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Talking About Detective Fiction

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

By Yvonne Zipp / November 27, 2009

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.

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“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.”

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.)


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