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.