PD James and Mysteries

Talking About Detective Fiction     PD James      (2009)

PD James, the esteemed British author of detective fiction, put together this slender nonfiction book in 2009, a few years before her death in 2014.

In it, she sweeps through the history of the genre, going back as far as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859); taking her time with Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930); explaining the Golden Age of detective fiction in the period between the two world wars; and devoting a long chapter to four women writers of the twentieth century (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh). James then dissects the writing process for detective fiction, examining settings, viewpoints, characters, and plots.

At the outset, she spends some time defining her subject:

“The detective story . . . is differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organized structure and recognized conventions . . . 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.” (9-10)

James does touch on related fiction, including thrillers, but her emphasis is on the classic works of detective fiction. She knows this subject intimately, having produced fourteen books in the Adam Dalgliesh series, two books in the Cordelia Gray series, and several standalone novels.

How does an author write a detective novel that becomes a classic? James thinks it’s primarily by creating a vivid and distinctive world that the reader can enter. Here she  comments on what are called “cozy” mysteries, set in an English village:

“Detective novelists have always been fond of setting their stories in a closed society, and this has a number of obvious advantages . . . An English village is itself a closed society, and one which, whether we live in a village or not, retains a powerful hold on our imagination, an image compounded of nostalgia for a life once experienced or imagined and a vague unfocused longing to escape the city for a simpler, less frenetic and more peaceful life.” (135-136)

I was pleased that, more than once in this book, James mentions what she calls “the fair-play rule.” This is the convention of detective fiction that the author cannot ever let the detective in the story know more about the mystery than the reader knows. For example, the author cannot have the detective step aside and speak privately with another character in a dialogue that is not revealed to the reader. Authors break the fair-play rule more often than you’d expect, and I growl whenever I see this transgression in a mystery that I’m reading.

Talking About Detective Fiction reads like you’re having a conversation with PD James, but you have the advantage of being able to flip to a discussion of a favorite author—for me, the section on Dorothy L Sayers. James presents the views of Sayers’s admirers and detractors, but she respects Sayers’s Gaudy Night as “one of the most successful marriages of the puzzle with the novel of social realism and serious purpose.” (112)

I was also eager to read James’s analysis of historical detective fiction. She finds this subgenre especially difficult for the writer, since the setting must be so carefully researched. She mentions among the successful authors of historical fiction Anne Perry and Peter Lovesey (Victorian England), Ellis Peters (medieval England), Lindsey Davis (ancient Rome), and CJ Sansom (Tudor England). Although I call the subgenre “historical mysteries,” I agree with her picks.

I wished for an index to Talking About Detective Fiction, but at least it does have descriptive chapter titles. Lovers of mysteries, especially classic British mysteries, will enjoy it.