At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Long Live the Queen

Today dawned like most other days, cold and crisp in St. Louis although slightly warmer than the last couple of days. People were getting ready for Thanksgiving dinners, and much of the citizenry of the area seems to be hopeful that things are turning toward a more peaceful and conversational journey in the neighborhood of Ferguson. In the 107th edition of the Frisco Bell game between Kirkwood High School and rival Webster Groves, the Pioneers of KHS won today. 

But in the midst of these events, I opened up my Facebook page to some devastating news. Yes, there are more tragic details in the world right now, but this sadness washed over me in a massive tidal wave.

P.D. James, the greatest crime novelist of the modern age, died this morning at her home in Oxford, England. The reigning mistress of the murder mystery, the one who penned the Adam Dalgliesh novels as well as the dystopian novel The Children of Men, gone from this earth.

I've mentioned before how high school teachers such as Deb Clarke inspired me to write well and bring stories to life. But P.D. James--although I never had the pleasure or opportunity to meet her--was the one who inspired me to become a novelist, to craft mysteries, and to pursue and love the murder genre.

In 2006, Children of Men hit the movie screen and Christy and I both prepped for the film by reading the book. While the film dazzled due to its intense themes and amazing cinematography (not to mention the numerous single-shot sequences), the book greatly moved me. Here at last was an author who found the perfect balance of threading plot, setting, and character so expertly together, who told a story so well that at its end you were equally satisfied and yet hungry for more.

It was in the spring that I was lunching with my colleague Mack Gray during a break at Wellington Christian School when I mentioned how much I enjoyed Children of Men. He responded, "That was a switch from her usual stuff."

Usual stuff. As in her murder mysteries.

That summer, as Joshua struggled to recover from his spinal fusion surgery, I gallivanted through Death in Holy Orders, followed by A Taste For Death, then The Murder Room, before finishing Devices and Desires before the school year rolled around. I've read every one of her Adam Dalgliesh novels with the exception of Death of An Expert Witness. Her output includes the aforementioned The Children of Men, as well as two Cordelia Gray novels, the stand-alone Innocent Blood, and the Jane Austen-inspired murder mystery Death Comes To Pemberley.

It was through P.D. James that I learned a great deal of how to be a novelist, as I experienced many of her personal suggestions in the depth and breadth of her stories, as well as her Talking About Detective Fiction. She and I both have one thing in common, as we both published our first novels at the age of 42. But that, trust me, is where the similarities end. 

Her life was never an easy ride. Her mother was committed to an asylum when James was only 14, so that she had to care for her siblings by herself. Her husband--flagellated by the horrors of serving in World War II--ended up in an institution as well, leaving P.D. to care for their daughters Clare and Jane.

But her writing, far from being an escape, was drenched heavily in realism from her work in Britain's National Health Service and other areas. Her pen created the last of the line of gentlemen detectives, Adam Dalgliesh, although his humanness is more relatable and believable than Dorothy Sayers' creation of Lord Peter Wimsey.

And the street jargon of pot-boilers had no place with James, nor did the speculative suspension of disbelief one finds in some areas of the cozy writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. One finds only crisp, elegant, proper-use English and undeniable, uncompromising realism with the Queen of Detective Fiction.

My first novel in the Cameron Ballack mystery series, Litany of Secrets, was heavily influenced by the first James novel I ever read, Death in Holy Orders. The seminary setting was too good to pass up. And even now as I work through another Cameron Ballack manuscript (my sixth novel in a series of seven), I keep using Dalgliesh as the yardstick by which Ballack is measured. James' use of character is just that good.

The influence of Phyllis Dorothy James in my writing life is incalculable. And with her death, which took place peacefully at her home, the true age of the gentleman detective is over, and we shall not be seeing the likes of someone like James again. The world of literature is a vastly more beautiful place because she has lived and written, and the world itself is a sadder place because she has died.

That is both a tragedy and an appropriate selah. Just like her books, James satisfies you and yet leaves you wanting more. In my opinion, there neither will be nor should there be another P.D. James.

Rest in peace, O Queen. May you live long in the memories of your devoted masses. You have found an eternal place in mine.

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