14 P.D. James Best Book to Read to Experience the Queen of Crime

Discover the 14 P.D. James best books for a thrilling read in our guide, and see what makes her the true “Queen of Crime.”

Often named the “Queen of Crime,” author P.D. James, short for Phyllis Dorothy James, is a prolific British novelist. She is known for her mystery novels and is one of the most famous crime writers. P.D. James was born in 1920 and attended school at the Cambridge High School for Girls. She worked for the National Health Service and the Police Department and later in the Criminal Policy Department. This experience set the stage for her crime novels.

Over her lengthy writing career, James earned numerous awards, including the Best Novel Award from the Mystery Writers of America for several years. In 1991 she created a life peer named Baroness James of Holland Park, of Southwold in the County of Suffolk. She served in the House of Lords and was a devout Anglican, a fact that came into play in some of her novels. When she died in 2014, James had 19 novels to her name as well as numerous short stories.

So as you decide where to begin exploring her works, consider these some of P.D. James’ best books.

1. Cover Her Face

P.D. James Best Books
Phyllis Dorothy James also known as P.D. James is often named the “Queen of Crime”

Cover Her Face, released in 1962, was the first novel of P.D. James. This prolific author brought Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard to life in her book and went on to pen 14 additional books in the series. The debut novel finds Dalgliesh investigating the murder of Sally Jupp, who had a long list of people with grudges and a desire to kill. It quickly placed her among the top suspense writers, a position she has held since its release.

“For heaven’s sake, Darling, keep your crusading instinct [for social justice] under control…It’s uncomfortable to live with especially for those of us who haven’t got one.”

P.D. James
Sale
Cover Her Face (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries, No. 1)
  • Used Book in Good Condition
  • James, P.D. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages - 05/08/2001 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

2. Unnatural Causes

As Superintendent Dalgliesh heads on vacation to Suffolk, he is sent into a murder mystery instead of a restful vacation. When a body floats to the shore, Dalgliesh must hit the investigative trail again. What follows is a classic page-turner that helped solidify James as one of the century’s best mystery writers. Unnatural Causes, published in 1967, is the third book in the Dalgliesh series, and many felt it was better than its predecessor based on Goodreads reviews.

“There are few couples as unhappy as those who are too proud to admit their unhappiness.”

P.D. James
Unnatural Causes (Adam Dagliesh Mystery Series #3)
  • P. D. James (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 272 Pages - 08/02/2001 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

3. The Children of Men

Published in 1992, The Children of Men is a dystopian novel that takes place in England in 2021. The science fiction genre is a break from the detective stories James is famous for, but it is still an excellent book. The story shows England as a depopulating country, but a small group of people resists the status quo. What makes this book interesting to modern readers is looking at what James thought 2021 would bring, including humanity on the brink of extinction. The book became a film in 2006.

“Feel, he told himself, feel, feel, feel. Even if what you feel is pain, only let yourself feel.”

P.D. James
Sale
The Children of Men
  • James, P. D. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages - 05/16/2006 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

4. Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales

If you want to experience James and her books without committing to an entire novel, consider the short stories of Sleep No More. This work was published in 2017, but the stories themselves were written throughout her writing career. She does not feature her signature Chief Inspector in these stories. Instead, they clearly show why her detective fiction writing is so popular as she looks into the motivations and thought processes behind the perpetrators. This insider’s look into the emotions and thoughts of criminals makes each tale fascinating.

“But Henry said firmly that the combination of Christmas pudding and violent death would be intolerably indigestible; the pudding would keep until next year.”

P.D. James
Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales
  • James, P. D. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 192 Pages - 10/09/2018 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

5. The Black Tower

Book five in the Adam Dalgliesh series finds the commander recovering from a life-threatening illness. A phone call from an elderly friend sends him to the Dorset Coast, where he finds his friend and one of his friend’s disabled patients mysteriously dead. Believing his friend’s death to be a murder, Dalgliesh launches an investigation and, in the meantime, puts his own life in danger. James published The Black Tower in 1975, and the book’s title came from the description of the home for the disabled, which was called a black tower made from slate.

“I mean, when a chap keeps on saying that life isn’t worth living you take it that he’s just stating the obvious. When he backs it up with action you begin to wonder if there wasn’t more to him than you thought.”

P.D. James
Sale
Black Tower, the
  • P. D. James (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 346 Pages - 10/02/2001 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

6. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

In 1972 James published An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and introduced a new character, detective Cordelia Gray. This was one of the first books to bring a female detective into the narrative, which helped position James as a feminist and detective writer. In the story, the 22-year-old detective finds her detective partner, Bernie Pryde, dead via suicide. This launches an investigation into the death, which may not be as clearly a suicide as initially thought. The book later became the name of a TV miniseries that had four episodes.

“The eyes were certainly memorable and beautiful, moist calves’ eyes heavily lashed and with the same look of troubled pain at the unpredictability of the world’s terrors.”

P.D. James
Sale
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (Cordelia Gray Mysteries, No. 1)
  • James, P.D. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages - 04/17/2001 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

7. Original Sin

Book number nine in the Adam Dalgliesh series makes it on the list of best P.D. James books because of its popularity among readers. It is set in a publishing firm, where Gerard Etienne, managing director of the Peverell Press publishing house, is murdered. What unravels from this opening is a story that could point to a serial killer. Dalgliesh must figure out who of the murdered man’s many enemies was guilty of the crime while unraveling an even deeper mystery. Original Sin is one of the newer books in the series, with a publication date of 1994.

