Talking about Detective Fiction

Talking about Detective Fiction

by P. D. James


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P. D. James, the undisputed queen of mystery, gives us an intriguing, inspiring and idiosyncratic look at the genre she has spent her life perfecting.
Examining mystery from top to bottom, beginning with such classics as Charles Dickens's Bleak House and Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, and then looking at such contemporary masters as Colin Dexter and Henning Mankell, P. D. James goes right to the heart of the genre. Along the way she traces the lives and writing styles of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and many more. Here is P.D. James discussing detective fiction as social history, explaining its stylistic components, revealing her own writing process, and commenting on the recent resurgence of detective fiction in modern culture. It is a must have for the mystery connoisseur and casual fan alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307743138
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/03/2011
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 326,865
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

P. D. James was the author of twenty books, many of which feature her detective hero Adam Dalgliesh and have been televised or filmed. She was the recipient of many honors, including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature, and in 1991 was created Baroness James of Holland Park. She died in 2014.


London, England

Date of Birth:

August 3, 1920

Place of Birth:

Oxford, England


Attended the Cambridge High School for Girls from 1931 to 1937 and later took evening classes in hospital administration

Read an Excerpt


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.

Table of Contents

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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Talking About Detective Fiction 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
ExiledNewYorker More than 1 year ago
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.
bammasbooks More than 1 year ago
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.
TheEerieCoterie More than 1 year ago
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.
bobmarsh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great writer gives us an insight into her own favourites and influences within the genre of detective fiction. Mainly British with a mention of Marlowe and Maigret but immensely readable and a valuable source for any fan of crime fiction.
jclyde on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a brief, fascinating book that describes the origin and evolution of the mystery in Brittan (with a short side-trip into the history of American detective stories). I particularly enjoyed this book because she shared new insights into why readers feel satisfied by mysteries and what the different character types contribute to the story. She also provided interesting biographical information about some of my favorite authors.
libri_amor on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At the request of the prodigious Oxford library, The Bodleian, PD James discusses the history and styles of the British mystery. Providing a chronological dissection of the appearance of the fictional British detective, James describes the detailed evolution from 'tabloid' literature for the lower classes to the highly respected form we see today. Taking the reader from the origination of Sherlock Holmes to the Golden Age ( 'Trent's Last Case, for example) to the Four Formidable Women (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh), she details the construction of a true mystery and the progress from 'Punch Magazine' comparisons to the classic form we know today. She compares the British mystery to the hard boiled American detectives of the time - rightly comparing the environments of the two sets of writers -- the American lifestyle in the preWar II timeframe vice the British lifestyle and how these impacted the resultant publications. PD James presents the 'rules of mystery writing' and then proceeds to show how they are bent, twisted and basically adhered to in order to provide the reader with the 'read' they are looking for. She rightly points out that a mystery doesn't have to include murder, bloody details, gore to draw the reader in.
AnnieMod on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A short and very readable account of what one of the masters of the genre thinks about the genre. It is part history, part personal experiences. The main focus of P. D. James is the British Detective Fiction and its evolution but she adds a chapter about the early American authors as well - mainly because of their influence on what is written these days. Her explanations of the"rules of detective fictions" is informative and all the examples on how they are bent and changed to make even better stories are fascinating. She even manages to mention a few authors I had never heard of before although most of the works and authors she uses as examples are the ones that any fan of the genre will know. P. D. James is writing about the books she read and the books that influenced her. So yes - there are authors that one expected to see included and there are authors that I was surprised to see. The book is also laced with citations (including a few from Jane Austen) - and they could not have been selected better. But the book sounds personal and a little nostalgic -- it is not an academic study or an attempt to explain what detective fiction is - it is just P. D. James talking about detective fiction.There are two things that surprised me:1. Although the prose flows nicely for the most of the book, in the chapter about the 4 big women of the Detective fiction (and the ones around it), the text is repetitive - not only with information from previous chapters but sometimes even with information mentioned a page earlier. It sounds almost as if the beginning and the end were polished and edited but these middle part of the book was left alone. It is still readable but the easy flow of the text is lost.2. The author thinks that Agatha Christie had no influence on the genre and its development. She provides her explanation on why but I am still not convinced. What amuses me the most though is that I had always nseen some of the Christie's trademarks in James prose.
Capfox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When I first ran into this at the bookstore, I thought, hey, what a good marriage of author and topic! I haven't read too much P. D. James, since I didn't want to dig into the Dalgliesh series, even though it's one of my mother's favorites, but I did like the two Cordelia Gray stories, particularly An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and I know how much of a respected mystery author she is. While I've been reading fewer mysteries over the past few years, as well, I quite like the genre, and reading a history of it from someone who contributed to making it was enticing.So I picked up the slim tome, and got an quick but interesting look at the genre. James runs through from definitions of what makes detective fiction to a look at its development, starting from Doyle and Chesterton, through the period before the Golden Age, and then looks a the big four mystery-writing women - Christie, Allingham, Marsh, and Sayers - and the hard-boiled authors, before discussing where it's going from here. I rather liked the witty takes on the genre, and the opinions James had on individual authors and styles, and her praise for different authors was nicely varied and accurate, as was her criticisms.What James had written overall, then, was enjoyable, but it still felt pretty light, without much look at anything beyond the leading lights at each point, sometimes without a great focus on those, and not much of a look at anything beyond the golden age, beyond singling out some authors that she likes (including my favorite mystery author, Colin Dexter). The book, then, seems somewhat unfinished, I think - it could probably have used another chapter or two in there for the post-war period. But what there was in the book was enjoyable, and it's a fast read, so it might make a good starting primer for the genre, for the curious, and you can probably get some recommendations for books you might have missed, as well. I'm happy enough to have read it, but it's pretty clear how it could have been better. It was a good effort, but you wish there was a bit more effort, is all.
