Talking about Detective Fiction [NOOK Book]

Overview

In a perfect marriage of author and subject, P. D. James?one of the most widely admired writers of detective fiction at work today?gives us a personal, lively, illuminating exploration of the human appetite for mystery and mayhem, and of those writers who have satisfied it.

P. D. James examines the genre from top to bottom, beginning with the mysteries at the hearts of such novels as Charles Dickens?s Bleak House and Wilkie Collins?s The Woman...

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Talking about Detective Fiction

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Overview

In a perfect marriage of author and subject, P. D. James—one of the most widely admired writers of detective fiction at work today—gives us a personal, lively, illuminating exploration of the human appetite for mystery and mayhem, and of those writers who have satisfied it.

P. D. James examines the genre from top to bottom, beginning with the mysteries at the hearts of such novels as Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, and bringing us into the present with such writers as Colin Dexter and Henning Mankell. Along the way she writes about Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie (“arch-breaker of rules”), Josephine Tey, Dashiell Hammett, and Peter Lovesey, among many others. She traces their lives into and out of their fiction, clarifies their individual styles, and gives us indelible portraits of the characters they’ve created, from Sherlock Holmes to Sara Paretsky’s sexually liberated female investigator, V. I. Warshawski. She compares British and American Golden Age mystery writing. She discusses detective fiction as social history, the stylistic components of the genre, her own process of writing, how critics have reacted over the years, and what she sees as a renewal of detective fiction—and of the detective hero—in recent years.

There is perhaps no one who could write about this enduring genre of storytelling with equal authority and flair: it is essential reading for every lover of detective fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Marilyn Stasio
Slim as it is, P. D. James's Talking about Detective Fiction has biblical heft. Like her own novels, the style is clean, thoughtful and full of grace. In expounding her ideas on how detective fiction works, James makes fearless reference to everyone from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
One of the most widely read and respected writers of detective fiction, James (The Private Patient) explores the genre's origins (focusing primarily on Britain) and its lasting appeal. James cites Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, published in 1868, as the first detective novel and its hero, Sergeant Cuff, as one of the first literary examples of the professional detective (modeled after a real-life Scotland Yard inspector). As for Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, James argues that their staying power has as much to do with the gloomy London atmosphere, “the enveloping miasma of mystery and terror,” as with the iconic sleuth. Devoting much of her time to writers in the Golden Age of British detective fiction (essentially between the two world wars), James dissects the work of four heavyweights: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. Though she's more appreciative of Marsh and Allingham (declaring them “novelists, not merely fabricators of ingenious puzzles”), James acknowledges not only the undeniable boost these women gave to the genre but their continuing appeal. For crime fiction fans, this master class from one of the leading practitioners of the art will be a real treat. 9 illus. (Dec.)
Library Journal
James, who lives and breathes detective fiction, tackles her genre in this examination of British detective fiction. It is important to note this is not literary criticism in the academic sense. James will introduce readers to lesser-known detectives from the past, such as two from the 1920s: H.C. Bailey's doctor Reggie Fortune and Gladys Mitchell's psychiatrist Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. Because of these types of discoveries, the volume has the potential to stimulate investigations beyond the text. James includes chapters on Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown; a brief nod to Americans Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; and a discussion of four women writers: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. She is not afraid to share her opinion of writers' strengths and weaknesses, especially when the focus is on Christie. VERDICT Considering James's devoted following and her highly recognizable name, there is sure to be interest amongst fans and readers of detective fiction. The writing is entertaining, approachable, and interesting, and this makes it an appealing read for a wide audience.—Stacy Russo, Chapman Univ. Libs., Orange, CA
From the Publisher
“[P.D. James’s] literary sensibility—calm observation and exact description—is on ample display here.”—Wall Street Journal
 
“An avid book-length essay on the roots, ethics and methods of the detective story . . . Her opinions are often surprising and determinedly contrary . . . Refreshingly outspoken.”—New York Times
 
“An amiable, personal appreciation of the genre by someone who has been one of its most accomplished and popular exponents.”—The Times, London
 
