It is almost two years since Phyllis Dorothy James passed away at the age of 94, for the many fans across the world such as myself who loved delving head long into a new PD James novel it was a sad day, even though Baroness James herself had said in recent years that she had lived a full and happy life. In her 90s she was an inspirational figure, continuing to publish novels and remaining a figure on the national stage, few who heard it can forget her forensic demolition of the then BBC Director General Mark Thompson over BBC management failures. Her own life story was one of triumph over adversity, forced to leave school at 16 due to her family’s lack of money she nevertheless forged a successful career in the civil service and financially supporting her young family whilst coping with her husband’s long-term mental illness and his eventual early death. During this time she somehow managed to get her first novel published at the age of 42, and the rest is history, in her later years she was widely acknowledged as the greatest crime writer since the golden age.
Her deep appreciation of the history of crime writing and the many nods in her work to the golden age, particularly her use of closed traditional settings often led to her being described as a cosy writer. Yet, she was far from that, what set PD James apart from the golden age was her deep examination of the human condition in her work, her exploration of the motives for murder and the psychology of its perpetrators. No motive for murder was ever slight, no crime reasonless in a James novel. She also, whilst avoiding graphic extended depictions of murder as started to emerge in crime novels from the 1980s, nevertheless did not shy away from the horror of death and the cruelty of murder. Part of her so-called nostalgic appeal was that she often wrote about declining ways of life, such as the seminary training college in 2001’s Death in Holy Orders, perhaps the most obvious example of religious faith in her work, apart from the Christian allegory of her dystopian fantasy Children of Men. Faith is a constant feature in all her novels, even her reimagining of Austen’s world in Death Comes to Pemberley, whatever one’s personal views, her faith added a layer of depth and humanity to her novels which helped give full expression to the human tragedy of the stories she wrote and will ensure they stand the test of time.
At the time of Baroness James’s death it was reported that her final novel remained in very embryonic stages and so hope of enjoying any more of her writing was lost. Now, almost two years on, an unexpected and delightful treat has arrived in The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, a collection of short stories by PD James, a genre she was not previously much associated with. The title story is a brilliant example of her skills as a writer, in its short confines she manages to convey a strong and foreboding sense of time, place and motive in an atmospheric wartime country house Christmas murder mystery. Two of the four stories feature Adam Dalgliesh, the detective in fourteen of her novels, including an opportunity to see him in a new light as a young newly appointed Sergeant. Three are Christmas themed and it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect setting for reading this book than curled up by a log fire on Christmas day evening. This is not PD James at her most psychologically interesting, nor does it feature her most ingenious plotting, but even an average James book is a more worthwhile read than 90% of fiction today. This may not be the best place to begin if you have never read James, but you have two months until Christmas to get through her back catalogue. Once you’ve started you won’t want to stop.