Thursday, August 18, 2011

2,551: Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

As potential authors of a book about the detective novel genre go, there can be few more-qualified candidates than P.D. James, creator of Adam Dalgliesh and recipient of more literary honours than you could shake a stick at.  Accordingly, Talking about Detectives is much more than a short potted history of the genre.  It is also an analysis of the continuing popularity of detective fiction, a critique of some of its most iconic practitioners and an insight into the author’s own writing habits and techniques.

Lady James defines the detective novel quite loosely in a way that allows her to pull Jane Austen (of whom she writes, “with Jane Austen what we have is Mills and Boon written by a genius”), Trollope and Dickens into her narrative of the inception of the genre.  Following convention, she too identifies Wilkie Collins The Moonstone as the first true detective novel before considering the first great British detective, Sherlock Holmes.

No worshipper of shibboleths, the author is very comfortable poking gentle fun at, for example, at the implausibility of Holmes and Watson’s living arrangements and even half-accusing Homes of murdering Dr Watson’s puppy.  Her critical eye and refusal to follow received wisdom is also apparent in her dissection of Agatha Christie and the other Queens of the Golden Age of British crime fiction, Marjorie Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh.  Nevertheless, she is happy to accord them a chapter of their own in the narrative and a central position in the development of the detective novel.

James is happy to identify writers whom she rates including (and despite the beliefs of some other reviewers) the above four grandes dames, Josephine Tey and Sara Paretsky.  She also admits that if she were to be starting over again, she would probably write a female detective like Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski but that this option was far less plausible when she first created Adam Dalgliesh.  As well as the above female writers, James gives a large amount of credit to Edgar Allan Poe for having come up with four of the great innovations in detective fiction* and makes a persuasive (at least to this partial reader!) argument for a revival in popularity of G.K. Chesterton.  There is also an amusing dissection of Ronald Knox’s ten commandments for detective fiction writers, including the baffling prohibition on the presence of “Chinamen” in detective novels (presumably a poke at Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books).  One of Lady James’ contentions, however, is that detective fiction actually benefits from rules and conventions which can actually liberate the writer rather than confining him or her, as some critics have alleged.

In trying to assess the continuing popularity of detective fiction, James makes a point about Agatha Christie that has, in my view, a more universal resonance:

“But one thing is certain: Agatha Christie has provided entertainment, suspense and temporary relief from the anxieties and traumas of life both in peace and war for millions throughout the world and this is an achievement which merits our gratitude and respect.”

This, I think, goes to the very nub of it.  At the heart of the detective novel is the comforting thought that order and justice can be restored to the world from the chaos and evil occasioned by murder.  Lady James makes the telling point that the Golden Age took place during the years between the two world wars, a time of political upheaval and economic turbulence throughout the world, in which detective stories were a retreat to a more ordered and comfortable place.  She goes on to comment:

“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 can remember in my long life.”

 Given that Lady James was born in 1920, this is a strong statement and, looking back at the recent riots in London and other major English cities, it is difficult to dispute.  Indeed, on her own views, it may be that we are about to enter a new Golden Age of British detective fiction.  I don’t know whether the same is true in the US, continental Europe or the rest of the world but I suspect it may be.

As for the future of the detective novel?  Lady James identifies a few pointers.  She comments on the waning of the influence of the old conventions of the novel, the ever-increasing focus on the darker realities of modern life, the impact of forensic science on the detective novel, the international spread of the genre and the general eclipse of the gifted (or lucky) amateur in favour of the professional policeman.

It should be acknowledged that Talking with Detectives is heavily weighted towards British detective fiction and, although devoting a chapter to the masters of the American “hard-boiled” story, Chandler and Marlowe, it is relatively light on American writing and the growth of the Eurocop in the genre.  It probably also requires the reader to have a passing knowledge of the great names of the genre, both modern and historical.  Nevertheless, this long essay will be a fascinating and entertaining read for all aficionados of the genre, whether casual or devoted.


Nan said...

Such a great review! I wonder if she had heard of the Scandinavian writers when she wrote this book. It seems to me that the policeman is equally popular with the amateur. I love the variety. There truly is something for every reader in the mystery/crime fiction genre. I wrote about this book too. If you are interested, here it is:

Falaise said...

Thanks, Nan. I read your post on it and agree with everything you said about it.

JaneGS said...

First rate review. As luck would have it, I recently ordered this book, and hopefully I'll Abe reading it for myself soon. Her analysis of the continuing appeal of mysteries is interesting stuff.

Falaise said...

Jane - thanks for the comment. I'm sure you will enjoy it a lot.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I have this in my pile too. She's taking part in a one day seminar on crime fiction in Oxford in October (with Ruth Rendell and Colin Dexter amongst others), and I'm thinking about going to that.

Falaise said...

Thanks, Gaskella. What a great participant list for that seminar. Unlikely I would be able to make it but it sounds fascinating.