Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

26 October, 2011

When I first read a P.D. James mystery, I remember being very surprised that it was written by a contemporary author. The style and tone of the novel reminded me greatly of the Golden Age mystery writer such as Allingham, Christie, Marsh and Sayers except for all the modern electronic contraptions and the internal hierarchy of New Scotland Yard. James’ detective fiction is intellectual, her detective Adam Dalgliesh is a poet as well as sleuth and there is something satisfyingly dark about her probing into the crevisses of the human mind.

So of course I had to grab the chance to go and see her in talks with Ruth Rendell at the Soho Literary Festival a few weeks ago. It’s my first time seeing them together and I hope it isn’t my last. The two are great friends and were extremely witty and self-deprecating. It’s probably the only time I’ve ever heard someone addressing Ruth Rendell as ‘dear’. P.D. James didn’t look her 91 years, nor Rendell her 81, and both were candid about their expectations on writing, their fear of losing their work, their perplexity with computers (only James as Rendell is pretty computer savvy) and who will write their obits. It was probably one of the best talks I’ve been to, so if you do get a chance, go and see them as they are truly amazing women.

I’ve read most of James’ mysteries except for her last two which I bought and got signed. But what I was really interested in is her dissection of detective fiction, Talking About Detective Fiction, since she is the current doyenne of British crime fiction. It’s a rather slim book divided thematically with lots of references to writers she admires and who have contributed and made this genre what it is. There’s Conan Doyle, Poe, the Golden Age writers, Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham and Tey, hard-boiled and noir, Hammett and Chandler, Dibdin and others who set their crime novels abroad, the rise of historical crime fiction and the current fascination with Scandinavian crime. The bits I enjoyed most were her discussion of crime writers who are now mostly forgotten, and I came away with a list of novels to hunt down.

James also discusses how many of the early 20th century British crime writers often had successful careers in varied fields such as medicine, the law, economics and music and yet felt compelled to pen these puzzles not just for their readers but for their own amusement adhering to the strict rules stated by Ronald Knox in the preface to Best Detective Stories 1928-29:

The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the narrative but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. All supernatural agencies are ruled out. There must not be more than one secret room or passage. No hitherto undiscovered poisons should be used or, indeed, any appliance which needs a long scientific explanation. No Chinamen must figure in the story. No accident must help the detective, nor is he allowed an unaccountable intuition. The detective himself must not commit the crime or alight on any clues which are not instantly produced for the reader. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, should be slightly, but no more than slightly, less intelligent than the average reader and his thoughts should not be concealed. And, finally, twin brothers and doubles generally must not appear unless the reader has been duly prepared for them.

I’m sure many writers struggled to stay within the rules and I, for one, enjoy a bit of the exotic in my mysteries.

Another interesting point was the paradoxical nature of cosy crime, usually set in a peaceful little village or a stately home.

They deal with violent death and violent emotions, but they are novels of escape. We are required to feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy for the falsely accused. For whomever the bell tolls, it doesn’t toll for us. Whatever our secret terror, we are not the body on the library floor. And in the end, by the grace of Poirot’s little grey cells, all will be well – except of couse with the murderer, but he deserves all that’s coming to him. All the mysteries will be explained, all the problems solved and peace and order wil return to that mythical village which, despite its above-average homicide rate, never really loses its tranquillity or its innocence.

Somewhat scathing, yet an understandable criticism made by many modern crime writers who feel these novels are hardly realistic. Yet we, and they, still read them and you can sense James’ tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Golden Age writers yet also feel her deep attachment to them. Her no-nonsense, down to earth approach is rather refreshing.

She also discusses Dorothy L. Sayers and her concern with the issue of surplus women and the nature of women’s place in society which were mirrored in these novels by her and others. And yet, James writes,

I cannot think of a single detective story written by a woman in the 1930s which features a woman lawyer, a woman surgeon, a woman politican, or indeed a woman in any real position of political or economic power.

