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Review: "Talking About Detective Fiction" by Lady P. D. James

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And if it is true, as the evidence suggests, that the detective story flourishes best in the most difficult of times, we may well be at the beginning of a new Golden Age.
--P. D. James, Talking About Detective Fiction

You will perhaps notice that I attributed this book to “Lady P. D. James”. James, like Emmuzka Orczy, is a baroness. But what surprised me is that she wrote this book when she was nearly 90 years old. James has authored several venerable mysteries in her lifetime, including The Children of Men, Devices and Desires, The Lighthouse, The Murder Room, Original Sin, The Private Patient and A Taste for Death.

Many of my “Cat Who…” constituents here at Girlebooks have been speculating on whether a nonagenarian can still write lucid prose, Lilian Jackson Braun being one of Lady James’ contemporaries. One has only to read Talking about Detective Fiction to find an answer. Ms. James obviously knows what she is talking about and explains her views and concepts in clear and concise paragraphs.

Lady James wrote this thoughtful and informative book at the request of the librarian of Oxford’s Bodelian Library. Talking about Detective Fiction introduces us to the works of Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins along with Agatha Christie, Marjorie Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and, my favorite, Dorothy Sayers. She offers in detail some of the major contributions each writer has made to the genre of detective fiction. Moving on, she covers the contributions of some of Detective fiction’s seminal American writers, such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet who gave us the hardboiled detectives Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade.

Except for Doyle and Collins, most of the writers mentioned in the book published their works during Detective Fiction’s “Golden Age,” meaning the years between the two world wars. I was disappointed to see, however, that in talking about the founders of the Detective novel genre, she made no mention of Anna Katharine Green, whom even Conan Doyle consulted before launching his legendary career. Having read several novels by Doyle, Christie and Sayers, as well as Chandler, I can think of very few detective novels that are as thoughtful, inventive and well-explained as That Affair Next Door, The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow, The Leavenworth Case and A Strange Disappearance. Granted, Mr. Gryce is rather more introspective than Peter Wimsey or Philip Marlowe, and far less flamboyant than Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. The fact that he stays in the shadows, however, gives a chance for the other characters, such as “Q” to be developed.

Perhaps we can forgive Lady James this one slip because her book is well worth reading. Perhaps as an Englishwoman, she was unfamiliar with A. K. Green, having admittedly cut her literary teeth on Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, authors who published many years after Green was popular.

Lady James brought to light several interesting concepts which explain why detective fiction is so popular. It allows the reader to participate in the solution to the crime by guessing “whodunit”. It follows a formula: the murderer must be someone introduced previously in the novel; the killer must be discovered by logical deduction from a closed group of characters; very often it introduces a “Watson.”

A “Watson” is a character, like Dr. Watson in Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” series, whose purpose is to be a sounding board to explain the detective’s deductive reasoning. James describes the “Watson” as being less intelligent than the detective. Perhaps this is so in general, but in this concept she overlooks the “Watson” character Dorothy Sayers’ novels. The Bunter character does evidently play Watson to Peter Wimsey’s “Sherlock”, however, Bunter appears to have the intellectual edge over his lord, although he is smart enough not to flaunt it.


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