Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Review: Talking About Detective Fiction

In Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James deftly explores the history of detective novels in both Britain and America, and posits that contemporary unrest will lead to a renewal of interest in detective writing. James roots the genre in Wilkie Collins’ 1868 The Moonstone and traces its growth through the years, concentrating on the “The Golden Age” of detective writing – the period between the World Wars – and discussing the women writers she feels were instrumental in establishing the genre’s current reputation.

James is perhaps the best person to write a history of the genre that she’s been so prolific in, and she folds in her own writing experiences – important, since leaving out her own contributions would be an oversight. She does so casually, never making her work the focus of any one section, and explains why certain facets of the genre – such as never writing in first person, since that way readers only get one perspective of the case – work for her.

The most famous detective in literature, Sherlock Holmes, shares a chapter with G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, and James presents Holmes as the “unique, the unchallenged Great Detective, whose brilliant deductive intelligence could outwit any adversary, however cunning, and solve any puzzle, however bizarre.”

James discusses Arthur Conan Doyle’s publication history, and explores the relationship between Holmes and Watson, noting that the Watson prototype — “the stupid friend of the detective… should be slightly, but no more than slightly, less intelligent than the average reader, and his thoughts should not be concealed” — doesn’t appear in as many detective novels as he once did. (You should also go read this great article on Holmes’ London that appeared in the January issue of Smithsonian Magazine)

She also notes Agatha Christie’s popularity while downplaying her effect on detective novels:
Agatha Christie hasn’t in my view had a profound influence on the later development of the detective story. She wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest exploring the possibilities of the genre. What she consistently provided is a strong and exciting narrative, the challenge of a puzzle, an accommodating and accessible style and original detectives in Poirot and Miss Marple, whom readers can encounter in book after book with the comfortable assurance that they are meeting old friends.
James later writes that “rereading a selection of her stories to affirm or modify my existing prejudices I found some lost even their ability to keep me reading. Others surprised me by being both better written and more ingeniously puzzling than I remembered." James prefers the work of writers like New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, who was deft at characterization.

After she presents Collins, Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle as innovators, James traces how more contemporary authors have put their own spin on things – Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler wrote hard-boiled novels with a distinctly American flavor, and Dorothy L. Sayers wrote about murder in a new, realistic way – but she fails to identify any detective novelist from the last 50 years who has had a profound influence on the genre. While science has demanded an update in the way detectives use DNA evidence, it hasn’t changed the way they locate suspects. Detective novelists may have updated and adapted the formula for their time and country, but no one has stormed in and upended the genre.

James believes that an interest in detective fiction is on the rise, as “its popularity suggests that in the twenty-first century, as in the past, many of us will continue to turn for relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge to these unpretentious celebrations of reason and order in our increasingly complex and disorderly world.”

Talking About Detective Fiction is a quick read and a nice, historical look at the genre for those who are familiar with it or want to know where to start. James doesn’t unearth anything new or groundbreaking, but she shows that despite the changes in technology, society and law enforcement in the last century, a quaintness remains in the detective novel, and it can survive because it offers a sense of comfort and escape for readers.


  1. This is an extremely helpful review. I'm interested in this book, but was wary of it, because the only other review I read implied it addressed primarily male, American noir writers and neglected Christie and Sayers, which put my back right up. I mean, if there's any field of writing in the world where women can hold their own, even with critics, it's definitely the mystery genre. The reviewer also referred to noir as the "Golden Age" of detective novels, which is simply inaccurate. Reading this, however, makes clear that the flaws were with the reviewer, not the book itself. So I'm putting it back on my list.

    I haven't read any of James's novels. I saw you just finished Death in the Holy Orders-- did you like it? Have you read any of her other books?

  2. Oh, I'm glad this was helpful! I don't know what the other review was, but American writers are granted very few pages (James wrote it at the request of the Bodleian Library), and she devotes a whole section to women writing between the wars.

    I liked "Death in Holy Orders." I read it right before this so I'd have detective fiction on the brain, and I found that helpful. I have also read "The Lighthouse," which I liked better. My mother is a James aficionado, and I just asked her to weigh on on her favorites.

  3. While I've enjoyed all of the James books I've read so far, I would have to say that The Lighthouse and Unnatural Causes have been my favorites so far. The setting in The Lighthouse (anything set near the water always adds to the eerieness), combined with James's always perfect imagery, make that one of the best.
    I'm finishing up A Mind to Murder tonight and I actually think there is a bit more humor than in the other James books I've read. There are a few lines here and there that made me chuckle.
    I definitely prefer the Dalgliesh novels to the one Cordelia Gray book I've read so far. While I enjoyed that one book, I think the figure of Dalgliesh adds a lot to the novels.
    Next on my list to read is Death of An Expert Witness which I've been wanting to read for a while.

  4. Fun fact: Dalgliesh is named after James' English teacher.

    Yeah, The Lighthouse was really very good.