There are people, institutions and even physical objects that we unconsciously assume will always be around. They become part of the fabric of our lives, and we merrily roll along forgetting that nothing lasts forever. I’m not thinking of the important elements, family and friends, whom we treasure and see or at least communicate with frequently, but the ones that are called to my mind when a memory is triggered or a significant event occurs. As I grow older, I find that people and places that have been a piece of me are disappearing with greater frequency.
This week it was P. D. James. I knew her only through her novels and can’t claim any personal loss. And I was well aware of her age. Yet somehow I was expecting another Dalgliesh novel. And another. There won’t be any more, and despite the multitude of wonderful authors sitting in my “to be read” pile, I am sad.
I discovered P. D. James when An Unsuitable Job For a Woman was published in 1972. I was in my real “coming of age” years, out of college, working, living on my own and unattached. I was finally able to read free of the English Major’s syllabus. Cordelia Gray was my first exposure to a fictional female private eye, and she embodied the independence and ability to succeed in a “man’s world” to which many of us young women aspired. (Remember, these were the early days of “Women’s Lib,” and we all knew how hard it was to be taken seriously.) I thought at the time that this was James’s first novel, and only later discovered the early Dalgliesh mysteries. I was disappointed that there were only two Cordelia Gray books and always hoped for more. But we soon had Kinsey Milhone and V. I. Warshawski as role models.
Much has been written about Adam Dalgliesh, his quirks, his character, his depths, especially in the last few days. I appreciate the “humanness” with which his creator endowed him, making him so much more than a detective. But I am a plot lover, and what I enjoyed most about the books was the way P. D. James set up the crime for the reader long before it occurred. My favorite is probably Original Sin, perhaps because the background is a publishing house. As was typical in a James mystery, we are dropped into the daily life of the characters. The rivalries, grudges, betrayals and slights are slowly exposed. The murder doesn’t take place until almost halfway through the book, and, by then, the reader has identified several potential victims and perpetrators. James was not fond of the female mystery writers of the classic age, saying that their characters were one dimensional and stereotypical. She refined their plotting by creating believable characters with multifaceted personalities, keeping the reader guessing about motives as well as means and opportunity.
The one P. D. James novel that has haunted me for years, and which I still recommend to readers, is The Children of Men. It is not a mystery, but poses the question, “How would we as a society and as individuals behave if we knew that we were the last generation of humans on earth?” It’s well worth reading if you haven’t.
So from my youth through my years of work, marriage, parenthood, and now looming retirement, there was periodically the gleeful word that another Dalgliesh novel was due to be released. They weren’t annuals, and that made them even more special. And there hasn’t been one for six years. And now we know for sure that there won’t be. I’m grateful, though, that P. D. James and Adam Dalgliesh were around all this time and are a little piece of who I am.