P.D. James Biography

Author (1920–2014)
P.D. James is an English mystery writer best known for her series of novels featuring fictional detective Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard.


P.D. James was born in Oxford, England, on August 3, 1920. She began working as a civil servant at age 16 through marriage and motherhood, and began writing mystery novels in her late 30s. By the time she retired to write full-time, she had become famous as the creator of fictional detective Adam Dalgliesh. James also wrote the novels Children of Men and Death Comes to Pemberley. James died on November 27, 2014 at the age of 94.

Family Background and Education

Phyllis Dorothy James, best known as P.D. James, was born on August 3, 1920, in Oxford, England, to Sidney Victor and Dorothy May Amelia (Hone) James. She was the oldest of three children. Her father worked as a tax officer for the Inland Revenue department. Her mother, who encouraged the children to read at an early age, suffered so severely from mental illness that she was eventually institutionalized. James attended schools in Ludlow and Cambridge, but her formal education ended when she was 16 years old and she went to work in a tax office.

Marriage and Early Career

In 1941, at the age of 21, P.D. James married medical student Ernest Connor Bantry White. The couple had two daughters, Clare (born in 1942) and Jane (born in 1944). James's husband served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War. However, after the war he was so incapacitated by schizophrenia that he was unable to work and required frequent hospitalization until his death in 1964.

In order to support her family, James studied hospital administration and went to work for the National Health Service, where she would remain through 1968. She then took a civil service exam and began working in the government's home office, where she eventually held a position as a senior employee in the Criminal Policy Department from 1972 to '79.

'Queen of Crime'

In the meantime, James had achieved her ambition of becoming a professional writer. She wrote her first novel, a detective story titled Cover Her Face, in the evenings and during her daily commute. It was published under the name "P.D. James" in 1962, and it introduced the character of Adam Dalgliesh, a detective with a calm, introspective manner and a talent for writing poetry.

Dubbed the "Queen of Crime," James went on to write 13 more Dalgliesh murder mysteries. Many of them were set in enclosed communities, illuminating the tensions and violence that can erupt amongst tightly knit groups of people. Shroud for a Nightingale, published in 1971, is set at a nursing school, and Original Sin (1994) at a small publishing house in London; Death in Holy Orders (2001) probes the motives behind a killing at a theological college, and the final Dalgliesh mystery, The Private Patient (published in 2008), unfolds at a private plastic surgery clinic in an English manor house.

James also wrote two mystery novels featuring a female detective, Cordelia Gray: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and The Skull Beneath the Skin.

Other Works

On occasion, P.D. James has written in other genres. Her 1992 novel Children of Men imagines a dystopic future in which humankind has become infertile and is dying off; it was adapted as a motion picture in 2006. James penned a memoir titled Time to Be in Earnest in 1999, and Death Comes to Pemberley, published in 2011, combines a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with a historically accurate murder mystery.

James names several additional writers, past and present, as her literary heroes: they include George Eliot, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Trollope, as well as mystery writers Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ruth Rendell, a longtime friend.


James was decorated with the Order of the British Empire in 1983 and was named a peer of the House of Lords in 1991; her honorary title is Baroness James.

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