Book Review: Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

Title: Talking About Detective Fiction
Author: P.D. James
Genre: Non-fiction, essays
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library

I love P.D. James’ fiction, both her Adam Dalgliesh mystery series and her dystopian novel Children of Men. When I heard last year (or was it the year before?) that she was writing a series of essays about crime fiction, I knew I had to read it. And while this collection mainly focuses on British crime fiction, it does not disappoint.

She begins with “What Are We Talking About and How Did It All Begin?,” in which she discusses the roots of crime fiction, the very first detective novel, and why the genre had so much appeal in the time it rose to prominence.

Detective fiction is in the tradition of the English novel, which sees crime, violence and social chaos as an aberration, virtue and good order as the norm for which all reasonable people strive, and which confirms our belief, despite some evidence to the contrary, that we live in a rational, comprehensible and moral universe. And in doing this it provides not only the satisfaction of all popular literature, the mild intellectual challenge of a puzzle, excitement, confirmation of our cherished beliefs in goodness and order, but also entry to a familiar and reassuring world in which we are both involved in violent death and yet remain personally inviolate both from responsibility and from its terrors. ~p. 13-14

In “The Tenant of 221B Baker Street and the Parish Priest from Cobhole in Essex,” she discusses two of Britain’s most famous detectives: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. The following chapters discuss Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and other authors of the Golden Age of British Detective Fiction. She spends some time contrasting the village mystery of the Brits with the hard-boiled gumshoe mysteries of Americans like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. She profiles the four grand dames of British detective fiction: Christie, Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham.

James also includes a chapter discussing the crafting of the setting, viewpoint, and characters of the detective novel, and a chapter talking about why some people love the genre, while others criticize not only the form, but its readers. Finally, in “Today and a Glimpse of Tomorrow,” she talks about some of the current writers of British crime fiction, and where the genre may be headed in the future.

And without wading too deeply into the pools of psychological analysis, there can be no doubt that the detective story produces a reassuring relief from the tensions and responsibilities of daily life; it is particularly popular in times of unrest, anxiety and uncertainty, when society can be faced with problems which no money, political theories or good intentions seem able to solve or alleviate. And here in the detective story we have a problem at the heart of the novel, and one which is solved, not by luck or divine intervention, but by human ingenuity, human intelligence and human courage. It confirms our hope that, despite some evidence to the contrary, we live in a beneficent and moral universe in which problems can be solved by rational means and peace and order restored from communal or personal disruption and chaos. And if it is true, as the evidence suggests, that the detective story flourishes best in the most difficult of times, we may well be at the beginning of a new Golden Age. ~p. 173-174

This is a thoroughly enjoyable collection, and one that anyone who appreciates crime fiction should find time for. If I could send up a wish to the book fairy, I would ask for a similar collection examining the history and state of the genre in the US.

On a side note, James has an amazing vocabulary, and I found myself having to look several words up in the dictionary. Here are just a couple of the new words I learned:

adumbrate: v. to foreshadow vaguely; intimate; to suggest, disclose, or outline partially

ratiocination: noun the process of exact thinking; reasoning; a reasoned train of thought

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10 Responses to Book Review: Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

  1. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread
    says:

    Even though I love crime fiction (it is probably my favorite genre) I know so little about the masters. I wonder if Tana French, Sophie Hannah or John Sandford will ever be considered a master? Anyway, I am very interested in this, even though I know it would probably add 200 books to my TBR!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Sandy – It did add to my list! I especially felt ashamed that I’ve yet to read Sayers or Christie – two of the masters.

  2. Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick
    Twitter: coffeebookchick
    says:

    I am embarrassed to admit that I’ve yet to read PD James… I know, I know, I need to stop procrastinating on this. I’ll have to read a few of her works and then this one, so I’ll add this to my Goodreads TBR list!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Natalie – if you like dystopia, Children of Men is amazing! Of course, she is best known for the Dalgliesh mysteries.

  3. Michelle says:

    Those look like Shurley English vocabulary words (-:

  4. Melissa
    Twitter: myeclecticbooks
    says:

    I’m not much into Crime Fiction but I do love mysteries & Christie. This sounds like a fascinating read. And I love a book that compels me to pull out the dictionary! I can always learn more… (like how a recent YA audiobook taught me that I’ve been mispronouncing the word Riffle all my life :/ )

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Melissa – it’s funny how often I discover I’m mispronouncing a word because I’ve only ever seen in it print!

  5. Alyce
    Twitter: athomewithbooks
    says:

    I would like to read about the trends in sub-genre, and how things change and the various fads. Vampires, paranormal, dystopian, and dual-narrators from different time periods are the first to come to mind.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Alyce – that would be interesting, too – the mash-up of mystery with all of the other genres out there!