Monday, December 19, 2011

Talking About Detective Fiction by P. D. James

Talking About Detective Fiction
by P. D. James
Knopf, 2009
198 pages

When I was growing up, my mother had a shelf full of P.D. James. I used to take the books down and look at them, fascinated by the highly stylized and candy-coloured blood drops on the covers. I particularly liked Shroud for a Nightingale and Cover Her Face, if I recall correctly. Later on I read Cover Her Face, and enjoyed it quite a lot, though I haven't picked up anything else by her since. I can't say why.

But at night now, with smallfry being Very Awake because she prefers sleeping in to going to bed early (she is a child after her parents' own hearts) fishy and I have started reading to each other. And as we're both interested in reading and writing, and both fans of mysteries, P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction seemed like a great place to go. fishy had already read it once, but he was doing some thinking about detective stories and wanted to read it again anyways.

Really, one couldn't ask for a better, more well-informed and well-read overview of the genre. James has the additional advantage of a long life lived; for example, she was reading the Golden Age detective novels as they came out, long before she thought to write a mystery of her own. This book isn't what I would call a guide, exactly, though she certainly has recommendations and in-depth discussions about some of the key works and players in detective fiction over the years. It goes approximately chronologically from Wilkie Collins to the Golden Age to modern detective fiction, does a bit of a side-trip through the American hardboiled sub-genre and spends a good chunk of time talking about the four grand ladies of the Golden Age (Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, and Christie), offering personal notes and observations on the genre as well as the observations of other critics and writers, and observations on literature and writing in general.

What makes this book great as opposed to just good and interesting is James' writing. She has a wonderful, distinct style, somewhat chatty but always impeccable, and she also has a very dry sense of humour that sneaks its way into the writing. As we were reading to each other, every once in a while one of us would laugh out loud. It's not always an easy book to read aloud; some of her sentence structures are a little convoluted, such that you'd start reading a sentence and it would turn out to be something completely different and by the end you'd have lost where you were supposed to put the emphasis... but generally the writing is clear and smart. It gives me high hopes for Death Comes to Pemberley, which I am quite looking forward to reading at some point in the future -- my favourite Austen characters couldn't be in better hands.

It doesn't hurt to have one of the grand masters of the genre take you for a bit of a tour of the last hundred and fifty years; P.D. James knows her stuff, has read a lot of books, and is cheerfully opinionated about the topic. As a librarian, I know that mystery is one of the most enduring and popular genres on the shelves, and James gives a pretty good argument as to why this is and should be the case. All in all, I'd recommend this little volume to anyone interested in detective or crime fiction, or anyone interested in literature in general even if you're not (or don't think you are) a fan of detective novels. Particularly recommended for people who work with the reading public and can't figure out why mysteries are so popular; this book will give you a direct line to why.


E Maki said...

Cover Her Face is the least of the lot, in my opinion. Dalgliesh really is great starting from about book #6 or #7. If you pick one from 6 to 11 or so, I would re-read it with you, but only after the Allingham.

Negotiations: begin!

Unknown said...

Do I miss out on character development, though, if I start so late in the series? I don't want to miss anything.

E Maki said...

All the major recurring characters besides Dalgliesh (like Kate Miskin and Emma Lavenham) are introduced in A Taste for Death (book #7) and after. Dalgliesh - sure, you would miss some.

It sort of depends whether you are just trying to get a sense for her, or if you are really going to read them all. For the former, read #8 or #11, I think. For the latter, onwards to #2.

Unknown said...

I could see myself reading all of them, but I have a couple of mystery series I need to get through first otherwise I will have way too many on the go. Let's get to the Allingham, and then we can see where I'm at with some of the other series I'm reading.

Anon - You're welcome. Glad it was helpful. :)