I am late in weighing in on the death of P.D. James, whom I knew in two ways — as a devoted reader of her Adam Dalgleish novels and as a colleague in a writers conference in Key West many years ago. I remember that, walking to a panel discussion, she took my arm and said, “Please call me Phyllis.” Well then, OK. It was the sort of intimacy Phyllis created with her loyal fans, which number in the millions worldwide.
In the memoir courses that Suzanne and I teach, we often refer to the work of P.D. James. Yes, she was a novelist, and one who erroneously was often relegated to the Mystery category. But her narratives, if memoir writers are paying close attention, teach all writers how to build story and reader anticipation.
For example, in A Certain Justice, she begins the narrative with a reference to a lawyer who will be murdered at her desk several weeks later. There is no reference at all to this heinous act for dozens of pages that follow, a construction that invites the reader to be suspicious of each new character introduced, and to search for motives to a crime not yet committed.
Because murder is at the heart of her work, Phyllis, along with other masters such as Ruth Rendell, are relegated to a category of fiction not exalted for its literary merit. But both of those writers (Rendell is still cranking out books), in the end, succeed in exploring the mysteries of human nature. As James herself said, “What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.” Which is, of course, the goal of almost all meaningful prose.