“It’s like sitting across from P. D. James over tea, and that, naturally, is a delight.”—Booklist
 
“Anyone who is interested in P. D. James’s own fiction will want to read this, but it stands in its own right as a deeper, more thoughtful enquiry into what it is we get out of detective fiction . . . Elegant and thoughtful.”—The Independent, London

"A master class on British mysteries . . . It's hard to imagine a better guide."—Christian Science Monitor

Talking About Detective Fiction has biblical heft. . . . The style is clean, thoughtful and full of grace. . . . Incisive.”—New York Times Book Review

"Fascinating. . . . Her writing shows a vast knowledge and abiding love for the genre she describes."—USA Today
 
“P. D. James is the undisputed grande dame of the modern mystery . . . She presents an energetic, insightful, and often witty history of the genre.”—Boston Globe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307593320
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/1/2009
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 331,252
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

P. D. James
P. D. James is the author of 20 books, most of which have been filmed for television. Before her retirement in 1979, she served in the forensics and criminal justice departments of Great Britain's Home Office, and she has been a magistrate and a governor of the BBC. The recipient of many prizes and honors, including being inducted into the International Crime Writers Hall of Fame, she was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991. In 2000 she celebrated her 80th birthday.


From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

Few writers have left so indelible an impression on crime fiction as P. D. (Phyllis Dorothy) James, an author whose elegant, bestselling novels have found an appreciative audience among readers and critics alike. James's intricately plotted books are filled with macabre events and shocking twists and turns, yet they are so beautifully written and morally complex that they cannot be dismissed as mere murder mysteries...although, in James's view, there's nothing "mere" about mysteries!

In James's native Britain (home of Wilkie Collins, Graham Greene, and the redoubtable Agatha Christie), the mystery is a time-honored form that has never been considered inferior. James explained her feelings in a 1998 interview with Salon.com: "It isn't easy to make this division and say: That's genre fiction and it's useless, and this is the so-called straight novel and we take it seriously. Novels are either good novels or they're not good novels, and that is the dividing line for me."

Although she always wanted to be a novelist, James came to writing relatively late in life. Her formal schooling ended at 16, when she went to work to help out her cash-strapped parents. In 1941 she married a doctor assigned to the Royal Army Medical Corps. He returned from WWII with a severe mental illness that lasted until his death in 1964, necessitating that James become the family breadwinner. She worked in hospital administration and then in various departments of the British Civil Service until her retirement in 1979. (Her experience navigating the labyrinthine corridors of government bureaucracies has provided a believable backdrop for many of her books.)

James's first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. An immediate success, it introduced the first of her two longtime series protagonists -- Adam Dalgleish, a police inspector in Scotland Yard and a published poet. Her second recurring character, a young private detective named Cordelia Gray, debuted in 1972's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Both Dalgliesh and Cordelia went on to star in a string of international bestsellers.

James has only occasionally departed from her series, most notably for the standalone mystery Innocent Blood (1980) and the dystopian sci-fi classic Children of Men (1992), which was turned into an Oscar-nominated film. In 2000, she published a slender "fragment of autobiography" called A Time to Be Earnest, described by The New York Time Book Review as " deeply moving, and all too short."

Good To Know

  • In television mini-series that have aired in the U.S. on PBS, British actors Roy Marsden and Martin Shaw have portrayed Adam Dalgliesh and Helen Baxendale has starred as Cordelia Gray.

  • James explained the essence of a murder mystery in a 2004 essay for Britain's Guardian: "E. M. Forster has written, 'The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development.' To that I would add: the queen died and everyone thought it was of grief until they discovered the puncture wound in her throat. That is a murder mystery and, in my view, it too is capable of high development. "

  • In 1983, James was awarded the OBE. In 1991 she was made a Life Peer (Baroness James of Holland Park).

