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'Queen Of Crime' PD James Was A Master Of Her Craft

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, we're remembering an author who was known as the Queen of Crime. Phyllis Dorothy James, P.D. James to her fans around the world, died today at her home in Oxford, England, at age 94. She followed in a long tradition of great, British detective novelists. And she was known for her intricately plotted stories and gristly crime scenes. James described the basic form of the murder mystery novel in an interview with NPR five years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PHYLLIS DOROTHY JAMES: What we have is essential mysterious crime, which is usually murder. We have a close circle of suspects with means, motive and opportunity for the crime. We have a detective, who can be amateur or professional, who comes in rather like an avenging deity to solve it. And by the end, we do get a solution.

SHAPIRO: James's avenging deity is a professional, a Scotland Yard detective.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Answering telephone) Dalgliesh .

JAMES: His name is Dalgliesh. I named him after my English teacher at school. And in fact, it is a Scottish name.

SHAPIRO: Commander Adam Dalgliesh is a quiet, introspective man, a brilliant investigator who also writes poetry.

JAMES: I gave him the personal qualities that I very much admire. And I made him courageous but not foolhardy, very intelligent, sensitive and compassionate but not sentimental.

SHAPIRO: P.D. James was born in 1920. She didn't publish her first book until 1962, at age 42. And even as her literary career took off, she kept her day job. She was a civil servant in the British Home Office, where she worked in the forensic science and criminal law department. She served as a governor of the BBC, and in 1991, P.D. James was named Baroness James of Holland Park by Queen Elizabeth II. Of course, she was best known around the world as a writer, a master of her craft who drew comparisons to Agatha Christie. In a 2005 interview with NPR, P.D. James spoke of the enduring appeal of the murder mystery novel.

JAMES: Human beings love puzzles. And, of course, with the detective story, you do get a story. You get vicarious excitement and danger. You get the satisfaction of the puzzle. But I also think you get psychological satisfaction. The detective novel - at a time when any of us certainly could meet our death in the underground or any building or on any airport lounge by terrorists - this is a comforting thought, which says that even the most unpleasant people have a right to live their lives to the last natural moment and that murder is still a unique crime. In other words, I think that detective story affirms our belief that we live in a rational and a model and comprehensible universe, despite all the evidence which is coming to us that we do no such thing.

SHAPIRO: That's author P.D. James. She died today at her home in Oxford, England, at age 94. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.