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.