P. D. James is an acknowledged giant of the detective fiction genre. Nearly ninety years of age, she now looks back over the genre she has been a part of herself for forty-five years.
"Talking about Detective Fiction" is a small, attractive volume of 160 pages (rather large print and copious white space make it even shorter than it first appears) that can be pleasurably read in an evening. James is an elegant writer and masterful essayist and people will enjoy reading her thoughts on the genre.
Those familiar with James' earlier critical writings will recognize some of the same material here, but it is pleasing to see all her thoughts gathered in one place, along with her latest ideas. James writes mostly about the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction (emphasizing the contribution of the Crime Queens Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh, who get their own chapter), but she also has general chapters on the craft of detective fiction, the reasons for its appeal and its prospects for the future.
Modern and American writers get short shrift, barring the great hardboiled triumverate of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, limiting the book's utility as a general survey. James also emphasizes her belief that "realism" is the superior mode for detective fiction. Like Dorothy L. Sayers, she celebrates as a model for detective fiction the nineteenth-century novel of manners. Indeed, Sayers is clearly a huge influence on James' own critical thinking (James mentions reading Gaudy Night a year after it was published and explains the great impact it had on her). Another great influence is the late crime novelist and critic Julian Symons and his landmark 1972 study, "Bloody Murder." In other words, James does not break new critical ground, but she nevertheless produces some fragrant blooms from the old soil. Fans of Golden Age detective fiction and of P. D. James should enjoy the scent.