PD James

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PD James (2013)

Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park , OBE , FRSA , FRSL (* 3. August 1920 in Oxford , Oxfordshire , England ; †  27. November 2014 ibid), was a British crime - writer . She is one of the crime thriller writers who also had a professional connection to police work, as from 1968 to 1980 she worked for an area of ​​the British home office that was responsible for police work. The novel Innocent Blood (German title: Your father's house, published 1980), which was her international breakthrough as a crime novelist, was directly influenced by her professional work. According to many critics, guilt and reconciliation are the motives that shape their novels. Its main protagonist is Adam Dalgliesh, a police inspector with a penchant for poetry.

In 1983 she was accepted by the Queen into the Order of the British Empire , in 1991 to a life peer as "Baroness James of Holland Park" in Southwold in the County of Suffolk and thus a member of the House of Lords . She has received several awards for her literary work.


Childhood and youth

PD James was her parents' first child. Dorothy May Hone and Sidney Victor James, who were married from 1917, had previously hoped for children in vain. James' mother had undergone medical treatment to get pregnant. The birth was difficult, but two more siblings followed 18 months apart, her sister Monica and later her brother Edward. While her mother is described as warm and impulsive, her father was strict, always dissatisfied, and aloof. He had to leave school for financial reasons at the age of 16 and worked for the British tax authorities. The James family were regular churchgoers, and James was therefore not insignificantly influenced by the language of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer .

When James was four or five years old, the family moved to Ludlow in the county of Shropshire to, a region that has been faced in the James with rural poverty. James was distinguished from early on by his good powers of observation and insight into the reasons for action, even of adults:

“I was able to understand the reasons for adult action at an early stage and occasionally uttered unpleasant truths out loud. A habit that caused my mother to describe me as a cynical child. "

Aside from math, James turned out to be a good student. When the family moved to Cambridge in 1931 , where they attended Cambridge Girls High School until 1937, what they saw as the happiest period of their schooling began. Her favorite subjects were English and history. In English she was taught by a Miss Maisie Dalgliesh, after whom she later named her serial hero Adam Dalgliesh. However, her life in Cambridge was overshadowed by the illness of her mother, who spent almost two years in Fulbourne Mental Hospital, a psychiatric facility.

Marriage and illness of the husband

Similar to her father before, James was forced to leave school at the age of 16 for financial reasons. She applied in the public service and was employed by a tax authority. The work was boring and a poor choice for James, who disliked numbers. After 18 months, she quit and started working as the stage manager's assistant at the Festival Theater . It was there that she also met the medical student Connor Bantry White, whom she married on August 8, 1941, five days after her 21st birthday. Clare, the couple's first daughter, was born in 1942.

White, who was still studying medicine in London at the start of World War II and described by friends from that time as well-read, sensitive and humorous, enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps after being qualified to practice medicine. James was pregnant with a second child when her husband was transferred to India. James gave birth to second daughter Jane in London during air raids ; her in-laws looked after their first daughter. She returned to Essex with her two daughters. When her husband returned from the war, it quickly became apparent that he was suffering from severe mental illness. It was also clear that he would no longer be able to practice medicine or help support the family. James never publicly commented on her husband's illness in greater detail. Martha Hailey Dubose believes that White suffered from schizophrenia . Until his death in 1964 he was repeatedly in psychiatric hospitals for long periods. His behavior was increasingly erratic, possibly also violent, at least once he threw himself out of a window and at times he did not recognize his wife. With the understatement that is characteristic of her , James once publicly stated that she never knew what to expect when she returned home after work in the evening. She found the clearest words when she publicly defended Ted Hughes after the suicide of his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath :

“Someone who has never been forced to live with a mentally ill partner cannot understand what this means. Two people live in different hells, each of which exacerbates the other. Those who have not been through this poisoning misery should be quiet. "

Hospital workers

The couple initially lived with White's parents in Essex. In 1949, James applied to the National Health Service and was hired as a clerk at the London Skin Hospital. The experiences from this time are reflected in two of her crime novels, namely in A Mind to Murder (1963) and in Shroud for a Nightingale (1971). It became very clear to James that without the appropriate qualifications, she would not expect promotions. She began taking evening courses in hospital administration at the City of London College , Moorgate, and successfully completed them. In view of the difficult situation of the couple, the two daughters were sent to boarding school when they were three and five years old, respectively.

