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James, Phyllis Dorothy, Baroness James of Holland Parkfree

  • Peter Kemp

Phyllis Dorothy James (1920–2014), by Michael Taylor, 1996

James, Phyllis Dorothy, Baroness James of Holland Park (1920–2014), crime novelist and public servant, was born on 3 August 1920 at The Cottage, 164 Walton Street, Oxford, the eldest of the three children of Sidney Victor James (1895–1979), an Inland Revenue officer, and his wife Dorothy May, née Hone (1893–1966). The marriage, she would recall, was ill-suited and the family home unhappy. Although highly intelligent, Phyllis’s cold, sarcastic father was ‘not easy or comfortable in human relationships, never cruel but authoritarian’ (Sunday Times, 17 Aug 2008). Her warmer-hearted, unintellectual mother had a breakdown and was committed to a dismal Victorian asylum, which Phyllis found traumatic to visit. At the age of fourteen she was helping to run the house and looking after her brother and sister. A glimpse of the strain this premature responsibility placed on her is suggested by a scene she referred to as a memorable moment in her life. Going into her bedroom after a neighbour had been brought in to help as housekeeper, she saw her nightdress ironed and laid out on the windowsill to air in the sunshine. ‘There was a sense of being looked after, which was very comforting’, she remarked with characteristic understatement (ibid.).

Because of the family’s straitened finances, Phyllis James had to leave Cambridge High School for Girls (where she had thrived) at the age of sixteen and initially followed her father into a job with the Inland Revenue. She hated it but found creative outlet in working as a ‘dogsbody’ at Cambridge’s Festival Theatre. It was there that she met (Ernest) Connor Bantry White (1920–1964), a medical student, whom she married on 8 August 1941. They moved to London where, despite the bombing (there were almost nightly parties with fellow fire-watchers among stirrup-pumps and buckets of sand on top of a building near the BBC), they enjoyed ‘a very happy time’ (Sunday Times, 17 Aug 2008).

It wasn’t to last. After serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps in India and Africa, Connor returned from the war ill with what she came to think was some kind of schizophrenia: ‘He was in and out of hospitals. People always thought they could do something, but they never could’. When he was at home, ‘it was hard, very, very hard. He’d be all right for a while, then there was a big explosion’ (ibid.). Because of this, their two daughters—Clare (b. 1942) and Jane (b. 1944)—went to boarding school when very young (but, as she said, ‘never lost their affection for him, nor he his affection for us’, ibid.). From 1949, working for the NHS in hospital administration (experience in running five psychiatric clinics later proved invaluable to her writing), she held things together until Connor was found dead at home in 1964.

In 1968 James applied to the civil service and, coming third in the country in the qualifying examination, was offered her choice of department. She opted to serve as a principal in the Home Office’s Police Department, later switching to the Criminal Policy Department. Both, she said, were ‘an absolute goldmine’ for her fiction. In 1979 she retired in order to write full-time.

As a child, James had been both keen to write and questioning of other people’s stories. Famously, on hearing of Humpty Dumpty’s demise, she asked: ‘Did he fall or was he pushed?’ (Sunday Times, 17 Aug 2008). Her literary career was launched when her agent, Elaine Greene, learned from Charles Monteith, a director of Faber and Faber, that they were seeking a replacement for their leading crime novelist, Cyril Hare, who had recently died. Greene sent him the manuscript of James’s first novel, Cover Her Face (1962), which she had just read. The telephone call informing James that Faber had accepted it was, she remembers in her ‘fragment of autobiography’, Time to Be in Earnest (1999), ‘one of the most exciting moments of my life … I knew that evening, as I pranced up and down the hall, that people do literally jump for joy’ (p. 15).

