

Crouchback 11.30.14 at 6:35 am

Teachable Mo: Sara Paretsky has a good essay in Writing in an Age of Silence where she discusses the loneliness of the classic private eye and how she wound up giving V. I. Warshawski more of a social life in response.

28

Meredith 11.30.14 at 7:34 am

P. D. James wrote some really good books. Maybe not my favorites. (Least of all, Children of Men, which got a movie made.) But she wrote some really good books. And I am grateful.
Did I say, really good books? I mean, really good books.
And may I say, the England English writers DO have a way with style, with diction, that American writers just don’t. Or do we? I’d love to figure this out (well, to fight it out). I mean, there’s like Elmore (just for starters, like. There are a few more one could list — where to start? Hawthorne or Melville?). Take that, you Brits! and there are James and Eliot. Okay, so they BECAME British “subjects” (take that in the eye, your Brits!). Where’d they learn to speak, to roll the tongue? On THESE shores.
And then I think, wow, such a stupid little in-game. Where are the Anglo-writers elsewhere on these questions?
And then I think. Oh shit. How stupid this game. We SHARE this language. Thank you, Patricia, for the wonderful gifts you shared. Would I have passed up another PD James? Never! (And I don’t give a shit how her politics might have been categorized.)
RIP.

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