The first detective novel

James later said of herself that she always knew she had a talent for writing and that she regretted starting it so late. She was almost forty when she started. According to her own admission, she was particularly influenced by the writers of the so-called Golden Age of crime fiction : Dorothy L. Sayers , Margery Allingham , Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey . For James, the obvious thing to do was to start with a detective novel, a literary genre that she considered appropriate practice before attempting a “real” novel. It took several years until Cover Her Face (German title: One game too much) was finished. But then through a chain of happy links she found a literary agent in Elaine Greene and a publisher in Faber & Faber . Her first novel was published in 1962, and in its basic features it has a lot in common with the classic Whodunnits that were so popular in Britain between the two world wars. Cover her Face is a classic "mansion murder" in which, as in almost all subsequent novels, she had Adam Dalgliesh, a silent, widowed criminal investigator with a poetic streak, investigated. Cover her Face received a number of good reviews, but most book critics concluded that the author was a man. James later stated that she had no intention of denying her gender. She always wanted to write under her maiden name and shortened her first name to PD because it looked puzzling and would look good on the spine of the book.

Interior Ministry employee

Cover her Face sold well and James' next novel, A Mind to Murder , sold even better. However, James was financially unable to quit her job and devote himself entirely to writing. In 1964, Connor White died of an overdose of alcohol and medication at the age of 44. The judge found that the exact circumstances of death were unclear, but James stated in an interview for Vanity Fair magazine in 1993 that she suspected a suicide. From March 1968, James started working for the Home Office , the UK Home Office . According to her own admission, that was the beginning of the part of her professional life that was the most exciting and that filled her in a special way. She initially worked for the police department and was responsible for areas such as forensics , pathology and the police fleet. She was later transferred to the department responsible for children and adolescents, and during her final years of employment she worked in the criminalistics department with a focus on juvenile criminal law. The experience she gained there proved essential for her later novels. Her first non-fiction book The Maul and the Pear Tree , which she wrote together with a colleague in the Home Office, namely Thomas A. Critchley, shows this fascination. The non-fiction book deals with a brutal series of murders in 1811, the so-called Ratcliffe Highway murders . James became interested in this historic case because she found the investigation to be particularly incompetent.

In 1972, PD James was one of the first crime writers to introduce a female private investigator . Cordelia Gray investigates in the novel with the eloquent title An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (literally: An unsuitable job for a woman) in the suicide case of a student in Cambridge. However, she only got one more case from PD James, who otherwise preferred Dalgliesh as the protagonist.

James was involved in her work with the implementation of laws to improve child and youth welfare, namely the Children and Young Persons' Act 1969 and the Children's Act 1975 . The work on it inspired her to write the novel Innocent Blood (German title: The house of her father), which describes the search of an adopted girl for her biological mother and the impact of this search on people around her. The novel made it onto the bestseller lists in the United States. The financially successful sale of the paperback rights and the movie option resulted in James becoming wealthy for the first time by the time she retired.

Further life

Ruth Rendell , colleague and friend of PD James

In general, the novels that PD James wrote after her retirement are considered the best of her oeuvre. James did not limit herself to her letter, however: she became a Justice of the Peace in Juvenile Court, a member of the British Arts Council and a member of the British Council . She has chaired the Society of Authors , an advisory board to the BBC, and temporarily chaired the Man Booker Price Committee . She has taught creative writing in the UK and USA . She was a sought-after guest lecturer and speaker. Together with Ruth Rendell , with whom she was good friends, she denied a series of panel discussions.

James died on November 27, 2014 at the age of 94 at their Oxford home.

