Classic Crime

P.D. James

Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park was born on the 3rd August 1920.

Born in Oxford, the daughter of a tax inspector, James was educated at the British School in Ludlow and Cambridge High School for Girls. James had to leave school at sixteen as her father felt women should not be admitted to higher education. In 1941, James married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an army doctor. They had two daughters, Clare and Jane. When White returned from the Second World War, he was experiencing mental illness, and James was forced to provide for the whole family until her husband's death in 1964.

With her husband in a psychiatric institution and their daughters being mostly cared for by his parents, James studied hospital administration and from 1949 to 1968 worked for a hospital board in London. She began writing in the mid-1950s, using her maiden name. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, featuring the investigator and poet, Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, named after a teacher at Cambridge High School, was published in 1962. Many of James's mystery novels take place against the backdrop of UK bureaucracies, such as the criminal justice system, a publishing house, a barrister’s chambers, a private clinic and the National Health Service in which she worked for decades.

On 7 February 1991, James was created a life peer as Baroness James of Holland Park. P.D. James passed away at her Oxford home on the 27th November 2014.

Review: The Children of Men

The year is 2021, the 1st of January. A new year should be an occasion for celebration, for looking forward to the coming year, but the people of the world simply see another year towards the extinction of the human race. Not a single child has been born as the last baby recorded born was twenty-five years, two months and twelve days ago – news known as this very baby has died in a bar brawl in Buenos Aires. Nobody has any explanation as to why women have stopped becoming pregnant. Tests are carried out on regular basis, but no breakthrough has been found. People are getting older and when they become a burden, they become part of The Quietus, a ritual that quietly rids the world of those who are unable to make a contribution to the declining populace. Sojourners from other countries are shipped in to do the menial tasks and look after the elderly and infirm. Villages are closed down and people moved to towns, occupying houses that once belonged to strangers. The Isle of Man has become one big penal colony, criminals sent there, no laws in place, where only the strongest survive.

Theo Faron is the writer of this new diary. He is a cousin of the Warden of England, a man who has had to take drastic measures to keep the country going. But not all his methods are welcomed and underground splinter groups surreptitiously hand out leaflets avoiding at all costs the secret police who are not afraid to kill to keep order. Then a group, The Five Fishes approaches Theo, the man they know as the cousin to the Warden. They feel Theo has the Warden’s ear and may be able to make some changes. Then Theo discovers a startling piece of information that will change the whole outlook of the entire world and Theo has some difficult decisions to make.

During lockdown I have been reading the novels of P.D. James from the beginning. I remember reading this back when it was released back in 1992. It is not a Dalgliesh and a few years later, I had the chance to meet P.D. James herself at an intimate signing with a few people. I mentioned that one of my favourite novels of hers was ‘The Children of Men’. Her eyes lit up as she said it was one of her favourites too, but it hadn’t sold that well and her publisher had informed that she best stick to Dalgliesh. It did make me smile when the film of this book came out and was an instant box-office smash. I am sure that James secretly felt exonerated when the movie tie-in paperback sales shot through the roof! The film is totally different from the book, but has the same premise.

Reading this again after nearly thirty years I have a lot of respect for James who could easily have stuck to the Dalgliesh cases she was famous for, instead of writing about a future Dystopian England. But it is not all doom and gloom. James begins her story on a bleak note, but by the end of it there is hope, a new beginning. It is the mark of a great author who pushes her own boundaries, even James who was in her seventies when this was published. August 2020 commemorates an author who would have been one hundred if she was alive, and a writer who proved, alongside her fellow writer and good friend, Ruth Rendell, that crime fiction could be as well-written, as structured and as stimulating as any Booker novel. I feel that with this particular novel, James proved her case with panache.

To celebrate the commemoration, Faber have released a short story by James, which is one of the best short stories I have ever read. Definitely one worth reading!

Reviewed by: C.S.

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