Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Rest in Peace, P.D. James

It's interesting to observe how the death of someone you've never met can profoundly affect your emotions.

When I learned about the death of P.D. James, I felt a little bit of my own breath slip out into the ether. No, I never met James, but her work as a mystery writer steered me to read a genre I had yet to start. While titles featuring her most notable investigator, the poetry-writing Adam Dalgliesh all eventually found a home on my bookshelves, it was Cordelia Gray who caught my eye one day at the Flamingo branch of the Clark County Library. My arms were burdened down with science fiction when I spotted An Unsuitable Job for a Woman on the table where I'd unloaded my week's finds.

"Cool title," I said to myself, thinking about the unsuitable job I had to report to on a daily basis. Without even looking at the cover blurbs, I plopped the book on my pile, completing my two-week reading list to a total of seven books.

I decided to read the James book first and within a few chapters, I was caught, mesmerized by the character development, the meticulous plotting, the subtle but necessary backstory and the vivid descriptions of a country I'd never visited.

Off to the library the next day, I returned all the science fiction and picked up four more James titles, took them home and devoured them.

What really caught my attention in these books was the way James wove little incidences into the fabric of her plot. Nothing happened without reason. There were no coincidences. There were no minor characters showing up and going away, never to be heard from again. Her style was tight; her sentence structure impecable, her major characters human, slightly flawed, dedicated.

While I'm sure I don't measure up to James' expertise, I realize how much her process seeped into my own writing. My own former detective, Andrew Atkins, doesn't believe in coincidences, he takes the lint and string and torn pieces of fabric of life and tries to weave it back into whole cloth. He doesn't write poetry but he does have a deep appreciation for music, particularly classical and opera. Like Adam Dagliesh, Atkins knows the cloth will never be as it was before the crime, and while it won't be perfect, like life, it will go on to be useful again.

Since that first P.D. James novel, I've read all her books, watched all the movies on PBS, and waited for the next release. Of course, unless she hid some unpolished or finished manuscripts in some drawer in her writing room, there will be no more.

P.D. James died on  27 November 2014 at the age of 94. As I stated in the beginning, I never met her but I am ever so grateful for having met her work.


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Read theTerry Gross PBS Interview with P.D. James online.