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Talking About Detective Fiction Hardcover – December 1, 2009
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A Q&A with P.D. James
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.)
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Top Customer Reviews
I'd never gotten around to Ngaio Marsh, now her New Zealand heritage and Shakespearean themes seemed an enticing mix, so The Singing Shroud is on its way.
Had never even heard of C. J. Sansom, but P. D. gave him a thumbs up, and his hunchbacked detective Michael Shardlake fighting crime in Tudor England (Dissolution)--gotta try that one, right?
Found a good buy on a used Michael Innes Omnibus--Hamlet, Revenged; Death at the President's Lodging, The Daffodil Affair--with settings in and around Oxford.
Discovered I'd even missed one of P. D.'s own books, Devices and Desires, so MUST have that one; THEN a Golden Age classic which even Dorothy Sayers called "brilliant"--E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case, has been Kindleized and Whisper-Synced to me
Finally Dorothy Sayers's collection of essays on The Whimsical Christian--who knew? I wonder what this outspoken, clever, humorous lady has to say on that subject??
Was already happily acquainted with Chesterton's Father Brown, Sayers's Lord Wimsey, and Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe, but alas Ruth Rendell's Reginald Wexford and Josephine Tey's Alan Grant will have to wait, as will Margery Allingham's Albert Campion.
I'm telling you, do NOT read Talking About Detective Fiction if you are easily tempted by the intelligent, perceptive observations from this wonderfully reliable and convincing source.
Given how prolific, and sometimes uneven, some of her favorite authors were, James' recommendations on specific books provides a good starting place for checking out new writers.
The book is now about 15 years old, and James clearly has a preference for the 1930s for British mysteries and the 1950s and 60s for American, so don't expect as much on the latest authors, though she does have some recent favorites, including Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton.
Overall, a good read for fans of detective fiction.
Except for a chapter on Hammet and Chandler of the American hardboiled school and some admiring, but brief, tips of the hat to Sara Paretsky, Georges Simenon and Henning Mankell, James concentrates her attention on her fellow Brits--Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Crispin, Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Rendell and others--with particular emphasis on the so-called "Golden Age" when the plots were ingenious, the murders horrible and bizarre and the villains superhumanly cunning ... "not the days of the swift bash to the skull followed by sixty thousand words of psychological insight."
She also looks at how the genre has evolved since the Victorian age and why it has remained so popular. Then, perhaps most interesting of all, she takes us inside the writing process for a closeup look at some of the challenges peculiar to detective-story writing in general and to her own Adam Dalgliesh novels in particular. Most illuminating.