This is a short book comprising a series of elegantly written, inter-related essays about aspects of detective fiction by one of the best writers in this genre. The book will appeal to those who read a lot of detective fiction and will recognize many of the authors and books with pleasure as she reminds us of the books we've read and enjoyed. She has read and re-read a prodigious number of books in this category in her long life and it's interesting to learn what has influenced her own work and also about her views on authors past and present, though there is scant allusion to the authors of modern detective fiction such as Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Peter Lovesey or Ruth Rendell, which may reflect PD James's acknowledged reluctance to act as a reviewer/critic of her contemporaries.
Talking about Detective Fiction starts with an essay about the birth of this genre and the importance of Conon Doyle in making this kind of book popular. Much of the book concentrates on what she terms the "Golden Age" of detective fiction and the writers Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh figure largely. The American Golden Age also merits a chapter about the more gritty-style of Dashell Hammett and Ryamond Chandler. One of the later chapters touches on why PD James started to write detective fiction and a little about her approach to writing.
This is not an in-depth analysis of detective fiction: more a sampler of what's available, mainly from the past, and how these earlier books reflected the society of the time and influenced later writers. I enjoyed this book as not only did it remind me of books I'd read it also referred to authors from the past that I haven't read and might try.
on 8 November 2009
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.
on 9 November 2009
This is not a book on the general history of detective fiction, but a concise narrative of P.D. James on detective fiction in the English language, written on request of the Bodleian Library. It tells you much of P.D. James and her appreciation of this genre, her favourite period being named "the Golden Age" of the English Detective novel featuring the "Four Formidable Women". This preference is no surprise, as her detective novel "The Private Patient" is written in the same fashion. If you like the novels of P.D. James, this book gives you in the same eloquent style valuable background information and a better understanding of her work. If you do not, you will most probably not agree with her judgement and point of view. Therefore a must for P.D. James fans only.
In this enjoyable monograph P. D. James discusses the genre of detective fiction, from its nineteenth century origins to the present day, focusing mainly on England's inter-war 'Golden Age'. The book is very readable, even on familiar subjects, with well-chosen examples and quotations. James writes from the perspective of a practitioner of the craft, and her observations are astute, well-written, and often very witty.
This is a short book, and I'm sure readers will regret the omissions of their personal favourites (no Carter Dickson! no Harry Kemelman!). James, however, cannot be expected to cover the whole of the genre and I finished the book with a reignited affection for the form, and a reading list which I can't wait to get started on.
James admirably tries not to give away too many plot twists or endings of the various books she discusses. However, readers who don't know the identity of the murderer in "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" will want to avoid page 53, and page 92 is out for those who don't want to know the ingenious ways in which Sayers's victims meet their ends.
Sometimes the prose felt slightly disjointed, with paragraphs not always smoothly following on from one other, and there was some repetition as well. I also would have appreciated an index of authors mentioned. But these are very minor quibbles and I would recommend this book both to fans of the genre and to newcomers wanting a place to start. As an added bonus a portion of the proceeds of the paperback edition will be donated to Bodleian Library.
P D James in this little roam around the genre pays proper tribute to the work of others, notably Julian Symons; it is to those authors we should look for a more exhaustive survey. Ms James, in her somewhat arbitrary choice of subjects, makes valid points about the essentials of detective fiction. If one cavils here and there, it is not to deny the pleasure this volume has given but rather to provide further food for thought.
For example, her enthusiasm for Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes is easy to share; but Holmes' frequent dependence on esoteric knowledge (sometimes retrieved from one of his cuttings books) hardly accords with Ms James' assertion that "... the reader shpuld be able to arrive at [a solution] by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel ..." By the same token I seem to recall that when I read Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors (admittedly many years ago), I felt slightly cheated because my knowledge of campanology left me floundering.
Again, the brief diversion into the American school of hard-boiled private eyes uncontroversially cites Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but it is sad to find no acknowledgment for Robert B Parker's Spenser, an authentic heir to Chandler's legacy.
There is much eulogising of the Golden Age - roughly the period between the wars - but it is only at the very end of the book that there is a nod towards the master of the locked room mystry, John Dickson Carr, who had much to do with my early addicition. Among modern writers Ms James finds room for C J Ransom and Matthew Shardlake (hear hear), and for Alexander McCall Smith's charming Mma Precious Ramotswe; but sadly there is not even a mention of Donna Leon whose intimate portrayal of Venice where Commissario Guido Brunetti operates as a most human policeman places her in the forefront of today's practitioners.
However, the very fact that one has been provoked into trading thoughts with Ms James merely emphasises what a success her slim book is. Do read it - and cavil if you will.
on 19 December 2011
Written by one of our present day detective fiction masters, this slim volume contains a plethora of historical background, author analysis and exploration of writing methods. A book conceived following a request by the Bodleian Library's Publishing Department, located in her native Oxford.
From start to finish it's intelligent, insightful and informative. And she doesn't sit on the fence when expressing her views on fellow authors' techniques and proficiencies - for example Agatha Christie's reliance on 'pasteboard characters' and occasional less-than-credible narrative scenarios. But, for myself, this only adds to the book's readability.