I’ve highlighted the areas that hold a special interest for me and although there is clearly a focus on early 20th century British crime fiction, James does discuss the modern trends and the evolution of crime fiction from amateur posh sleuth to proper detectives and police with all the scientific know-how. It would be interesting to read a more global version of this discussion just because crime writing is a flourishing genre in many countries. Detective fiction, as many crime writers feel, provide a mirror to society and social history.

This was an enlightening and delightful book and one I will be coming back to again and again just to tick off all the novels I still need to read. I also must look up Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder, another guide to detective fiction, which James refers to a lot in this book as well as her new book Death Comes to Pemberley. Now, I wonder how that will turn out.

I read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

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19 Responses to “Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James”

  1. gaskella Says:

    They did a talk in Oxford too as part of a whole day crime festival but I couldn’t go – I bet it was fab. I love classic crime fiction.

    I’m just about to start reading Death comes to Pemberley – PD James’s latest – a sequel of sorts to Pride & Prejudice – it’ll be interesting to see if she carries it off – I’m sure she will…

    • sakura Says:

      That’s so exciting Annabel. Will be looking out for your review. I reckon if anyone could pull it off it would be P.D. James. But if you do get another chance, I hope you get to see them!

  2. Nish Says:

    It sounds like it was a very interesting discussion. I am curious who were the lesser known crime authors and books they mentioned? Do you have a list?

    • sakura Says:

      Some of the authors she mentions are Cyril Hare, Edmund Crispin, H.C. Bailey, Gladys Mitchell, Nicholas Blake, Nigel Strangeway, Michael Innes, E.C. Bentley. I think some of them have been re-issued. I’ve got a copy of one of Gladys Mitchell’s books but I’ve also got the DVD of her tv series, The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries. Hope you do get to read some of them!

      • Fëanor Says:

        I remember reading EC Bentley years ago, about a rather incompetent journo-turned-detective called Trent. But Bentley is also known for inventing clerihews (his middle name!), e.g.

        King George the Third
        Ought never to have occurred
        One can only wonder
        At so grotesque a blunder.

  3. Nymeth Says:

    This sounds fascinating and like it would enhance my appreciation of the genre. Also, can you believe I’ve never read James before? I need to rectify that.

  4. Steph Says:

    What a fantastic review of this book! I’ve heard about it previously over at A Striped Armchair, but I especially loved the quotes that you shared and what you personally took from this book. I just read my first PD James novel not too long ago and enjoyed it quite a lot, so I’m sure I’ll pick up this book after I’ve delved into a few more of her Dalgleish mysteries!

    Also: No Chinamen must figure in the story. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!? Why is this such an egregious thing?

    • sakura Says:

      I don’t think P.D. James was entirely sure about the ‘no Chinamen’ rule although she reckons it’s either because they may be too clever in some exotic way or whether it’s something to do with Fu Manchu. I do hope you get to this book and make sure you read some Christie and Sayers beforehand too:)

  5. Teresa Says:

    I’m so envious that you got to see Ruth Rendell. I adore Ruth Rendell! (I like P.D. James just fine too, but I’ve only read a few of her books and haven’t felt compelled to read more.)

    Lover of crime fiction that I am (although not of cozies), I’m interested in reading this book, but I’m always worried about the kind of havoc it’ll wreak on my TBR list.

    • sakura Says:

      It’s a pretty comprehensive discussion of the genre including modern crime so it’ll definitely have an impact on your TBR! I didn’t focus on Ruth Rendell as I hadn’t read anything by her recently but I’m a huge fan too, especially the stuff she writes as Barbara Vine. She can do atmosphere like no one else. And she’s one classy lady.


  6. Ooh sounds interesting, I really need to read more crime. Thanks for introducing me to this author!

  7. Mystica Says:

    Love the books – have read quite a few but this new one has me drooling.


  8. What an absolutely wonderful event: thanks so much for sharing the experience with us!


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