Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. JamesAlways up for a challenge, I took on an A-Z author challenge this year. For my J selection, I chose long time mystery writer P.D. James. Toward the end of her life, James penned an extended essay about the history of detective and mystery writing, mainly set in her native England but including a select few American detective writers as well. I found the essays to be informative, as James, through her expertise, relayed how modern mystery writing became to be.
The first prerequisite for a detective story is that a society has to be modern enough to necessitate a police force and other law enforcement agencies. James cites Wilkie Collins The Moonstone as the first modern detective story. Pulled from real life events, Collins penned a story that had readers at the edge of their seats as they desired to know whodunit. And the modern mystery was born. Yet, James did not spend much time discussing Collins, even though he gave way to modern mystery writing. She did not even give that much ink to Arthur Conan Doyle although she did fault sidekick Watson for being slightly addle brained. Much to the authors relief, modern detective writers eventually let the sidekick fall by the wayside. Rather than discussing the precursors at length, the meat of James essays focused on the Golden Age of mystery writing.
Between the two world wars in England, a so called Golden Age of mystery writing emerged. James bestows much credit to her career as a mystery writer on four women who paved the way for her: Dorothy Sayers, Marjory Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and, of course, Agatha Christie. Each woman had distinct style, but James preferred the intellectualism of Sayers and later Allingham to Christies puzzle. Even though Dame Christie brought the world detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple and had her readers use their little gray cells, James is critical in saying that Christies cases are repetitive to the point of being cliched. As a writer, James herself attempted to create new scenes and settings, and despite lauding Christies success, did not enjoy reading case after case set in the same quaint village. Yet, readers enjoy reading about Miss Jane Marple in St Mary Mead even if these murder cases arent realistic. Combine that with the success of Christies books on film, including the ever popular Murder on the Orient Express, Christie is still widely read today.
Although the majority of this essay emphasizes English detectives, James gives a section to American hard boiled crime, citing Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett as the two writers responsible for modernizing American detective and mystery writing. James respects Chandler more as writer, citing that he was partially educated in England. These two writers eventually gave way to generations of modern mystery writers. Today, James says, that the modern writer, herself included, tend to write a series about one detective. Readers get attached to the private investigator and his/her private life away from detecting. She states that the modern writer who has been most successful with this formula has been Sara Paretsky and her long running V.I. Warshawski series. As a fan of this series, I can see how the emotional tug has factored into writing a series rather than stand alone stores. Being invested in a character has the reader coming back for each case even if not all the stories in the series are as stellar as the original. This, James claims, is the current state of detective and mystery writing today.
I found Talking About Detective Fiction to be informative as P.D. James walked her readers through the history of detective writing. A lot of this information, especially the early chapters, was new to me so I enjoyed hearing about the trailblazers. Yet, this slim volume was too short to delve into all that much information about any one subject, and James includes a bibliography for further reading. Although a little critical of my favorite writer Agatha Christie, I found P.D. James essay to be a worthwhile read and rate this extended essay on the history of detective writing 3.5 stars.
The Story of Crime Fiction
Considering the longevity of a form which began with Oedipus and which remains our most popular kind of TV drama, detective fiction has had surprisingly few essays written about it. PD James's slim, elegant and thoughtful eight chapters on the subject defines it on a number of levels as a history of the genre, as examinations of individuals authors she especially likes, and as an overview of a kind of fiction which has never seemed more compelling.
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In her avid book-length essay on the roots, ethics and methods of the detective story, P. James places an imaginary traveler in a hotel room where there are two books beside the bed. One book is a prestigious literary prizewinner; the other is an old chestnut by Agatha Christie. In other words, Ms. James has a sly way with a shiv.
As a native of Oxford I had known from early childhood that the Bodleian Library is one of the oldest and most distinguished in the world, and I replied that I was very happy to accept the invitation but must first finish the novel on which I was then working. The book which I was privileged to write now makes its somewhat belated appearance. Because of its resilience and popularity, detective fiction has attracted what some may feel is more than its fair share of critical attention, and I have no wish to add to, and less to emulate, the many distinguished studies of the last two centuries. Inevitably there will be some notable omissions, for which I apologise, but my hope is that this short personal account will interest and entertain not only my readers, but the many who share our pleasure in a form of popular literature which for over fifty years has fascinated and engaged me as a writer. Death in particular seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject. She was, of course, talking not of the devastating amalgamation of hatred, violence, tragedy and grief which is real-life murder, but of the ingenious and increasingly popular stories of mystery and detection of which, by that time, she herself was an established and highly regarded writer.