James’s apprenticeship in crime fiction became a lifelong commitment, as she came to believe “it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live”. To suggest that the formal constraints of crime fiction prevent its practitioners from producing good novels “is as foolish as to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to 14 lines”, she argued.
Speaking in 2001 at the launch of Death in Holy Orders, her 11th Dalgliesh novel, James explained that her success was founded on the belief that plot could never make up for poor writing and that authors should always focus on the reader.
“At the end of a book, I want to feel, well that’s as good as I can do – not as good, perhaps, as other people can do – but it’s as good as I can do. There are thousands of people who do like, for their recreational reading, a classical detective story, and I think they are entitled to have one which is also a good novel and well written. Those are the people I write for. They don’t want me to adapt to what I think is the popular market. They want a good novel, honestly written and I think they are jolly well entitled to it.”
Her good was pretty good, if you ask me.