Working method

Since the publication of her first novel, James has released another novel every two to four years. She took a lot of time herself to develop the storyline and also spent a lot of time researching the facts for her novel. For them, a place was often the inspirational starting point for a new novel. The spot where the steamer Princess Alice went down in 1878 and tore 640 of the 800 or so day trippers on board to their death was, for example, the starting point for her novel Original Sin (German title: Who builds his house on sins ). It was also important to James to determine the title of the novel before starting work.

Although James focused mostly on detective novels, she viewed herself as a person who feared physical violence. For this reason James usually refrains from directly describing the actual murder. For them it was also inconceivable to tell a murder from the perspective of the murderer, for example, as Patricia Highsmith did. In contrast, the moment the corpse is found is an essential element of a detective story for James. In her opinion, the feeling of horror and horror that a murder should trigger can best be generated if it is described from the perspective of an innocent character in a novel. At the same time, the first victim is usually portrayed as a very unpleasant person - for example Gerald Etienne in Original Sin and Venetia Aldridge in A Certain Justice :

“As an author, I find it the most understandable motive for murder - and one with which the reader can possibly identify - when the murderer acts out of the desire to protect a person he loves very much, to benefit her or to avenge them. "

It was also important to James that there is more to an event than a conflict between good and evil.

For the 100th birthday of the author, Deutschlandfunk published a 'calendar sheet'. It described how James z. B. processed a formative war experience of her husband in one of her Inspector Dalgliesh novels.


For her literary work, she received three Silver Dagger (2nd place in crime novels of the year) and three Edgar nominations. For her life's work she received the highest accolades from both the British ( Diamond Dagger ), the Norwegian ( Rivertonklubbens internasjonale ærespris ) and the American ( Grand Master Award ) crime writers. In 1974 she received the Black Africa Literature Prize for “The Strange Fate of Wangrin”. In 1988 she received the Danish Palle Rosenkrantz Prize for her novel Indviet til mord (German: The aftertaste of death , original: A taste for death ) and in the same year the Grand prix de littérature policière together with Andrew Vachss (Strega) . In 2010 her nonfiction book Talking About Detective Fiction won the Anthony Award and the Macavity Award from the American Mystery Readers International .

In 1983 she was accepted by the Queen into the Order of the British Empire , in 1991 to a life peer as "Baroness James of Holland Park" in Southwold in the County of Suffolk and thus a member of the House of Lords . She made her inaugural address in the House of Lords on the subject of literature and language.


"The thrillers are set in the present, but are so Gothic that it is almost astonishing when it is mentioned that women from the character ensemble take the pill."


