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Culture Watch

In this issue: P.D. James, in Talking About Detective Fiction, writes "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."  The Museum of Innocence Orhan Pamuk is from the outset a book arranged by artifice. It is the first book I’ve read where the author inserts himself so directly.

Talking About Detective Fiction
by P.D. James
Published by Alfred A. Knopf; ©2009, Hardcover; 196 pp

This latest book by P.D. James is a quick side-jaunt for those of us who wait eagerly for her next mystery novel, but even without murder and mayhem to report, James is well worth the read. Her take on what makes a detective novel a detective novel is fairly traditional, but her close look at the development of the genre will engage mystery lovers no matter their preferences.

Baroness James (yes, she really is a baroness) scrutinizes some of the classics of detective fiction, invoking both authors and their creations. She looks closely at the works from the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, defined loosely as mysteries written between the two World Wars of the twentieth century.

The writers in that group are almost all English (Ngaio Marsh, a New Zealander who lived in England, and Scotsman Michael Innes are the exceptions). She covers Sir Arthur Conan Coyle, G.K.Chesterton, Nicholas Blake (pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis, Daniel’s father), Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, etc., and includes discussions of their most famous fictional creations.

American writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet, whose work — as opposed to the Golden Age group — she calls “hard-boiled,”  are also scrutinized.

Most interesting for the audience of SeniorWomenWeb, perhaps, is James’s close analysis of the works of four formidable women writers: Agatha Christie: Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham. Her analysis of their works includes not only the intricacy of their plots and the creation of their characters, but also the way in which changes in the social order of Britain are reflected in their writing.

Following the discussion of those well-known British writers there is a chapter on “telling the story” in which James focuses on the importance of an author’s choice of setting, point of view, and character development. Any would-be mystery writer or novelist would be well advised to focus on this portion of the book, and make it into a little chant to be recited before he or she sits down to the keyboard.

This reviewer, a lover of detective fiction, found James’s chapter about why some people are aficionados and some are not to be quite delightful. She takes on the critics with zest, and gives insight into why the genre manages to thrive despite the disparaging remarks of intellectuals like Edmund Wilson. She also notes that W.H. Auden referred to his love of detective fiction as “an addiction,” something that many of us can easily understand. Most encouraging to us addicts is her conclusion that:…”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.” 

That fortuitous prediction given, James then launches into her final chapter, titled “Today and a Glimpse of Tomorrow.” This section covers everything from technical developments (longhand/electric typewriter/computer/advances in publishing); to scientific advances like DNA which provide new investigative methods; to movie and television links; to new access to detective fiction from foreign countries (e.g. the Swedish Wallander series); to new avenues of research (she still prefers to do her own). Anent the latter, that there is a nifty little bibliography and list of suggested reading at the end of the book.

This is the year in which P.D. James will turn 90. One can only hope that the celebratory 'whoopee' her publishers are bound to make over that fact won’t distract her from producing the next detective novel.


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