PD James was probably the last relevant and genuinely innovative conservative British crime writer.
She began her writing career at 42, after a career in nursing, with the publication of Cover Her Face in 1962. This was a strange transitory period for the genre. Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr were still writing, and still topping charts, but they were seen as old hat. [Fun fact, Christie, who always thought she was about to die, had a novel lined up for posthumous publication under the same title, and had to change it to Sleeping Murder, But that wasn’t published until 1977 so should probably could have got away with it.]
At this time, British readers had moved on from artificial ‘golden age’ puzzles but had not yet worked out what they wanted from a crime novel. If Ruth Rendell, one of James’s closest friends and staunchest political opponents, had published her first novel earlier, rather than two years later, James probably wouldn’t have had the space to publish her own novels.
Each is a puzzle in a closed circle. The hero is usually a police commissioner who writes poetry and with whom James confessed to be a little in love, as Dorothy L Sayers was with her aristocratic sleuth, Peter Wimsey. Each novel also provides a commentary on the times in which it was written. So James has famously dealt with disability protocol, adoption laws, and same sex unions. Right and wrong is clearly delineated. More clearly than in any other writer. And certainly more clearly than in life.
I was never James’s greatest fan. I never quite liked her novels; they were readable and interesting but I have always disagreed radically with their political commentary. For these reasons, I have mixed feelings about even my favourites of hers: The Black Tower, Innocent Blood, Death in Holy Orders, and The Private Patient. And, sorry, but I found the dystopian Children of Men hilariously awful.
Living writers who have really changed the genre have done so precisely by undermining the good/evil binary. Val McDermid has named Colin Dexter as one of the last surviving innovators but I’m really not sure what he has brought to detective fiction, apart from a close and sometimes muddled link with TV franchises.
I read A Mind to Murder and Shroud for a Nightingale when I was eleven and really enjoyed them. I’d bought the books with a Smiths voucher after admiring the no-nonsense approach this writer I’d never heard of had taken in a preface to a book about ‘writing for pleasure and profit.’ By chance, James was taking part in a web-chat for the BBC around that time (remember those?) and I emailed in with an innocuous question and received a lovely response that mentioned school, sex, and my great aunt. I went on to meet PD James a couple of times and she was exactly like her writing. Amazingly polished, lively, and charismatic — but always a little bit strange and surprisingly delicate.