Faber’s choice to fill the gap at the top of their crime list couldn’t have been wiser. With fourteen novels between 1962 and 2008 featuring her poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh and two in 1972 and 1982 starring a young female private investigator, Cordelia Gray, P. D. James (the name she chose to write under because ‘it was enigmatic and would look best on the book spine’: Time to Be in Earnest, 11) won both high critical acclaim and an immensely wide readership. She did so too with a psychological thriller, Innocent Blood (1980); a dystopian novel, The Children of Men (1992); and Death Comes to Pemberley (2011), a crime mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen was a writer James particularly loved, rereading her each year). Besides Time to Be in Earnest, there was another non-fiction book, The Maul and the Pear Tree (1971), co-authored with a Police Department colleague, T. A. Critchley, about brutal murders in early nineteenth-century Wapping. After her death, two books of short stories, The Mistletoe Murder (2016) and Sleep No More (2017), were published. The first twelve of her Adam Dalgliesh novels were televised, and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972), the first of the Cordelia Gray novels, was turned into a film (1982), directed by Chris Petit and starring Pippa Guard and Billie Whitelaw.

James’s distinctive accomplishment was to take the murder mystery novel that had its golden age in the 1920s and 1930s and—by deepening it emotionally and complicating it psychologically and morally—give it another golden age. All the components that make the classic whodunnit an addictive genre (about which she wrote fascinatingly in her 2009 monograph, Talking about Detective Fiction) are present in her pages: ingeniously perpetrated murder in a fairly closed community, a limited circle of suspects, lavishly distributed clues, red herrings, shaky alibis, abundant motives, means, and opportunities. At the end of each novel, the whodunnit puzzle is solved with virtuoso flair and impeccable authorial fair play. But ethical and social dilemmas often remain—as in life—unresolved. ‘Perhaps that’s the attraction of the genre’, she observed. ‘Because there’s at least an answer to the one thing—who killed the person and why. The other problems are there, and they’re still there at the end of the book’ (Sunday Times, 17 Aug 2008).

Besides the moral ambiguities that give James’s novels nuance, there is emphasis on physical and emotional pain—frequently heightened by the settings: a hospital, a hospice, a psychiatric clinic. It is unusual for the actual murder to be described. What she preferred to spotlight is the finding of the body. Macabre tableaux—a neatly dressed handless corpse floating in a dinghy off the Suffolk coast, an actress bludgeoned to death by a marble arm broken off an antique statue, a minister of state sprawled in a church vestry with his throat slit, a female barrister dead at her desk wearing a court wig drenched in blood that isn’t her own, an archdeacon executed in front of a medieval Doom painting—are the starting point for investigations not just into the identity of the killer but into what she often called the ‘contaminating’ effects of murder.

One reason why a whodunnit writer must limit the number of suspects, James believed, is that ‘you can’t let the stain of suspicion spread too far’. The strain of suspicion also receives attention. ‘There’s a huge fascination in examining the human personality under the trauma of investigation’, she declared. ‘All of us present a carapace to the world, whether consciously or unconsciously. And this carapace conceals our private lives—the things we know and wish to keep to ourselves. In a murder investigation these defences become very fragile and are often torn down’ (Sunday Times, 17 Aug 2008).

Mindfulness about murder was instinctive to James. Her two novels that aren’t whodunnits, Innocent Blood and The Children of Men, respectively deal with a woman implicated in a child murder and enforced euthanasia in the near future. Once, crossing the Atlantic on RMS Queen Mary 2 as a guest speaker, she speculatively eyed a wooden chest used to store deck furniture and observed how handy it would be for hiding a corpse.

It may seem appropriate that one of her novels was called A Taste for Death (1986), but James also had a tremendous zest for life. Throughout her career as a writer she continued to involve herself in public affairs. She was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, as well as chairman of the Society of Authors from 1984 to 1986 and its president from 1997. She served on the Literature Advisory Committee of the British Council from 1988 to 1993 and the Board of the Arts Council from 1988 to 1992. In 1987 she chaired the Booker Prize panel of judges. She received numerous literary awards and honorary degrees. She was an honorary fellow of three Cambridge colleges (Downing, Girton, and Lucy Cavendish) and two (St Hilda’s and Kellogg) at Oxford. She was made an OBE in 1983 and, after being created a life peer in 1991, was a conscientious attender at the House of Lords.

