Since 1962, English author P.D. James—who passed away on November 27 at age 94—delighted readers with a new kind of crime fiction. Despite the fact that they share a home country, and rampant popularity, James actually has little in common with Agatha Christie, to whom she’s too often compared. Never one to mince words—I had the pleasure of interviewing her in 2009 and she was as feisty as ever—James considered Christie, who created Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, “such a bad writer.” The normally staid, locked room mysteries of Christie and her Golden Age contemporaries didn’t interest James—her tales are darker, the crimes bloodier, the murders more than plot contrivances. The deaths that confront her protagonists, from her long-time series lead Scotland Yard commander (and poet) Adam Dalgliesh to groundbreaking female PI Cordelia Gray, mean something.
If you’re new to the Queen of Crime, you have many happy hours of reading ahead of you. After nearly half a century of writing, James produced more than 20 books. Here are four to get you started, listed in chronological order by publication date so as not to play the favorites game.
James’s debut also introduced readers to Adam Dalgliesh, who begins his career as a Detective Chief Inspector with Scotland Yard. He’s investigating the murder of Sally Jupp, an unmarried single mother of a young son who also works as a maid for the wealthy Maxie family in the fictional Essex town of Chadfleet. Outspoken and prone to provoking those around her, Sally declares that Stephen Maxie professed his love for her and asked for her hand in marriage. The next morning Sally is found strangled in her bed. Dalgliesh, who writes poetry in his spare time, discovers that nearly all the family members have a reason to want Sally gone (or dead). There are 14 Dalgliesh installments in all and it’s always best to read series in order. This first entry won’t disappoint.
Before James brought Cordelia Gray to the page, the profession of private investigator for women was, as the title, implies, “unsuitable.” James jumpstarted what would become a genre mainstay and paved the way for some of the biggest names in crime fiction today on both sides of the pond, from Sara Paretsky to Jacqueline Winspear. Gray inherits the detective agency she shared with partner Bernie Pryde after she finds he’s committed suicide in the office following a cancer diagnosis. Even though the business is underwater, Gray decides to continue working as a detective, taking on the case of a woman who asks her to look into the apparent suicide of her boss’s son. While it may seem commonplace now that women has equal investigative footing with men, this was decidedly not the case in the 1970s. You can follow Gray’s exploits in the 1982 sequel, The Skull Beneath the Skin.
Perhaps better known as the 2006 Alfonso Cuarón film adaptation, Children of Men starring Julianne Moore and Clive Owen, James’s dystopian tale is a chilling must-read. While it’s not a typical crime novel—it’s more often shelved with science fiction—Men contains many themes that will be familiar to James fans, from social criticism to the impossible choices people are forced to make in times of great stress. Focusing on a near future where mass infertility severely cripples the human population, the plot revolves around a small group of UK residents who fight the growing wave of disillusionment and apathy. Shifting back and forth between the diary entries of an Oxford professor and the story of his charismatic cousin, who’s been appointed the “Warden of England” before the world took a nosedive, Men is definitely an instance where it’s wise to read the book before seeing the film version.
Focusing on the origins of the genre she herself helped make popular, James explores the origins of (primarily British) detective fiction in this handy primer, perfect for crime novices and aficionados alike. Citing Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone as the first example of the detective novel—and its hero, Sergeant Cuff, as one of the first literary detectives—James also dissects the lasting appeal of Sherlock Holmes (hint: it’s all about the gloomy London atmosphere). She devotes much of her time to the four heavyweights of the Golden Age: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. If you’re looking to James for a quick recommendation, stick with Allingham and Marsh (despite the fact that Christie has sold more copies than any book save the Bible).