Monday, December 1, 2014

I'll miss you, PD James

When I was a kid, I loved reading books in series. I tore through the Little House on the Prairie books, hid out on the back porch with the Betsy-Tacy series, and read (and sobbed over) the Anne of Green Gables books so many times that the bindings fell apart. There was just about nothing I liked more than a great character whose story I could follow over an extended period of time.

So it's probably no surprise that when I was introduced to the work of PD James in college, I developed a serious crush on Adam Dalgleish, the police detective at the center of most of her novels. I loved his great brain, his tortured past, his sideline work as a poet. I loved the way that he was ageless, modern, and generous of spirit. In the fall of my senior year at BYU, I went to London on Study Abroad. I had the great fortune of creating my own senior seminar course, and decided to read the works of great British mystery writers. But I got sidetracked by PD James. While I was supposed to be reading Wilkie Collins, I was actually heading down to Waterstone's to pick up Original Sin. I think I read all eight of the Adam Dalgleish books she had already written while I was in London, along with both of the Cordelia Gray books. When I saw that she was publishing something new, it was always the first thing I put on my Christmas list. Her mysteries were just so smart and insightful, and Dalgleish was my literary Superman.

I wasn't surprised when I heard that PD James died last week (But I'm sad, especially that my literary heartthrob, Adam Dalgleish, has died along with her). She was 94 (and still working on another novel). As I read more of her novels, and learned more about her life, I gained a great admiration for her. While she said in interviews several times that she always planned on being a novelist, she left school at the age of sixteen because she needed to work to help support her family. She married an army doctor in 1941, and had two daughters during the war years. However, when the war was over, her husband's poor mental health prevented him from steady employment, and she continued working. She published her first novel in 1962 (at the age of 42), while working full-time, while caring for her husband and two teenage daughters. In fact, she continued working in the service of the British government until she retired in 1979. Whenever I start to get down on myself for not churning out the great American novel, I think of PD James, who had so many excuses not to write, and whose work showed such a depth of insight that I'm glad she didn't give in to those excuses. In all, despite her late start, despite her full-time job, despite her family's demands, she published more than 20 works of wickedly smart contemporary detective fiction, non-fiction, an autobiography, a dystopian novel, and a Regency romance/murder mystery. So, aspiring writer out there-- don't give up hope-- don't think you have to have that room of your own and five hundred pounds to be a writer.

Thanks, PD James, for all of your wonderful books, and for your remarkable life. 


anna said...

What? She died? I really need to get out more or read more news. How sad. I love her books. What an amazing biography - thanks for sharing.

"Dustmop" Mark Cheney said...

I really like P.D. James and especially the Adam Dalgleish series. I didn't have a crush on him, but as an ex-private investigator, I identified with him in many ways. Good man. Thanks for your blog, Shelah!