dla911 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At some point, every mystery reader must harbor the thought that they too could write a murder mystery.Now you have a guidebook. P. D. James, the queen of contemporary murder mystery (and in her 90th year) has written a very interesting and readable treatise, Talking About Detective Fiction. In it, she examines all the English, Nordic and American genres (police procedurals, English manor house, locked room murders, etc.), discussing the important authors and their plot strategies in each. A short evolutionary history of detective fiction also runs through the whole book. She also lists her favorite mystery authors/books and explains why they are so compelling to her.
jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you are interested in learning about detective fiction this is a good place to start. You may have to go no further. P. D. James, whose novels I have enjoyed reading, has written an informative, if not comprehensive, short book about detective fiction. Starting with references to the earliest examples of the genre in books like Charles Dicken's Bleak House, she discusses writers and their works including Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and others. She discusses detective fiction as social history, the stylistic components of the genre, her own process of writing, the reaction of critics, and what she considers the renewal of detective fiction in recent years. This is a book for both lovers of detective fiction and good writing.
cbobbitt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This very short treatment of detective and procedural fiction lacks the depth and background that James could easily provide. The small number of examples reduces the value of the book, particularly few authors and titles from non British cultures.
annbury on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A brief history of detective fiction from the beginning (Wilkie Collins) up to the present day. The most interesting chapter is that in which James discusses the structure of a detective novel -- plot, character, viewpoint etc. Not as thorough going as Julian Symons 1972 book on the same topic, but a brisker read, and more up to date.
tututhefirst on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A short, readable treatise on the history, structure, and importance of detective fiction written by one of the genre's best practitioners. P.D. James, at the age of 90 has more than a few decades of successful crime writing to her credit. In this easy to understand book she reviews what works and why, features the best of the Golden Age of detective fiction in England (between the two world wards) and goes on to opine about where the genre is heading in the future.Well worth reading for any lover of crime or detective fiction.
smik on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Publishers BlurbTo judge by the worldwide success of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie's Poirot, an appetite for murder, mystery and mayhem is universal. Talking about the craft of detective writing and sharing her personal thoughts and observations, P. D. James examines the challenges, achievements, and potential of a genre which has fascinated her for nearly 50 years. From the tenant of 221b Baker Street to the Village Priest from Cubhole in Essex, from the Golden Age of detective writing between the wars to the achievements of the present and a glimpse at the future, P. D. James explores the metamorphosis of a genre which has gripped and entertained the popular imagination like no other type of novel.What this book illustrated for me more than anything else is what an encyclopaedic knowledge P.D. James has of the history of detective fiction. She is particularly strong on its beginnings and on the writers of the Golden Age, particularly the "big three" of Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie. Her love of, and study of the genre, comes through very clearly. I felt that when it comes to her contemporaries, and younger writers, then her knowledge is not quite as deep, although she has quite clearly read very widely. As she herself points out, she is writing about detective fiction, not the whole gamut of crime fiction.But while she mentioned in passing the "new" crop of writers we are reading in translation like Henning Mankell, and other unique contributors like Alexander McCall Smith, and paid tribute to her contemporary Ruth Rendell, she omitted a number of 21st century female writers like Ann Cleeves, Pauline Rowson, and Aline Templeton. Australian creators of detectives simply don't appear in her scan, although New Zealander Ngiao Marsh does, albeit as somewhat of a disappointment, someone who didn't fulfil her potential.By the time I got to disc 4, I was feeling a bit as if I was attending a lecture, as well as that James is more comfortable in talking about the distant history of the genre, and hasn't got a lot to say about the 2000s onwards.Nevertheless, if you are interested in learning quite a lot about the history of the genre, this narration by Diana Bishop is a good one to pick. If you are a writer of detective fiction, then there is something in this book for you too, particularly when she talks about genre rules that earlier writers have tried to set in stone.
p_linehan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you like detective novels, this book is essential reading and worth pondering.
MusicMom41 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a delightful discussion of detective fiction from the very beginnings of the genre up to the 21st century. James shares her views of what makes good detective fiction and discusses many books that illustrate the various ages of the genre. Although her emphasis is on English mysteries she devotes a chapter to the American ¿Hard-boiled¿ school and ends with an overview on how the genre has developed in non English speaking countries which are now being translated for our benefit. For me it was a combination of visiting ¿old friends¿ and getting ideas of new authors or books to hunt for.
horacewimsey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A good, but not great, brief look at detective fiction (mostly British) from Sherlock Holmes, through the Golden Age, up to now. The bibliographies at the back look pretty good. (Like I need another list of books to buy and read.)
pak6th on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
P.D. James' thoughts on the genre of detective and mystery fiction, the classic authors, how they portrayed their times and places. Great place to find the names of authors you may have missed. More attuned to British mysteries but Americans are mentioned. With some valuable insights into the authors which will enhance the reading of their novels.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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 More than 1 year ago
P.D. James is always a treat, regardless of the genre.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago