three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
By: 
P.D. James
user_rating: 
0

A-TalkingDetectiveFictionOver half a century, P. D. James, the grand dame of British detective fiction, has written more than a dozen books featuring her poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, as well as a host of other novels and nonfiction. In Talking About Detective Fiction, James explores the genre’s history, from its Victorian roots to its growing international popularity.

The Story: We "turn for relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge to these unpretentious celebrations of reason and order in our increasingly complex and disorderly world," P. D. James writes of the importance of the detective novel. The author’s overview on the genre, Talking About Detective Fiction, was written at the request of Oxford’s Bodleian Library as a primer for interested readers. James was happy to oblige, drawing on an insider’s perspective to offer her thoughts on the writers and the social contexts that spawned—and perpetuated—the (primarily British) detective novel. James pays homage to such stalwarts as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie, as well as some writers new to the scene who will surely push detective fiction across cultural and geographical boundaries to even greater heights.
Knopf. 198 pages. $22. ISBN: 9780307592828.

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Talking About Detective Fiction reads like a master class on British mysteries, with heavy emphasis on the Golden Age (roughly defined as the years between World Wars I and II). Since there are few living mystery writers more widely respected than James, it’s hard to imagine a better guide." Yvonne Zipp

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"‘Agatha Christie hasn’t in my view had a profound influence on the later development of the detective story,’ Ms. James writes with typical sweeping assurance. … As she catalogs the preferences of other writers who have studied this genre, Ms. James is refreshingly outspoken about her own." Janet Maslin

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"The book is filled with fascinating anecdotes about the genre’s famous and infamous novelists. If you’re trapped in the library with the butler, a body and a candlestick, you’ll have plenty of detective-novel trivia to throw about until the police arrive." Carol Memmott

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Talking About Detective Fiction is a short book, but it has heft, and little wonder, given Lady James’s literary mastery and deep familiarity with her subject. … Her literary sensibility—calm observation and exact description—is on ample display." Albert Pyle

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Talking About Detective Fiction … should not be thought of as definitive, and P. D. James takes great pains to remind the reader not to read too deeply into her choices. … James provides the reader with a no-nonsense, pithy education on the bedrock of the detective novel." Sarah Weinman

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"James argues in her brief, informative survey … that the mystery affords relief and reassurance from life’s duties and fears. … Oh, there may be one or two bitter-seeming sourballs in this wonderfully varied bunch—but let’s allow readers the extra fun of sleuthing those out for themselves." Tom Nolan

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 of 5 Stars
"There are several passages of helpful commentary for would-be crime novelists here, one good reason to read this book. Otherwise, except for James’ observations on the Golden Age, the work is a shallow skimming of the world of detective fiction." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

In Talking About Detective Fiction, P. D. James writes with good-natured authority (and a large dose of humility, given her status in those circles) about the writers who have shaped the detective novel in all its variations. Informative, readable, and a suitable paean to the genre, the book is a good starting point for any detective reader’s wish list. Think of it as a mash-up of a breezy academic treatise and Nancy Pearl’s invaluable Book Lust. Geared toward both casual fans and aficionados, James’s book engages with the author’s depth of knowledge and many informed asides. Particularly interesting are chapters titled "The Golden Age," "Soft-Centered and Hard-Boiled," "Four Formidable Women," and "Today and a Glimpse of Tomorrow." However, don’t expect an exhaustive look at the great detective novelists on both sides of the pond. James dedicates most of her investigation to the great British authors.

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