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      1. Also Known As:
        Phyllis Dorothy James White (full name)
      2. Hometown:
        London, England
      1. Date of Birth:
        August 3, 1920
      2. Place of Birth:
        Oxford, England
      1. Education:
        Attended the Cambridge High School for Girls from 1931 to 1937 and later took evening classes in hospital administration

    Read an Excerpt

    Foreward

    This book had its beginnings in December 2006, when, at the request of the Bodleian's Publishing Department, the then Librarian invited me to write a book on British detective fiction in aid of the Library. As a native of Oxford I had known from early childhood that the Bodleian Library is one of the oldest and most distinguished in the world, and I replied that I was very happy to accept the invitation but must finish the novel on which I was then working. The book which I was privileged to write now makes its somewhat belated appearance. I was relieved that the subject proposed was one of the few on which I felt competent to pontificate, but I hope that the many references to my own methods of working won't be seen as hubris; they are an attempt to answer some of the questions most frequently asked by my readers and are unlikely to be new to audiences who have heard me speaking about my work over the years—nor, of course, to my fellow crime-writers.

    Because of its resilience and popularity, detective fiction has attracted what some may feel is more than its fair share of critical attention, and I have no wish to add to, and less to emulate, the many distinguished studies of the last two centuries. Inevitably there wil be some notable omissions, for which I apologise, but my hope is that this short personal account will interest and enterntain not only my readers, but the many who share our pleasure in a form of popular literature which for over fifty years has fascinated and engaged me as a writer.

    Chapter 1: What Are We Talking About and How Did It All Begin?

    "Death in particular seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject."—Dorothy L. Sayers

    These words were written by Dorothy L. Sayers in her preface to a volume entitled Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror, Third Series, published by Gollancz in 1934. She was, of course, talking not of the devastating amalgamation of hatred, violence, tragedy and grief which is real-life murder, but of the ingenious and increasingly popular stories of mystery and detection of which, by that time, she herself was an established and highly regarded writer. And to judge by the worldwide success of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot, it is not only the Anglo-Saxons who have an appetite for mystery and mayhem. It seems that this vicarious enjoyment in “murder considered as a fine art,” to quote Thomas De Quincey, makes the whole world kin.

    In his book Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster writes:

    “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. . . . “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development.

    To that I would add, “Everyone thought that the queen had died of grief until they discovered the puncture mark in her throat.” That is a murder mystery, and it too is capable of high development.

    Novels which enshrine a mystery, often involving a crime, and which provide the satisfaction of an ultimate solution are, of course, common in the canon of English literature, and most would never be thought of in terms of detective fiction. Anthony Trollope, who, like his friend Dickens, was fascinated by the criminal underworld and the exploits of the newly formed detective force, frequently teases us in his novels with a central mystery. Did Lady Eustace steal the family diamonds, and if not, who did? Did Lady Mason forge the codicil to her husband’s will in Orley Farm, a codicil from which she and her son had benefited for thirty years? Perhaps Trollope gets closest to the conventions of the orthodox detective story in Phineas Redux, in which the hero is arrested for the murder of his political enemy, Mr. Bonteen, and only escapes conviction on strong circumstantial evidence by the energetic efforts of Madame Max, the woman who loves him and obtains the vital clue which helps to convict the true murderer. Who is the mysterious woman in white in Wilkie Collins’s novel of that name? In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, who is it that Jane hears shrieking in the night, who attacks the mysterious visitor to Thornfield Hall, and what part does the servant Grace Poole play in these dark matters? Charles Dickens provides both mystery and murder in Bleak House, creating in Inspector Bucket one of literature’s most memorable detectives, while his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood contains enough of the plot to encourage fascinating conjecture about how it was to be resolved.

    A modern example of a novel which enshrines a mystery and its solution is John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This is generally regarded as one of the most distinguished modern novels of espionage, but it is also a perfectly constructed detective story. Here the central mystery is not an act of murder but the identity of the mole at the heart of the British Secret Service. We know the names of the five suspects, and the setting gives us access to a secret esoteric and cloistered world, making us privileged participants in its mysteries. The detective called in to identify the traitor is John le Carré’s sympathetic serial hero George Smiley, with the help of his junior colleague Peter Guillam, and the solution at the end of the novel is one which we the readers should be able to arrive at from evidence fairly presented.

