P.D. James and the Strange Case of a Slow European Recognition

Phyllis Dorothy James (1920- 2014) died yesterday in Oxford, at the age of 94. Homages from readers and fellow authors, notably Val McDermid, have been prompt and undivided (with no quote of Chandler, on English Mystery Writers). They tended to reflect on her literary achievements and stylistic merits, and on comparisons with Jane Austen. But numbers (such as longevity, output, and dates) matter too. They are especially important parameters in Crime Fiction. Here are a few, to help putting her  career in international perspective.

20 years (too late): P.D. James stated that success came to her 20 years too late. A look at numbers might explain how and why

1920 (born in): PD James is often linked with Colin Dexter, Reginald Hill and Ruth Rendell, despite being a good 10 years their senior. Together they are seen  as representing a new “Golden Age” of the British mystery novel, i.e. as following in the footsteps of the 1930’s Detection Club, illustrated by figures such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Austin Freeman. James is, more accurately, an exact contemporary of European Writers such as Leonardo Sciascia and Friedrich Dürrenmatt and the American Patricia Highsmith, whose writing purposefully blurred the lines between so-called genre fiction and literary novel.

19 novels: Her output, while by no means small, is by comparison with some prolific standards set in and around the crime genre by the likes of Edgar Wallace, G.K. Chesterton and Simenon, not especially large. Agatha Christie published 66 mystery novels. Certainly, this relative scarcity will be seen by many as an indication of heightened quality, of more careful and painstaking writing. In Arts, rarity usually trumps quantity. It also means that her work circulates almost as much in other forms than as books, with 14 film and TV adaptations to date. Her titles in English are also easily outnumbered by translations in other languages.

1962: (first novel published) Cover her Face, her Debut novel was published by Faber & Faber. It featured the poetry reading Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh, inspired by a teacher of literature who had taught her. Her first novel featuring Detective Cordelia Gray, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman was published in 1972.

27 years : The time it took for her first novel to be translated into French. While Christie’s 1926 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was immediately translated there and became the 1st volume in the then just created “Le Masque” collection (1927), it is not until 1989 that Fayard published James’s À visage couvert (Translation Denise Meunier). And only in 2002 was it published in “Les Intégrales du Masque”. Most other countries were (uncharacteristically, for a leading author of English crime fiction) slow in translating this book :

  • 1976, Norwegian : Martingale-mordet, Aschehoug (Translation Nils Brantzeg)
  • 1980, German : Ein Spiel zuviel: Roman. Tübingen: Wunderlich (Translation Wolfdietrich Müller)
  • 1983, Dutch : Geen prijs te hoog. Amsterdam : Elsevier  (translation Liesbeth Kramer-Plokker)
  • 1983, Portuguese :  O enigma de Sally Jupp, Livros de bolso. Clube do crime, 16, Mem Martins: Europa-América (Translation Inês Busse)
  • 1992, Russian : Lit︠s︡o ee zakroĭte. Moskva: Ex Libris
  • 1993, Italian : Copritele il volto. Milano: A. Mondadori (Translation Marco Buzzi)
  • 1997, Spanish:  Cubridle el rostro. Barcelona: Edhasa
  • 1997, Czech :   Zahalte jí tvář. Vyd. 1. Praha: Motto (Translation Zlata Kufnerová)
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