Talking About Detective Fiction

Master mystery writer P.D. James dissects her craft.

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If you were going to write a mystery, where would you start? The body? The murder weapon? The detective? P.D. James starts with the setting. “My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character;...” she writes in her new work of nonfiction, Talking About Detective Fiction.

“Devices and Desires,” for example, was born on a deserted shingle beach in Britain’s East Anglia, when James turned her head and saw a nuclear power plant in the distance. Fans of Baroness James’s 20 novels will be rewarded by plenty of such insights into how she approaches her chosen profession, as well as some intelligent and well-read discussion of a genre that has perhaps never been more popular.

That popularity may stem from our own uncertain times, James posits, since the mystery novel surges in popularity during periods of unrest, promising a restoration of order through human reason and ingenuity. “Whether we live in a more violent age than did, for example, the Victorians is a question for statisticians and sociologists, but we certainly feel more threatened by crime and disorder than at any other time I remember in my long life,” James writes in her conclusion. “The detective story deals with the most dramatic and tragic manifestations of man’s nature and the ultimate disruption of murder, yet the form itself is orderly, controlled, formulaic, providing a secure structure within which the imaginations of writer and reader alike can confront the unthinkable.”

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At just over 200 pages, “Talking About Detective Fiction” reads like a master class on British mysteries, with heavy emphasis on the Golden Age (roughly defined as the years between World Wars I and II). Since there are few living mystery writers more widely respected than James, it’s hard to imagine a better guide.

In case that sounds too heavy for holiday reading, James also includes a collection of witty cartoons that will delight mystery fans and inspire them to make T-shirts. (Under a picture of a butler bearing a tray, the caption reads, “Your red herring. My Lord.”)

The jacket copy overstates its case, claiming that James “examines the genre from top to bottom.” Well, hardly. At 200 pages, James couldn’t have covered the whole of the wide-ranging field if she had used all her pages to simply list titles.

What she does is retrace the genre’s beginnings with William Godwin’s “Caleb Williams” and Wilkie Collins’s “The Moonstone.” (She even includes details about the unsolved murder and investigator that inspired Collins.) Then she devotes some real estate to iconic characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Philip Marlowe, and Sam Spade, before talking in depth about four female writers of the Golden Age. Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham come off rather better than Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie, although James cites the latter’s “formidable cunning.” And James acknowledges a debt to all four, who, in her estimation, succeeded in moving the genre forward and provided a valuable sociological portrait of Britain during the 1930s and ’40s, especially regarding the lives of working women.

James also carries readers through the “rules” of mystery writing, as originally laid down by Ronald Knox. These range from essential fair play – “The detective must never be in possession of more information than the reader” – to the seemingly arbitrary: “No Chinamen must figure in the story.” (Yeah, James couldn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation for that one, either.)

Among the tidbits about her own writing life, James says that, were she to start today, her detective would be a woman. (In the 1950s, women weren’t allowed to be police detectives, and thus, Adam Dalgliesh is not an Anna.) She writes repeatedly of the importance of setting: “I regard the description of the finding of the body as one of the most important chapters of a detective novel.” And when discussing the sublimely humane “Father Brown” stories, James writes of G.K. Chesterton’s influence on her own career. “Before he even planned the Father Brown stories, Chesterton wrote that ‘the only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will.’ Those words have been part of my credo as a writer. They may not be framed and on my desk but they are never out of my mind.”

And James is generous with both her predecessors and her colleagues. Among the current writers she cites, James highlights both American Sara Paretsky, whom she calls “the most remarkable of the moderns,” and Scotland’s Ian Rankin. When it comes to policing in 21st-century Edinburgh, James says, “we can learn more from Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels than we can from any official guidebook.”

I didn’t learn anything new about Holmes or his creator, and the chapter on Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler also went over well-trodden (and well-loved) ground. But when it came to Golden Age writers, James completely schooled me. I thought I’d read a fair swath of Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, and Ngaio Marsh, but she kept throwing new titles at me.

Perhaps the least interesting chapter is one in which James tackles longstanding criticisms of the genre. Since Edmund Wilson couldn’t be bothered to read even one mystery (Sayers’s “The Nine Tailors”) from cover to cover before formulating his criticisms in “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” it hardly seems worthwhile to go to the trouble to refute them. Also, since it’s highly unlikely anyone who shares Wilson’s prejudices is going to pick up this book, James is basically talking about detective fiction to people who already love it. On a side note, although I am sure literary snobbery is alive and well, are there still mystery readers out there who feel judged? I thought folks had moved well past that to just feeling intellectually superior that they bothered to read at all.

Assuming they’ve gotten over any residual shame from reading genre fiction, readers will want to keep paper and pen handy to jot down titles. Topping my ever-growing reading list is Kate Summerscale’s “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.” In it, James says, Summerscale provides a credible hypothesis for the long-unsolved Road Hill House murders, which electrified Victorian England.

Other intriguing titles include Edmund Crispin’s “The Moving Toyshop,” Frances Fyfield’s “Blood From Stone,” and Nicola Upson’s series starring “Daughter of Time” author Josephine Tey. (Hey, if Jane Austen can solve crime, why not Tey? At least she has a background in detection.) Also, I need to reread “The Fashion in Shrouds” and “More Work for the Undertaker.” And all of “Father Brown.”

You’ll have to excuse me. I’m off to the library.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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