In 1986 James was appointed to the Advisory Council of the BBC, and she was a governor from 1988 to 1993, after which her concern for the institution continued. Her polite demolishing of the director-general, Mark Thompson, when she guest-edited the Today programme in 2009 lingered in popular memory. His ill-advised response to her charge that an organization she valued was squandering its resources on unworthy programmes—‘You need to give me a couple of shockers’—instantly elicited a wonderful catalogue of dross: Dog Borstal, Britain’s Most Embarrassing Pets, and Help Me, Anthea, I’m Infested (Today, BBC Radio 4, 31 Dec 2009).

James, whose Anglican faith infused her life and values, was vice-president of the Prayer Book Society and from 1991 to 2000 a member of the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England. A sermon she preached in 2005 in St Edward’s Church, Cambridge, where she had worshipped as a child, spoke eloquently about her devotion to the Book of Common Prayer and the lifelong nourishment it had provided (it also gave her the title for one of her novels, Devices and Desires, 1989).

Though she said that ‘a writer needs as much trauma as he or she can take’ (Sunday Times, 17 Aug 2008)—and experienced a considerable amount of it in her early life—Phyllis James was much loved, as well as much admired, because of her warm personality. Audiences glowed at events where she spoke, as did the fans who thronged to have books signed by her and with each of whom she always took time to chat.

James’s family was a huge source of pleasure. The living room of her West London house in Holland Park, with its sage-green walls and Regency painting bought because it reminded her of a scene from Jane Austen, was filled with photographs of her two daughters, Clare and Jane, their husbands, Lyn Flook and Peter McLeod, her five grandchildren, and latterly her eight great-grandchildren. Suffolk (where she had a holiday home in Southwold) was a favourite place to explore, especially its churches, and the setting for several of her novels. The sea exhilarated her. A sufferer from claustrophobia, she was in her element among the wide horizons and bracing air of ocean crossings when lecturing, as she loved to do, on cruise ships. Convivial lunches at the Ivy in Covent Garden were another pleasure (Dorset dressed crab and glass of Chablis followed by sticky toffee pudding were her customary choices from the menu). It was there that, soon after she had been told she did not have long to live, she hosted a lunch to celebrate the latest Tudor murder-mystery novel by C. J. Sansom, whose work she enthusiastically admired. It was the last public occasion she took part in, and no one hearing the lively, funny speech of tribute she made would have guessed she was mortally ill.

James died of cancer on 27 November 2014 at her home, 88 Foundry House, Walton Well Road, Oxford. The intense enjoyment writing gave her continued to the end. To her delight, a new novel had started to come together in her imagination over the preceding year or so. Set in a fictitious village in the reed beds outside Southwold (she had checked with a pole that a pond there would be deep enough to submerge a corpse), it was again to feature Dalgliesh, the man to whom she gave the traits she most esteemed (‘high intelligence, sensitivity but not sentimentality, compassion, courage and reticence’: Sunday Times, 17 Aug 2008). Although the novel wasn’t finished, it’s clear that her talent stayed vigorously and joyfully alive until her death.




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  • M. Taylor, oil on canvas, 1996, NPG [see illus.]
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  • M. Gerson, cibachrome print, 1993, NPG
  • D. Harrison, bromide fibre print, 1995, NPG
  • N. Kurtz, bromide fibre print, 2001, NPG
  • S. Murphy, colour print, NPG
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  • L. Monier, five photographs, 1994, Bridgeman Images
  • J. Mendoza, painting,, accessed 1 Aug 2017
  • C. Molden, two photographs, 2010, repro. in Daily Telegraph (5 Aug 2010)
  • L. Nylind, photograph, repro. in The Guardian (28 Nov 2014)
  • photographs, Getty Images
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  • obituary photographs
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