Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James #NovNov22

Week 3 in Novellas in November is Short Nonfiction.

Faber & Faber| 2010| 160 pages| Paperback|My Own Copy| 4*

From the birth of crime writing with Wilkie Collins and Dostoevsky, through Conan Doyle to the golden age of crime, with the rise of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, P. D. James brings a lifetime of reading and writing crime fiction to bear on this personal history of the genre. There are chapters on great American crime writers – the likes of Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. James also discusses many of her favourite famous detectives, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe.

P.D. James, the bestselling author of Death Comes to Pemberley, Children of Men and The Murder Room, presents a brief history of detective fiction and explores the literary techniques behind history’s best crime writing.

I do like reading books about books and as crime fiction is one of my favourite genres I wanted to read Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James. In December 2006 she was asked to write the book by the Bodleian Publishing House, in aid of the Library. It’s a personal account and being a short book doesn’t go into much detail about any of the writers. It’s an overview of mostly British authors, with just one chapter, entitled Soft-centred and Hard-boiled in which she writes about the differences between the hard-boiled school of American fiction and some of the Golden Age writers.

I’m familiar with the work of most of the authors in this book, but there are some James mentions I haven’t read, such as Dashiell Hammett, who wrote short stories featuring the Continental Op and Sam Spade, who also appears in one full-length novel, The Maltese Falcon. James’ favourite of the hard-boiled writers was Kenneth Millar, who wrote under the pseudonym of Ross Macdonald, novels featuring private detective Lew Archer. But she didn’t give the details of any of his books.

The structure of the book is rather loose and meandering. Although it is divided into eight chapters, the works of some, such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers appear in several chapters spread across the book as a whole. The book needs an index to draw the separate entries together! I think the parts I enjoyed the most are those in which James writes about her own methods of working, and the chapter on Telling the Story: Setting, Viewpoint and People.

There is a short bibliography and list of suggested reading at the end of the book. Throughout the book there are several cartoons, which add an amusing touch.

Finally, you need to be aware if you haven’t read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that without any warning, she gives away not just a little spoiler, but the identity of the murderer! I was amazed!

5 thoughts on “Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James #NovNov22

  1. Well, James certainly did know the genre, so her insights are fascinating. And that perspective – as both a reader and a writer of crime fiction – is also really interesting, isn’t it, Margaret? But about that spoiler….

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