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Books Appreciation: How P.D. James changed my reading habits – and my writing

Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail

I well remember when I held my first P.D. James novel. I was 13 and my mother, a great consumer of all types of fiction and poetry, came into my room, where I was hiding from the world and reading, of course. Up until that time, the only crime fiction I'd read was Agatha Christie.

My mother handed me Cover Her Face. It was 1971. I thought she was a he.

That day was a literary bat mitzvah. A maturing of my literary tastes.

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I never met James, but she had a profound effect on my reading habits, and on my writing. She made it clear that writing, and reading, crime fiction was not for the simple. For lesser lights. It was not a step along the way, until one day I might be good enough to read, or write, a "real" book.

Those unfamiliar with the works of James and many other crime writers insist on labeling mysteries as a sub-genre of literary fiction, with the emphasis on "sub." James would have none of that. She was a passionate, vocal, reasoned and thoughtful defender of crime fiction as being every bit as good as any other writing.

It allowed her, as she said, to investigate what it means to be human. And what better way than to watch what happens when well-ordered lives are shattered?

James served notice that crime fiction is no more a training ground for "real" writing than haiku is a training ground for those aspiring one day to write poems with more than 17 syllables.

When I think of my own inspirations in the field of mysteries, I think of Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Georges Simenon, and P.D. James.

But James was the departure. The opposable thumb. The cerebellum. The next evolutionary step.

Her novels, often set outside major cities, are thoughtful, smart, often disturbing. They have strong plots but are, at their heart, character studies. Her main characters, led by the remarkable creation of Adam Dalgliesh, have depth, have interior and exterior lives that change. And grow.

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Detective Chief Inspector Dalgliesh is not the same man in Cover Her Face (1962) as Commander Dalgliesh is in The Private Patient (2008).

Her crime novels are both murder mysteries and human mysteries. Psychological thrillers that owe little to blood and everything to what cannot be seen, but is deeply felt.

I think that was the watershed. Up until then, mysteries often centred on plot. The emotional impact of the crime was pushed into a corner. The violent death was like the temporary disturbance on a pond when a stone was thrown in. The loved ones simply absorbed it and carried on.

With James, the murder was a terrible violation, it was deeply felt. She examined not the ripples but the rock. The impact of a dreadful crime on the family, the friends, the community. Without once wallowing in emotionalism.

P.D. James will be missed, but she will be remembered. Adam Dalgliesh fathered many literary children, Armand Gamache among them. And the 13-year-old girl holding Cover Her Face now holds her own novels, thanks to a woman she never met – but admired greatly.

Louise Penny is the author of the award-winning series of crime novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. She lives in Quebec.

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