Unchallenging yet intensely interesting, unoriginal yet delightfully twisted, I have enjoyed almost every novel by P.D James, particularly those featuring her detective Adam Dalgliesh. Her work was closely modelled on the Golden Age novelists and I found myself linking it to modern greats such as the wonderful Colin Dexter and Ruth Rendell.
It was her intense characterisation that set James apart from many of her contemporaries; her novels were innovative in having intense descriptions of horrific violence but evoking a cerebral detective whose methods were genteel and leisurely in comparison to the devious and vicious criminals he sought. Adam Dalgliesh is an intensely sensitive soul whose penchant for writing poetry when not solving crimes is often remarked upon. Starting out as a Detective Chief Inspector, Dalgliesh progresses steadily through the ranks to reach Commissioner by the later novels, whilst still retaining his personal involvement in cases. Although at times highly unbelievable (the latter fact alone being a case in point) James’ books offer interesting insight into the human condition and are a great read. Here I showcase my favourite five.
5. Cover Her Face: The first book in a series is always a great place to start, and I absolutely adore this innovative and fast paced novel. Both the victim and the majority of the suspects are exceptionally shady and the victim herself is incredibly malicious and manipulative, creating a great space for James to offer numerous red herrings and options for the reader to puzzle over. Readers will be hooked by this cracking opener which is the ideal introduction for the educated and methodical Adam Dalgliesh.
4. Death in Holy Orders: Like a number of James’ novels, this book offers a creative spin on the traditional ‘locked room mystery’ by offering a select number of suspects in the form of a coastal Church of England theological school. Dalgliesh originally arrives in to explore the suspicious death of a student, operating outside of his official capacity until the body count begins to rise. As the pressure rises and the killer remains ever vigilant the detective involves members of his team from London to help him solve this fiendishly difficult case and uncover a number of shocking truths which threaten the peace and tranquility of this otherwise exquisite retreat.
3. The Lighthouse: Set off the coast of Cornwall, this exhilarating novel is both a human drama and a stunning piece of Crime Fiction as Dalgliesh and his team battle against deadly diseases and a devious criminal. This book also puts across a fantastic representation of the detective himself as Dalgliesh battles his own demons and faces a number of tough decisions.
2. Unnatural Causes: P.D James has a bit of an obsession with murdering or suspecting writers, whether they be novelists, as in this particular case, or journalists, for whom she reserves a particular ire. In this book a novelist is found murdered in a similar manner to the plot of his latest thriller whilst Dalgliesh is enjoying a rural holiday. The coast is another key feature in James’ novels and she loves to incorporate it into her books, making the setting an integral part of every novel.
1. The Private Patient: Set in Dorset, this exhilarating novel encapsulates the very best of James’ talents and offers readers a great insight into the seedy and secretive world of private cosmetic surgery. Incorporating Dalgliesh into a team was a stroke of genius on the author’s part as it allows him to become more of a rounded character as readers see him interact with a diverse group of people whilst at the same time work to solve a puzzling murder.