    But perhaps the most interesting example of a mainstream novel which is also a detective story is the brilliantly structured Emma by Jane Austen. Here the secret which is the mainspring of the action is the unrecognised relationships between the limited number of characters. The story is confined to a closed society in a rural setting, which was to become common in detective fiction, and Jane Austen deceives us with cleverly constructed clues (eight immediately come to mind)—some based on action, some on apparently innocuous conversations, some in her authorial voice. At the end, when all becomes plain and the characters are at last united with their right partners, we wonder how we could have been so deceived.

    So what exactly are we talking about when we use the words “detective story,” how does it differ from both the mainstream novel and crime fiction, and how did it all begin? Novels which have an atrocious crime at their heart, whose writers set out to explore and interpret the dangerous and violent underworld of crime, its causes, ramifications and effect on both perpetrators and victims, can cover an extraordinarily broad spectrum of imaginative writing extending to some of the highest works of the human imagination. These books may indeed have murder at their heart, but there is frequently no mystery about the perpetrator and therefore no detective and no clues. An example is Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. We know from the beginning that Pinkie is a killer and that the unfortunate Hale, desperately walking the streets and lanes of Brighton, knows, as do we, that he is going to be murdered. Our interest is not primarily in the investigation of murder, but in the tragic fate of those involved. The novel adumbrates Greene’s preoccupation with the moral ambiguity of evil, which is at the heart of his creativity; indeed, he came to regret the detective element in Brighton Rock and his own division of his novels between “entertainments” and those presumably which he intended should be taken seriously. I’m glad that Greene later repudiated this puzzling dichotomy, which picked out certain of his novels for disparagement and which helped to promote the still prevalent habit of dividing novels into those which are popular, exciting and accessible but, perhaps for these reasons, tend to be undervalued, and those in a somewhat ill-defined category which are granted the distinction of being described as literary novels. Greene surely couldn’t have meant that, when writing an “entertainment,” he took less trouble with the literary style, cared less for the truth of characterisation and modified the plot and theme to accommodate what he saw as the popular taste. This is manifestly not true of a writer of whom the words of Robert Browning are particularly appropriate:

    Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
    The honest thief, the tender murderer,
    The superstitious atheist.

    Although the detective story at its highest can also operate on the dangerous edge of things, it is differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organised structure and recognised conventions. What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motive, means and opportunity for the crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it; and, by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness. This is the definition I have usually given when speaking about my work but, although not inaccurate, it now seems unduly restrictive and more appropriate to the so-called Golden Age between the wars than it is today. Not all the villains are among a small group of obvious suspects; the detective may be faced with a single named or secret adversary who must be finally run down and defeated by logical deduction from observed facts and, of course, by the accepted heroic virtues: intelligence, courage and energy. This type of mystery is frequently a highly personal conflict between the hero and his prey, characterised by physicality, ruthlessness and violence, often amounting to torture, and even if the detective element is strong, the book is more appropriately described as a thriller than a detective story. The James Bond novels of Ian Fleming are the obvious example. But for a book to be described as detective fiction there must be a central mystery, and one that by the end of the book is solved satisfactorily and logically, not by good luck or intuition, but by intelligent deduction from clues honestly if deceptively presented.

    One of the criticisms of the detective story is that this imposed pattern is mere formula writing, that it binds the novelist in a straitjacket which is inimical to the artistic freedom which is essential to creativity, and that subtlety of characterisation, a setting which comes alive for the reader and even credibility are sacrificed to the dominance of structure and plot. But what I find fascinating is the extraordinary variety of books and writers which this so-called formula has been able to accommodate, and how many authors have found the constraints and conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of their creative imagination. To say that one cannot produce a good novel within the discipline of a formal structure is as foolish as to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to fourteen lines—an octave and a sestet—and a strict rhyming sequence. And detective stories are not the only novels which conform to a recognised convention and structure. All Jane Austen’s novels have a common storyline: an attractive and virtuous young woman surmounts difficulties to achieve marriage to the man of her choice. This is the age-long convention of the romantic novel, but with Jane Austen what we have is Mills & Boon written by a genius.