Detective novels

  • 1962: Cover Her Face
    One game too many , German by Wolfdietrich Müller; Wunderlich, Tübingen 1980, ISBN 3-8052-0326-8
  • 1963: A Mind to Murder
    A soul from murderer , German by Thomas Schlück ; Wunderlich, Tübingen 1976, ISBN 3-8052-0262-8
  • 1967: Unnatural Causes
    An unexpected confession , German by Sybille Hunzinger; Wunderlich, Tübingen 1983, ISBN 3-8052-0375-6
  • 1971: Shroud for a Nightingale
    Death in a white bonnet , German by Wolfdietrich Müller; Wunderlich, Tübingen 1978, ISBN 3-8052-0296-2 ( Silver Dagger )
  • 1972: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
    No job for a lady , German by Dietlinde Bindheim; Heyne, Munich 1973, ISBN 3-453-10157-X
    → also: A lovely job for a woman , German by Wolfdietrich Müller; Wunderlich, Tübingen 1981, ISBN 3-8052-0345-4
  • 1975: The Black Tower
    The black tower , German by Doris Kornau a. Alexandra Wiegand; Wunderlich, Tübingen 1982, ISBN 3-8052-0358-6 (Silver Dagger)
  • 1977: Death of an Expert Witness
    Death of an expert , German by Wolfdietrich Müller; Wunderlich, Tübingen 1979, ISBN 3-8052-0313-6
  • 1980: Innocent Blood
    your father's house , German from Georg Auerbach; Droemer Knaur, Munich, Zurich 1982, ISBN 3-426-19053-2
  • 1982: The Skull Beneath the Skin
    End of a career , German by Georg Auerbach; Droemer Knaur, Munich 1984, ISBN 3-426-19094-X
  • 1986: A Taste for Death
    The aftertaste of death , German by Georg Auerbach; Droemer Knaur, Munich 1984, ISBN 3-426-19199-7 (Silver Dagger, Grand Prix de Littérature policière 1988)
  • 1989: Devices and Desires
    intent and desire , German by Georg Auerbach and Gisela Stege; Droemer Knaur, Munich 1990, ISBN 3-426-19275-6
  • 1994: Original Sin
    Who builds his house on sins, by Christa E. Seibicke; Droemer Knaur, Munich 1995, ISBN 3-426-19367-1
  • 1997: A Certain Justice
    What is good and bad , German by Christa E. Seibicke; Droemer Knaur, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-426-19463-5
  • 2001: Death in Holy Orders
    Death at a holy place , German by Christa E. Seibicke; Droemer, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-426-19576-3
  • 2003: The Murder Room
    In the hall of the murderers , German by Christa E. Seibicke; Droemer, Munich 2004, ISBN 3-426-19658-1
  • 2005: The Lighthouse
    Where there is light and shadow , German by Ulrike Wasel and Klaus Timmermann; Droemer, Munich 2006, ISBN 3-426-19717-0
  • 2008: The Private Patient
    A flawless death , German by Walter Ahlers and Elke Link; Droemer, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-426-19846-9



  • Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery - The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists . Thomas Dunne Books, New York 2011, ISBN 9780312276553 .
  • Richard B. Gidez: PD James . Twayne, Boston 1986. ISBN 0-8057-6924-2
  • Norma Siebenheller: PD James . Ungar, New York 1981. ISBN 0-8044-6862-1

Web links

Commons : PD James  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 341.
  2. Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 342.
  3. Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 343. The original quote is: From an early age I had this isight into adult motive and sometimes spoke uncomfortable truth aloud, a habit which caused my mother to describe me as a cynical child .
  4. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 344.
  5. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 345.
  6. Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 346 and p. 347.
  7. quoted from Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 345. In the original the quote is: ..no one who has never had to live with a partner who is mentally ill can possibly understand what this means. Two people are in separate hell, but each intensifies the other. Those who have not experienced this contaminating misery should keep silent.
  8. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 346.
  9. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 348.
  10. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 350.
  11. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 351.
  12. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 347.
  13. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 351.
  14. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 352.
  15. Sonja Osterwalder: Dark Enlightenment: the detective literature from Conan Doyle to Cornwell . Böhlau Verlag Vienna, January 2011, ISBN 978-3-205-78602-3 , p. 187 (accessed on November 27, 2014).
  16. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 353.
  17. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 353.
  18. Marilyn Stasio: PD James, Creator of the Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries, Dies at 94. In: The New York Times, November 27, 2014 (English, accessed November 28, 2014).
  19. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 354.
  20. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 354.
  21. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 355.
  22. quoted from Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 356. The original quote is: As a writer I find that the most credible motive and, perhaps, the one for which the reader can feel some sympathy, is the murderer's wish to advantage, protect or avenge someone he or she greatly loves.
  23. https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/vor-100-jahren-geboren-pd-james-krimis-als-kleine-inseln.871.de.html?dram:article_id=481647 Born 100 years ago - PD James: Crime as small islands of security
  24. ^ Max Evers: Börsenblatt for the German book trade . Verlag des Börsenverein der Deutschen Buchhandels., 1985, p. 721 (accessed on November 27, 2014).
  25. Klaus-Peter Walter (Ed.): Reclams Krimi-Lexikon . Authors and works. Philipp Reclam Jun., Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-150-10509-9 , p. 224.