P.D. James, the most important contemporary mystery writer, is justifiably mentioned in the company of such “golden-age” mystery writers as Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie. While upholding the conventions of the genre, she significantly adapts them, particularly in the portrayal of her principal detective, Inspector Dalgliesh, in her use of institutional set-tings, and in her interest in allegory and moral ambiguity rather than in creating clever puzzles. As Joyce Carol Oates has stated, “P.D. James does not 'transcend' genre; she refines, deepens, and amplifies it” (21).
P.D. James was born into a middle-class English family in Oxford, the oldest of three children. Her maternal grandfather was headmaster of the choir school in Oxford, and her father worked in the patent office. While she was still a child, James relocated with her family, first to Ludlow and then to Cambridge, where she attended the Cambridge County High School for girls. She named her principal detective, Adam Dalgliesh, after an English teacher there. After high school James went to work in the income-tax office in Ely, the beginning of a long association with the civil service.
In 1941 James married, but her husband, a doctor, suffered from schizophrenia and was in and out of asylums for most of his life. In order to support their two daughters, Claire and Jane, James went to work in 1949 for the National Health Service. Simultaneously she took evening classes at the City of London College, earning a degree in hospital administration. She stayed with the National Health Service until 1968, when she transferred to the Home Office Criminal Policy Department, working there until her retirement in 1979. Writing came late in life, as James did not publish her first novel until 1962, two years before her husband died. She has acknowledged Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Josephine Tey as influences; her favorite author is Jane Austen, and she has written about Austen's Emma as a detective novel. She is deeply religious, and many of her titles come from the Book of Common Prayer. In addition to these literary influences, her husband's institutional confinement and her own work outside her marriage were the major influences on James's fiction. Bernard Benstock states, “Few detective writers have had a modicum of practical experience in the offices and laboratories of police bureaus, much less in the
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Publication information: Book title: Modern British Women Writers: An A-to-Z Guide. Contributors: Vicki K. Janik - Editor, Del Ivan Janik - Editor. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of publication: Westport, CT. Publication year: 2002. Page number: 159.
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