    And why murder? The central mystery of a detective story need not indeed involve a violent death, but murder remains the unique crime and it carries an atavistic weight of repugnance, fascination and fear. Readers are likely to remain more interested in which of Aunt Ellie’s heirs laced her nightly cocoa with arsenic than in who stole her diamond necklace while she was safely holidaying in Bournemouth. Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night doesn’t contain a murder, although there is an attempt at one, and the death at the heart of Frances Fyfield’s Blood from Stone is a spectacular and mysterious suicide. But, except in those novels of espionage which are primarily concerned with treachery, it remains rare for the central crime in an orthodox mystery to be other than the ultimate crime for which no human reparation can ever be made.

    From the Hardcover edition.

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    Table of Contents

    Foreword
     
    1. What Are We Talking About and How Did It All Begin?
    2. The Tenant of 221B Baker Street and the Parish Priest from Cobhole in Essex
    3. The Golden Age
    4. Soft-centred and Hard-boiled
    5. Four Formidable Women
    6. Telling the Story: Setting, Viewpoint, People
    7. Critics and Aficionados: Why Some Don’t Enjoy Them and Why Others Do
    8. Today and a Glimpse of Tomorrow
     
    Bibliography and Suggested Reading


    From the Hardcover edition.
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    See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 25 Customer Reviews
    • Anonymous

      Posted January 3, 2010

      P D James sheds light on intricacies of mystery writing

      This is a fabulous book about the evolution of detective/crime fiction, particularly by British writers. The author talks about the history of the genre, draws comparisons among authors, plots, characters, styles, etc. The book is a very good overview of the topic from an expert and can serve as an important reference tool.

      3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted February 13, 2010

      more from this reviewer

      Insightful overview of detective fiction-

      PD James, herself an accomplished writer of detective fiction, provides insights into the origins and development of the genre. Her assessments of the important authors are interesting and led me to seek out several books which I previously hadn't read, including some from authors whose work heretofore hadn't been on my screen at all. A short book worth the read for fans of the genre.

      2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted January 25, 2010

      Talk Murder with P.D. James!!!

      I originally bought book as a gift. After thumbing through it a bit, I nearly didn't give it away! I will be purchasing a copy for myself very soon. It is an excellent book for a book club focusing on mysteries because there are many opportunities for agreement, disagreement and some very lively discussion! James chose a wide variety of authors and their works to include in this well-formatted book.

      2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted January 18, 2010

      more from this reviewer

      The NEW Eerie Coterie Recommends (Talking About Detective Fiction, by P.D. James)

      This book is a rare treat indeed from one of the mystery genre's bestselling masters. First off, P.D. James is the Queen of Detective Mysteries and no one else comes close to her knowledge or skill in that field. Second, for her to write a book on the history of the detective story means we will get the most comprehensive look at the making and livlihood of the genre. As The NEW Eerie Coterie devotes our time to James' large library of work, we look at this addition to her canon as a companion and tool to use, both as readers and some as those willing to learn about the craft. Very few authors can handle delving into the secrets and triumphs of their jobs, but P.D. James never has any trouble with words.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted November 21, 2013

      Not worth a second read borrow first

      Very limited insight on her writing and her opinions on others is limited to a very few. If you have all her works then is worth it to buy everything but it is a disappointment i have had before page counter

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    • Anonymous

      Posted March 4, 2012

      I don't know

      I can't write a review at this time. I have not received these books yet.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted January 14, 2012

      Outstanding

      I am a PD James ' fan, having read all her past published books and just purchased her latest mystery. I enjoyed James' insights into detective stories in "Talking About Detective Fiction." This book would make an excellent text book for a course on the detective fiction genre.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted March 21, 2010

      Interesting and informative

      P.D. James is always a treat, regardless of the genre.

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    • Posted January 23, 2010

      more from this reviewer

      Talking About Detective Fiction

      A wonderful compendium.

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