Some can gaze and not be sick,
But I could never learn the trick,
There's this to say for blood and breath,
They give a man a taste for death.
-- A.E. Housman
Today is the 91st birthday of Phyllis Dorothy White (better known to her legion of readers as P.D. James). She is my absolute favorite author, as well as a human being I admire. To read one of her books is to read modern literature at its finest, and her deftly-written and plotted mysteries have given me immense pleasure ever since I picked-up her stellar novel Devices & Desires two decades ago.
To help celebrate her special day, I've concocted a list of the Top Five P.D. James books. I really hope you'll pick one up and read one if you have the chance.
- Innocent Blood (1980): Probably my favorite of her novels, this tragic, moving tome tells the story of young Philippa Palfrey, a young woman who'd been adopted into a life of comfort and wealth who, once she comes of age, decides to seek out her biological parents. When she finds her birth mother, Mary Ducton, Philippa learns that sometimes the truth won't always set you free. I can't express enough how thoughtful and emotional this book is. It also features a searing amount of empathy for so many of the characters, something which is a trait of many of P.D. James's works.
- Time To Be In Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography (1999): The closest we'll come to a true autobiography from this amazing person, this non-fiction release chronicles one year in the life of P.D. James, as she presents her assessment of things in a sort of journal-form, and then uses the entries to springboard memories of her prior life's events. It is notable not only for its recollection of a life lived through most of the 20th century, but also its ability to be informative without being salacious.
- The Children of Men (2006): I know that many of you have probably seen the solid movie that was adapted from this novel. That's fine, it was a good film. You still should read the book. James's novel allows for more depth and introspection, in which society is faced with a lack of new births. This makes for a striking thought process for not only the characters, but the reader, as well, in that we're asked to stop and realize just how much is done in our society on the basis of continued generations.
- Devices and Desires (1989): This novel packs a lot into its nearly 500 pages. There are ruminations on the issues of nuclear power, abortion, unrequited love, incest, loss of loved ones, emotional debts, family secrets, and much more. With a dog-walking, whistling killer on the loose, there is the constant threat of murder hanging in the air. This is the book that got me hooked on James.
- The Private Patient (2008): The most recent (so far) work of fiction from this wonderful author finds her stalwart detective, Adam Dalgliesh, working on a case at a private clinic known for plastic surgery. While murder is, of course, in the foreground of the story, we're also treated to some more of the Jamesian empathy, with characters who are dealing with old scars (literally and figuratively) from the past. There's also a well-rounded presentation of a lesbian couple, and the book finishes on a note of optimism and love.
You really can't go wrong with the aforementioned titles. They represent some truly great works of modern literature, fiction and non-fiction, mysteries and much more. Once again, I wish a happy birthday to a great lady.