Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James

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

19 responses

  1. When I first discovered P. D. James, I read every one of her books I could get my hands on. I haven’t read any of her work in a while. I know this isn’t typical of her work, but your review has really intrigued me.

    • I’ve read all of her novels and so as soon as I saw this I knew I had to order a copy – she clearly loves her chosen field and that really comes across.

    • Nothing to be ashamed of – there are so many great detective books out there. But do try her books – I think you’ll like them.

    • There’s a list of recommended reading at the back of the book and Robert barnard is the first name on it. I’m definitely going to look for that one and a few of the others.

  2. This sounds fascinating. I am a strange creature in that I far prefer reading about the art of the detective novel than reading the novel itself (with the exception, perhaps, of Dorothy Sayers’ novels). This book should be perfect for me, and maybe even inspire me to try the novels themselves once more.

    • The construction of detective novels is fascinating. P D James is clearly a great admirer of Dorothy Sayers, so maybe some of the other books she writes about will be to your taste too.

  3. I read your review, then went directly to my favorite online bookstore and ordered it. Now I’m back to thank you for your review. It’s going to be a Must Read this year. I love P.D. James’ books and I’m sure this will be no different.

    • Margot, I am 100% sure that you will love this book. I think I am going to have to buy a copy too – it’s one of those books i’m going to want to look back to as I read the books it mentions.

  4. This sounds great! When I read your post earlier in the week I immediately checked the library catalog at the library where I work and was excited to see we had it on the shelf. However when I went to look for it, it was gone (though not checked out according to the catalog). So I had to get in line for it at the public library and should have it in a couple of months! 😦 Maybe my library’s copy will turn up (I’m wondering if it is sitting on someone’s desk or in the faculty study area…). Anyway, you totally piqued my curiosity!

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