Talking About Detective Fiction

January’s international crime spree was going wonderfully. I usually try to read at least one non-fiction book a month, so I thought I would take advantage of my theme to read P.D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction, a book I’d been tempted by for some time. I’m so glad I did. This was a delightful little book of essays on detective novels, written by someone who is a master of them herself.

James begins with a short history of the detective story, going back (of course) to Wilkie Collins and even earlier. She points out that many classic novels have a mystery at their heart: did Lady Eustace steal the family diamonds, and if not, who did? What was that shrieking in the night at Thornfield Hall? And of course there is both mystery and murder for Inspector Bucket to solve in Bleak House. She provides a chapter on Sherlock Holmes and on G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, one that takes on the Golden Age of detective fiction, and another on the differences between hard-boiled American noir novels and the softer English version.

Perhaps my favorite chapter is titled “Four Formidable Women,” and analyzes the work of the Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. For each, she dispassionately discusses her writing, her plots (she very fairly points out that the way Sayers kills her victims is often not very feasible), the way each was and was not a writer of her time, and the influence each has had on the genre as a whole. It’s obvious that James herself has loved all four of these authors since she was young, and loves them still, re-reading them for pleasure and comfort as so many of us do. The fact that she is now a fifth formidable woman just adds to the good company this chapter gives, as she considers details of the mysteries and pulls quotations of much-loved books.

James makes much of detective fiction’s formula, its orderliness. When discussing why people read this genre, sometimes compulsively, she talks about the ways many authors have made it literary, but in the end, she points out that readers clamor for the solution: no author of crime fiction is going to allow the criminal to get away with it, time after time. Society must be put back neatly in order, the way we found it. We look to detective fiction to set things right, after we’ve indulged our taste for death in St. Mary Mead or Edinburgh or the streets of Los Angeles. While this doesn’t strike me as a novel insight, it’s probably true enough. Character and story make the book more or less readable, but detective fiction satisfies, in part, because of the plot, which is always roughly the same.

I very much enjoyed spending some time with P.D. James. If you’re a mystery fan, this short book is really worth getting your hands on: her experience and dry, gentle voice are quite a pleasure.

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15 Responses to Talking About Detective Fiction

  1. Deb says:

    I’m a P.D. James fan and I enjoyed this book–but I did feel that it was something she pulled together from lecture notes as opposed to a more detailed, thoughtful analysis of the mystery genre. I suppose the “talking” in the title is the operative word.

    James’s comments about mysteries at the heart of many novels put me in mind of something Jane Smiley wrote in her very good book 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A NOVEL: Every novel is at heart a mystery because something that is hidden or unknown is always being uncovered.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I liked that part, too! I agree that these felt like little essays rather than something coherent and in-depth (maybe especially the settings-place-people chapter) but it was still very enjoyable, and easy to dip in and out of.

  2. Lisa says:

    I really enjoyed this book as well, especially its roots in earlier fiction. I wondered, though, why she didn’t include Josephine Tey with Sayers and the others.

    • Jenny says:

      She mentions Tey, especially when talking about the Golden Age of detective fiction, but I think there are four “acknowledged” Queens of Crime. I think it was Deb or Deborah who said earlier this month that Tey might be one of the Duchesses of Detection. :)

  3. Juxtabook says:

    You two ShelfLovers are a blessed nuisance when it comes to trying to keep my wish list short. Another for it …

  4. anokatony says:

    I always thought Ngaio Marsh was a man – thanks for dispelling that misinformation.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I still don’t know how her name is pronounced, so I suppose we’re more or less equal.

      • Deb says:

        I think her name is pronounced “Ny-oh”–perhaps one of our New Zealand readers will correct us as I believe it is a native Maori name (Marsh was from New Zealand). My mother always pronounced it “Nag-y-oh” so that’s how I hear it in my head!

      • Jenny says:

        Thanks, Deb! That’s how I’ve been pronouncing it in my head, but I never took the trouble to look it up!

  5. Kathleen says:

    I do love mysteries and yet have not read any James. I know this constitutes a big hole in my reading!

    • Jenny says:

      P.D. James writes good police procedurals with a nice solid enjoyable couple of characters at the center. She also has a good sense of place, and she likes a closed-community mystery. If that sounds appealing, I’d read them!

  6. Jenners says:

    This sounds so interesting! I think it is fun to hear writers talk about the craft of writing … and this sounds so focused on one area that I think it would really enhance my appreciation of mystery books.

    • Jenny says:

      She does spend some time talking about the craft of writing, especially in her “Settings” chapter, but mostly she’s talking about the history of the genre. I really enjoyed it.

  7. sakura says:

    I love this book and am keeping it just for all the recommendations she gives. I also love her other books and went to see PD James talk about her fiction and she was delightfully bold. Such an inspiration.

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