What would James have done? I wonder as the media spews red & blue outrage over the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, CA, mixed with heated rhetoric about the U.S. Constitution’s insistence on religious freedom. No doubt she would have soldiered on with whatever piece of detective fiction she was working on (at age 94!). Yet part of that was keeping her eye on the world’s firestorms. James never wrote or lived in a vacuum, even after her novels made her rich and famous.
In many ways, James (1920-2014) was a soul sister of Jane Austen (1775-1817), the novelist she most admired. Both women were largely self-educated; both endured financial hardships. Austen wrote romantic fiction, but her realistic plots reflected what it was like for women in early 19th Century England: want economic security and social standing? Find the right husband. Austen was a master at conflict and irony, but just as wonderful with humor and witty dialogue. She’s also, of course, considered one of the greatest British novelists of all time. (Not bad for a romance novelist.) It seems fitting that James’s last novel Death Comes to Pemberley, published when she was 91, is a tribute to Austen as it’s a murder-mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice. In a 2011 interview (The Guardian), James said, “A detective story can give a much truer picture of the society in which it’s written than a more prestigious literature.” The murders in her novels are set against social issues ranging from the lingering ramifications of the Holocaust to the dangers/benefits of Nuclear Power.
The Queen of Crime. Not bad for a girl who had to leave school at 16 to go to work. She married an army doctor and they had two daughters, but he returned from WWII with a mental illness. While he was in and out of hospitals, she supported the family and eventually began to write in the wee hours before and after work. Her first novel was published in 1962 when she was 42, and her husband died two years later. She didn’t give up her day job until 1979 when she sold her eighth novel, Innocent Blood (interestingly, a stand-alone crime novel without Dalgliesh). As she said, “At the beginning of the week I was relatively poor, and at the end of the week I wasn’t.” But her prior jobs gave her much material for her novels. A hospital administrator for many years, she later went to work for the Department of Home Affairs in the forensic science and criminal law divisions.
James got a late-ish start as an author, but she wrote 18 crime novels, a dystopian novel Children of Men (made into a major film starring Julianne Moore), a memoir, a book on detective fiction, and a non-fiction book on a real crime. Along the way she served as a governor of the BBC, was named Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991 (for her public service, not her novels) and proudly took her seat in the House of Lords.
The Private Patient (2008) was the last Commander Adam Dalgliesh novel. James told her readers it was, even though she continued to write, and she seemed to be a woman of her word. Whatever she was working on when she died, odds are it didn’t involve that beloved detective. This is an excerpt from the end of that novel. Dalgliesh has married Emma Lavenham, and afterwards, one of her friends lingers in the chapel with her own love.
“She thought, The world is a beautiful and terrible place. Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defence against the horrors of the world, but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have.”