Talking About Detective Fiction
Master mystery writer P.D. James dissects her craft.
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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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.