Born Phyllis Dorothy James in Oxford, James never attended college and published her first novel, Cover Her Face, in 1962. James worked in the forensic science department and the criminal law department of London's Home Office, and held her jobs there until 1979, while publishing novels on the side.
James found fame as an author in the 1980s. Her best-known titles include The Children of Men and the 2013 Pride and Prejudice spin-off Death Comes to Pemberley. Several of her novels were adapted into films and TV movies, including Children of Men in 2006, starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. Many of her novels featured Detective Adam Dalgliesh, who was portrayed by Roy Marsden and Martin Shaw in television adaptations.
She also published an autobiography, Time to Be Earnest, in 1999.
In 1987, James was given the Crime Writers' Association's Diamond Dagger lifetime achievement award. In 2005, Britain's National Arts Club awarded her the Medal of Honour for Literature.
James told the BBC last year that she was working on "one more" novel. "I think while I am alive, I shall write," she said. "There will be a time to stop writing but that will probably be when I come to a stop, too."
James is survived by two daughters, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her husband, Connor Bantry White, died in 1964.