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Talking About Detective Fiction Hardcover – Deckle Edge, December 1, 2009

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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (December 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307592820
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307592828
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 5.2 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #215,084 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

A Q&A with P.D. James

Question: What made you decide to write a book about detective fiction?

P.D. James: I wrote my book, Talking About Detective Fiction, because the Bodleian Library, one of the great libraries of the world, asked me to write about detective fiction in aid of the Library. I said I would do so when I had finished writing The Private Patient. Detective fiction has fascinated me both as a reader and a novelist for over 50 years, and I enjoyed revisiting the books of the Golden Age which have given me such pleasure, and describing how I myself set out on the task of writing a detective story which can be both an exciting mystery and a good novel.

Question: How do you explain our seemingly unending appetite for mysteries? What is it about the mystery that so engages our minds and imagination?

P.D. James: The human race has had an appetite for mysteries from the earliest writings and no doubt tales of mystery and murder were recounted by our remote ancestors round the camp fires by the tribal storyteller. Murder is the unique crime, the only one for which we can make no reparation, and has always been greeted with a mixture of repugnance, horror, fear, and fascination. We are particularly intrigued by the motives which cause a man or woman to step across the invisible line which separates a murderer from the rest of humanity. Human beings also love a puzzle and a strong story, and mysteries have both.

Question: Do you think there is (or was) a Golden Age of detective fiction?

P.D. James: The years between the two world wars are generally regarded as the Golden Age of detective fiction and certainly, in England in particular, there was a surge of excellent writing. The detective story became immensely popular and a number of very talented writers were engaged in the craft. I feel that there are so many good novelists writing mysteries today that we may well be entering a second Golden Age.

Question: Do you feel that your own Adam Dalgliesh owes anything to any particular literary detectives who came before him?

P.D. James: I don't feel that Adam Dalgliesh owes anything to a particular literary detective as the heroes of the mystery novels which I particularly enjoyed in the Golden Age were usually amateurs, and I was anxious to create a professional detective.

Question: If you were to recommend 3 or 4 books that represent the best of detective fiction in all its forms, which books would they be?

P.D. James: It is difficult to know what books to recommend as personal taste plays such a large part and modern readers may feel out of touch with the Golden Age mysteries which I so much enjoyed. Among them are The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham, Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers, and Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare. It would take a much longer list to represent the mystery in all its forms, and it would certainly include the American hard-boiled school.

(Photo © Ulla Montan)

From 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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

More About the Author

P. D. James is the author of twenty previous books, most of which have been filmed and broadcast on television in the United States and other countries. She spent thirty years in various departments of the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Law Departments of Great Britain's Home Office. She has served as a magistrate and as a governor of the BBC. In 2000 she celebrated her eightieth birthday and published her autobiography, Time to Be in Earnest. The recipient of many prizes and honors, she was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991 and was inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame in 2008. She lives in London and Oxford.

Photo credit Ulla Montan

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Imagine Copernicus explaining astronomy to you, or Einstein teaching you physics, or Moses clarifying difficult biblical passages that confused clergy and prompted discord and even wars. Imagine also that the expert could write clearly, interestingly and with wit, such as Sigmund Freud explaining the principles of psychology with examples from fascinating case studies.

This is what happens with P.D. James marvelous book. James is the queen of modern detective fiction, certainly, without any doubt, one of the royal family.

James states that mystery novels are composed of several basic elements: a crime, usually murder; a small circle of suspects, each having a motive to commit the crime; opportunity; a detective; and a solution that is inserted into the novel with deceptive cunning, but with fairness. The last point means that readers will realize when they hear the detective's solution that the solution fits what was disclosed previously in the novel.

James describes the differences between detective stories, thrillers and horror tales. Each genre has its own elements and its own purposes. A reader who knows the elements and purposes can appreciate the tale better. Detective stories, she writes, do not, or at least should not, investigate a murder or another crime; nor should they dwell on the bizarre happenings; they should focus on the tragic fate of the people involved.

James describes the history of detective fiction and introduces her readers to over a dozen of the best writers, generally focusing on British women. She gives special attention to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. She discusses the strength and weaknesses of these stories, their history, psychology and sociology.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Red Rivere on December 19, 2009
Format: Hardcover
A typically well-written book by James, though it nowhere comes close to replacing Julian Symons' classic "Bloody Murder" as a comprehensive survey of the detective fiction genre, being quite short (almost pamphlet size) and selective in its coverage. A great deal of "Talking About Detective Fiction" is given over to authors from the so-called British Golden Age of detective fiction (roughly 1920 to 1940), particularly the Crime Queens (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh and sometimes Tey). James touches on some writers who may not be familiar to her readers, like Gladys Mitchell and Cyril Hare, as well as the American hardboiled triumvirate of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald, but many significant names are left out (such as S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles, Freeman Wills Crofts and John Dickson Carr), giving a rather narrow picture of the period. Her readers, for example, might come away with the impression that no American wrote traditional puzzles during the Golden Age, or that British women detective novelists outnumbered the men. Neither impression would be accurate.

As one reviewer has noted, James is rather disparaging toward Christie, though this is nothing new for James, who has been rather disparaging toward Christie for decades now. What is new is that James admits rereading some Christie and finding some of her works, like A Murder Is Announced, better than she recalled. One wishes James had gone back and read, say, Five Little Pigs, And Then There Were None, Endless Night or The Hollow; she might have altered her assertion that Christie simply creates pasteboard characters in whom the reader can have no possible interest apart from their contribution to the puzzle.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Natalie on December 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
PD James provides readers with a beautiful survey of significant detective fiction from its beginnings up through contemporary times. Her analysis of the four "grande dames" of the "Golden Age"--Christie, Allingham, Sayers, and Marsh--is deeply intelligent and insightful. Nor does she neglect the hard-boiled American genre or the Oxford dons. While I understand that the intended audience may perhaps be other writers, as a devout reader of detective fiction I was mesmerized by every page. Providing both perceptions about writers I have read and names of new writers for me to try out, this book makes me want to revisit and reread many of the books I've read before.

Brava, Dame James!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Master Cineaster VINE VOICE on March 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover
An interesting but by no means enthralling survey of the genre, with the author's analysis of how and why some authors succeed (eg, the fun of giving a reader a puzzle to solve like Agatha Christie, or Conon Doyle's charming immortal sleuth) and the requisite rules of the game for all writers (eg, clues available to detective and reader simultaneously; no supernatural forces at play; no real investigation into the murderer's mind). The role of the female author in the genre (Christie, Sayers, Tey, etc) is highlighted especially well. As is often the case, a review of the genre holds little excitement next to its best reads, but recommendations abound (though some, like The Moonstone, are duds) and James' style is particularly fluid. Her own output is impressive, though the mysteries are uneven, but it's fun to hear about the shoulders she likes to stand on.
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