J.D. James, the preeminent writer of mystery and detection, died late last month. To my mind, she was also a significant novelist and outstanding stylist. I owe a deep debt to her work, firstly, since my Masters thesis on mystery and detective fiction includes a chapter on her work, she helped to cement my interest in the possibilities of mystery novels; and she also belonged to that class of exceptional writers who prove, as I've long suspected, that writing in a particular genre, popular or otherwise, does not signal a retreat from literary excellence but rather the potential for deeper engagement.
James was the closest we have had to an Austenian novelist since Jane Austen herself. Not only was Austen her literary model, but she understood perfectly well that the constraints of genre, in this case the enclosed world of the classical detective story, provided a precise and modulated stage on which to cast a coolly illuminating detective's eye on contemporary society. James used the murder case not just as the foundation for the investigation of a crime, but the investigation of the institutions of British culture, picking through the moral interdependencies, weaknesses, and tangled relationships inherent in institutions from the law, to the church, to publishing, medicine and museums. She had a sharp critical eye for the subtleties of organisations and character. Indeed, many of her characters were administrators, professionals, bureaucrats, often solitary, subtly alienated, of a piece with contemporary humanity.
It may seem odd to say that the comedy of manners was her strength, but although James used the brutality of murder to precipitate her novels – and for James, murder was always a brutal business, no cozy occupation but a source of violent trauma – investigation always led to a restoration of order, an explanation, however contingent.
Her authorial voice was lucid, exceptionally clear, sometimes haunting, combining clarity in detail with atmosphere, and occasionally humour. If her writing could be criticised, it could only be on the narrow charge that her voice was so strong that all her characters in dialogue tended to sound rather like their author herself.
The ambivalent ending to A Taste for Death: 'If you find that you no longer believe, act as if you still believe. If you feel that you can't pray, go on saying the words,' has remained with me a long time. It is an appeal to human order, faith even, in the midst or moral chaos that the detectives cannot untangle. In my thesis, in an off-hand line I proposed that the novelist is God's detective, but if that were so, then P.D. James was our Chief Inspector, and her mastery of her craft will be sorely missed.