P. D. James died this week. When I was a teenager, around 17, I started to move on from Golden Age detective stories to modern ones. She was one of the first authors I turned to. Her prose had a cool precision I wasn’t used to, she had meticulous attention to detail, and created a really strong sense of place. It took time to get used to her, but when I did, I enjoyed her books immensely. I especially enjoyed the books about Cordelia Grey, a female detective at a time when there weren’t many of those.
She didn’t publish her first book until she was 42. There always seemed to be something else she had to do. She had to take care of her mother, or her children, or her husband. She had always wanted to be an author, but never seemed to have the time. Then, one day, in her forties, she realised there would never be a perfect time to write, and she just better fit in around her life.
And she did. She was published, and eight books later, she became a huge hit. (Those first books were popular too, but it took book number eight to make her a millionaire). She said she always regretted those early non-writing years, and wished she had started earlier.
As an over-forty writer myself, this resonates with me. I too waited for the perfect time, but there was always something else I had to do. I regret all those years spent not writing. In my case though, I had to wait for a perfect story. And it’s inspiring to see a woman over forty getting published for the first time. I’m getting quite tired of first time authors who are barely out of school.
She never stopped pushing the boundaries of the detective story. She didn’t see why detective stories had to be less ‘literary’ than other books. I still think The Murder Room is one of the finest books I ever read. Only a few years ago, she wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice – as a detective story.
Thank you P. D. James. Thank you for creating a female detective. Thank you for hours of enjoyment in your books. Thank you for teaching me I can write and be published if I’m no longer young.