February 23, 2018
P. D. James in EarnestOn this day in 1920 P. D. James was born. Although almost a half-century and some twenty whodunits long, James's career did not get going until she was forty-two. Her "fragment of autobiography," Time to Be in Earnest (1999), takes its title from Samuel Johnson's line that "At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest," but her first book had a similar inspiration, minus the joke. James says that she always thought that she would write, and write crime novels, but when her husband returned from WWII with mental problems that would institutionalize him for the rest of his life, she was forced to make the family's living. Working all day, raising her family, taking classes at night - James spent almost twenty years in hospital administration and another ten in police administration - and visiting her husband on weekends didn't leave much time for childhood dreams, but James "finally realized that there would never be a convenient time to write my first book." Planned out on commuter trains and written on hard-to-imagine spare time, Cover Her Face (1962) was reviewed as "the kind of novel which suggests that the author is planning a lengthy career in the business" - a career, it was noted, which Inspector Adam Dalgliesh (named after James's high school English teacher) would surely share.
Given her death in 2014, many are now trying to assign James her place in the crime genre. If, as Raymond Chandler has famously said, Dashiell Hammett "took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley," she's clearly more fancy vase, or tweedy suit, than back alley. Still, despite sentences which are closer to Henry James than hard-boiled, her bodies are blood-soaked and her criminals can be sex-mad or drug-dependent or power-mean. Certainly the alley-minded couldn't be too upset with the killer in Devices and Desires, who whistles hymns while strangling his victims and then stuffs their mouths with pubic hair. A Certain Justice (1997), is built around the lurid murder of a pushy, glam-girl lawyer - member of a venerable London legal firm but a type who could have come from Chandler's L.A.
It is interesting, given Chandler's quip about Italian vases, that the lawyer is named "Venetia Aldridge." James's signature crime is murder-in-the-vicarage, one in which the sordid intrudes upon some sacred or stately setting. It is as if vase vrs. alley is, for her, not so much a style option as a theme. This is her description of first feeling the "heart-lifting certainty" that she would write A Certain Justice:
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