December 4, 2014 6:23 AM EST

For a short time in my 20s, I worked as a swineherd, so I was intrigued when P.D. James introduced pig keeping into one of her novels, Death in Holy Orders. I asked her how she had researched the subject. “Oh, a friend of mine keeps pigs.” Which friend? “The Archbishop of Canterbury.”

Well, that was Phyllis.

She was part of the Establishment (Baroness James of Holland Park was her title when she was appointed to the House of Lords in 1991), yet her scalpel-like intellect cut through cant and unearned privilege. She elevated the mystery novel from her first, Cover Her Face, published in 1962, to her last, Death Comes to Pemberley, in 2011. Each book brought psychological insight and deft characterization to the fore, examining the layers of postwar English society without ever lecturing or talking down to the reader.

I wish I’d been there in 1990 when she visited the crumbling Berlin Wall to chip away at it with a chisel. She would have been focused and energized–as she always was when we spoke together at literary events.

We have lost a great writer.

Rankin is a crime novelist best known for his Inspector Rebus books

This appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of TIME.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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