James was born in Oxford, the daughter of Sidney James, a tax inspector, and educated at the British School in Ludlow and Cambridge High School for Girls. She had to leave school at the age of sixteen to work because her family did not have much money and her father did not believe in higher education for girls. She worked in a tax office for three years and later found a job as an assistant stage manager for a theatre group. In 1941, she married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an army doctor. They had two daughters, Clare and Jane.
When White returned from the Second World War, he was experiencing mental illness, and James was forced to provide for the whole family until her husband’s death in 1964. With her husband in a psychiatric institution and their daughters being mostly cared for by his parents, James studied hospital administration and from 1949 to 1968 worked for a hospital board in London. She began writing in the mid-1950s, using her maiden name (“My genes are James genes”).
Her first novel, Cover Her Face, featuring the investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, named after a teacher at Cambridge High School, was published in 1962. Many of James’s mystery novels take place against the backdrop of UK bureaucracies, such as the criminal justice system and the National Health Service, in which she worked for decades starting in the 1940s. Two years after the publication of Cover Her Face, James’s husband died, and she took a position as a civil servant within the criminal section of the Home Office. She worked in government service until her retirement in 1979.
In 1991, James was created a life peer as Baroness James of Holland Park. She sat in the House of Lords as a Conservative. She was an Anglican and a lay patron of the Prayer Book Society. Her 2001 work, Death in Holy Orders, displays her familiarity with the inner workings of church hierarchy. Her later novels were often set in a community closed in some way, such as a publishing house or barristers’ chambers, a theological college, an island or a private clinic. Talking About Detective Fiction was published in 2009. Over her writing career, James also wrote many essays and short stories for periodicals and anthologies, which have yet to be collected. She revealed in 2011 that The Private Patient was the final Dalgliesh novel.
As guest editor of BBC Radio 4‘s Today programme in December 2009, James conducted an interview with the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, in which she seemed critical of some of his decisions. Regular Today presenter Evan Davis commented that “She shouldn’t be guest editing; she should be permanently presenting the programme.” In 2008, she was inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame at the inaugural ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards.
James’ main home was her house on Holland Park Avenue, the area from which she took her title: she also owned homes in Oxford, and Southwold.
Books published in order by series
Adam Dalgliesh mysteries
- Cover Her Face (1962)
- A Mind to Murder (1963)
- Unnatural Causes (1967)
- Shroud for a Nightingale (1971)
- The Black Tower (1975)
- Death of an Expert Witness (1977)
- A Taste for Death (1986)
- Devices and Desires (1989)
- Original Sin (1994)
- A Certain Justice (1997)
- Death in Holy Orders (2001)
- The Murder Room (2003)
- The Lighthouse (2005)
- The Private Patient (2008)
Cordelia Gray mysteries
- The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (2016)
- Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales (2017)
- Omnibus editions
- Crime Times Three (1979), later reprinted as Three Complete Novels (1988), comprising Cover Her Face, A Mind to Murder, and Shroud for a Nightingale
- Murder in Triplicate (1980), later reprinted as In Murderous Company (1988), comprising Unnatural Causes, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and The Black Tower
- Omnibus (1982), comprising Unnatural Causes, Shroud for a Nightingale and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
- Trilogy of Death (1984), comprising Innocent Blood, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and The Skull Beneath the Skin
- A Dalgliesh Trilogy (1989), comprising Shroud for a Nightingale, The Black Tower, and Death of an Expert Witness
- A Second Dalgliesh Trilogy (1993), comprising A Mind to Murder, A Taste for Death, and Devices and Desires
- An Adam Dalgliesh Omnibus (2008), comprising A Taste for Death, Devices and Desires, and Original Sin
- The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811 (1971), with Thomas A. Critchley
- Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography Faber & Faber, London 1999 ISBN 0-571-20396-5
- Talking About Detective Fiction (2009)