Many pages are devoted to Arthur Conan Doyle's famous 221B Baker Street tenant, the literary richness of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the graphic realism of Dorothy L. Sayers and the story telling brilliance of Agatha Christie with her talent to deceive. And there's similar thoughtful discussion on Richard Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Georges Simenon, and many others.
It's always interesting to hear an author articulate her approach to novel writing. In particular, there's her rational, clearly presented argument for preferring a setting-based starting point, a notion which differs from many other authors in this genre.
In the forward P. D. James declares her intention to 'interest and entertain'. Regardless of whether you're a fan of detective fiction, I believe she achieves this aim. A particularly illuminating book in so many ways, and a fascinating read.
on 7 June 2012
I love P.D. James' novels and so I read this anticipating some real insights into writing detective fiction. I was very disappointed by it, but then I realised that I was probably expecting more than the writer set out to deliver. It is just 'talking about' the subject - nothing more profound. What disappointed me most was that the chapters were simply a pass through the history of the detective novel - she concentrates on the 'classic' books and talks about Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy Sayers etc. Raymond Chandler gets a mention, but not other Americans. And the great contemporary proliferation of the genre (of which she is one of the beneficiaries) doesn't get much coverage at all. It all felt very dated. What I wanted was an analysis of the genre - what makes the great thriller writers great and perhaps some recommendations of new writers to read.
The book was an interesting series of essays though and there are some very good illustrations and quotes. It was written to raise money for the Bodleian Library and PD James was almost 90 when she wrote it. A very remarkable woman.
on 2 March 2012
Recommended for all who enjoy detective fiction, though as the lady herself observes, a story doesn't need a detective to be detective fiction. Holmes & Conan Doyle are examined in detail, as is the Golden Era - Christie, Sayers et al, before our peerless author examines how the detective novel has evolved from its inception to present. Very enjoyable, informative, and what's more, the author's royalties are being donated to the Bodleian Library. I've become even fonder of P.D. James, if possible.
on 16 February 2012
PD James has provided a short and very readable overview of detective fiction writing, justifying her view that the modern contributions to the genre merit being considered as serious literature, whilst acknowledging the value of the more plot-driven (and often implausible) works from earlier times. Her brief jaunt through the ages draws on the critiques of a number of earlier commentators, whilst never being heavy or academic. This is a most enjoyable read for those who know the most popular detective series already (Christie, Allingham, Sayers, Chandler, Hammett etc) whilst introducing a glimpse of some the amateur enthusiast may not have encountered. It certainly had me wanting to go and search out some classics from the 1930s. It is generous in its appreciation of other writers, but does not manage more than fleeting references to more recent detective fiction (such as Nesbo and Mankell.) Its appeal is its readability, James's evident enthusiasm for the genre, and an approach which is well-informed without being highbrow.
on 24 February 2010
Well, I must thank whoever it was at the Bodleian Library who asked P D James to write a book about British detective fiction in aid of the library. She accepted and she has given that venerable institution a tiny gem. A series of eight beautifully-written and well-reasoned linked essays.
Of course eight essays could never encompass the whole history of the genre, but Baroness James writes in the main about what she knows, and she does it with great authority and, equally importantly, with love.
First she considers where it all began, tracing a path including Jane Austen's Emma, The Moonstone, Caleb Williams, Sergeant Cuff and the real-life Mr Whicher to the detective stories of the twentieth century. And what makes a detective story? How many possibilities are there? More than I realised, and I am looking back at favourite books now with fresh eyes.
And so to specifics. Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. Conan-Doyle is given great credit for his creation, but the author is quite prepared to point out a few weaknesses, and I have to say I agree with her. She points to "The Speckled Band" as a story that was terrifying "but "frankly incredible." Yes! I remember, years ago, my class's English teacher giving us half the story and then having us write the solution. Mine was so much better than Conan-Doyle's! The contrast with Father Brown shows best detectives off to their best advantage. I have never read Father Brown, but clearly I must.
Then it was on to the Golden Age, and a wonderful appreciation of the age and the style, taking in all of the obvious big names and a few less obvious ones. Why have I never read "Trent's Last Case" by E C Bentley? It's definitely time to check the library catalogue! There's a nod the hard-boiled American contemporaries of Inspector Appleby, Professor Fen, Francis Pettigrew, et al. And a fair hearing for American criticisms of the British style.
Next comes what is maybe the strongest part of the book. An appreciation of the four grande dames: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. P D James clearly knows the work of all four well, and she highlights the strengths of each, as well as gently pointing out a few weak points. She clearly has a soft spot for both Harriet Vane and Lady Amanda Fitton. Of course, these must have been the authors, the stories, the characters she read when they were brand new and she was a young woman.
And then its on with a look at how the detective novel has evolved since the Golden Age and the detective novel today. The author has much to say about the form, and I was fascinated by her thoughts and the insight they showed, but she is a little less willing to give opinions of her contemporaries and the generations that followed. Though Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin and Sarah Paretsky all receive kind words. Her heart clearly lies with the Golden Age, but she is generally positive about the state of the detective novel and possibilities for the future.
If you want a comprehensive guide to detective fiction you will need to look elsewhere. But if you want an appreciation of the form written with intelligence and insight this book will do very nicely. Because it has clearly been written by a somebody who loves reading, writing and writing about detective fiction