“It’s easy to get a reputation for wisdom. It’s only necessary to live long, speak little and do less.”

P.D. James
Sale
Original Sin
  • James, P. D. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 432 Pages - 07/14/2009 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

8. Death Comes to Pemberley

In this unique book, James takes the characters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and transforms them into a murder mystery. The book opens six years after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy get married, and Wickham, the husband of Elizabeth’s sister Lydia, gets murdered. What makes Death Comes to Pemberley so popular is the skill with which James recreates the world of Austen’s characters without sacrificing her brilliant crime writing abilities.

“If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?”

P.D. James
Sale
Death Comes to Pemberley
  • James, P. D. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 304 Pages - 01/01/2013 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

9. Death in Holy Orders

Detective Dalgliesh heads to the East Anglian coast to a small theological college that sits on the shores of the sea. He must investigate the death of a student who was found buried in the sand. This brings Dalgliesh into a world of good and evil and a dark past mystery woven into the tale. Death in Holy Orders is book 11 in the series.

“Henry James’s definition of the purpose of a novel: “To help the human heart to know itself.”

P.D. James
Sale
Death in Holy Orders (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery Series #11)
  • Used Book in Good Condition
  • P. D. James (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 448 Pages - 01/09/2007 (Publication Date) - Ballantine Books (Publisher)

10. The Private Patient

The Private Patient is book 14 in the Dalgliesh series. It opens with Dalgliesh and his team being called to a private nursing home where a famous plastic surgeon treats elderly patients. Reviewers of this book often note that throughout the story, they don’t like the characters (Dalgliesh and his team aside), yet by the end, they start to fall in love with them and want justice. James published The Private Patient in 2008.

“If the screams of all earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars.”

P.D. James
Sale
The Private Patient
  • Hardcover Book
  • James, P.D. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 352 Pages - 11/18/2008 (Publication Date) - Knopf (Publisher)

11. A Taste for Death

A double murder occurs on the grounds o a church, sending Dalgliesh in to solve the crime. A story filled with logical disparities keeps the reader guessing until the end as justice finally comes for the victim. This book was published in 1986 and is number seven in the series. Book reviewers commenting on A Taste for Death note that it has more twists than most of the novels by the author.

“It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.”

P.D. James
Sale
A Taste for Death (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries, No. 7)
  • Used Book in Good Condition
  • James, P. D. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 480 Pages - 11/08/2005 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

12. The Skull Beneath the Skin

The second book in the Cordelia Gray series takes Gray to a sunny island where she is asked to protect an actress, Clarissa Lisle, from some threats to her life. Several potential killers are on the island with the actress, which makes for an engaging story. Even though The Skull Beneath the Skin is a lengthy book, it reads well and has many plot twists that keep readers engaged in the crime novel.

“She only had to look at a man. One look. That’s all it ever took. All my life I’ve watched her use those eyes. But she won’t anymore. Never again. Never never never.”

P.D. James.
The Skull Beneath the Skin (Cordelia Gray Mystery)
  • James, P. D. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 480 Pages - 01/02/2020 (Publication Date) - Faber & Faber (Publisher)

13. Shroud for a Nightingale

The New York Times called Shroud for a Nightingale “mystery at its best.” This fourth book in the Dalgliesh novels series sends the detective to a nursing school, where a young nurse playing a patient dies brutally during a demonstration. A second death leads the school to call on Dalgliesh to unravel the murder. Shroud for a Nightingale hit the bookshelves in 1971. Many critics felt this novel was where James set up her crime fiction style, moving past the style of Agatha Christie into something of her own. The book became a TV miniseries in 1984.

“Certainly his was the infectious good nature of a man who necessarily finds the world an agreeable place since it contains himself.”

P.D. James.
Sale
Shroud for a Nightingale
  • P. D. James (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 368 Pages - 09/11/2001 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

14. The Maul and the Pear Tree

The Maul and the Pear Tree deserves a spot on this list because it is one of the few P.D. James books considered non-fiction. In this work, she breaks down an infamous crime that occurred in 1811 in London’s East End. She brings her skills as a detective novel writer to this work, making it interesting to read even though it is a non-fiction book. James and co-author T.A. Critchley dug into police records and long-buried clues to write this book. They propose that the wrong man was arrested for the crime and name who they believe to be the true killer. They published this lengthy work in 1971.

“From the first the murders, in their barbarity and ruthlessness, powerfully gripped the public imagination. Never before, even at the time of the Gordon Riots, when London was brought to the edge of anarchy, had there been such a national outcry against the traditional means of keeping the peace.”

P.D. James.
The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811
  • ISBN13: 9780446679213
  • Condition: New
  • Notes: BRAND NEW FROM PUBLISHER! 100% Satisfaction Guarantee. Tracking provided on most orders. Buy with Confidence! Millions of books sold!
  • P. D. James (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Looking for more? Check out our round-up of 23 crime authors you must read!

Join over 15,000 writers today

Get a FREE book of writing prompts and learn how to make more money from your writing.

Powered by ConvertKit