Friday, January 29, 2010

Talking about Detective Fiction

Steve gave me Talking about Detective Fiction by P.D. James for Christmas. It's a small book, but packed with information about a form of fiction at which Mrs. James excels.

She writes:

"So what exactly are we talking about when we use the words 'detective story,' and how does it differ from both the mainstream novel and crime fiction, and how did it all begin?...

"Although the detective story at its highest can also operate on the dangerous edge of things, it is differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organised (sic) structure and recognised (sic) conventions. What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motive, means, and opportunity for the crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it; and, by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness."

According to Mrs. James, detective fiction began either in1794 with the publication of Caleb Williams by William Godwin, or in 1868, when Wilkie Collins's novel, The Moonstone, was published.

My favorite part of the book was the chapter on the Golden Age of British detective fiction - the period between World War I and World War II. I loved reading about writers with whom I was familiar (Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, etc.), but I was very happy to discover other writers unfamiliar to me (Edmund Crispin and Cyril Hare).

She also covered American detective fiction, and her description and analysis of it made me realize why I don't enjoy the stories of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler much - I'm not a fan of the hard-boiled, hard-talking, hard-living detective.

Another great chapter is the one titled "Four Formidable Women." In this chapter the fiction of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh - four of my favorites - are compared.

This book was a good analysis of detective fiction - and it contained a very nice list of authors whose books I'll try to find. (From my 2010 reading list.)

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Anonymous Phyllis said...

Thanks for the review! This book is on my list of books to read this year. I'm glad to hear it's a small one! I'm in the middle of P.D. James' autobiography, and as much as I'm enjoying it, it's long...

4:12 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I loved her autobiography and should probably find a copy to buy so I can reread it!

I think you'll enjoy this book by her. She really is a master of the genre, but so humble.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Becky said...

It is on my list of books to read now too- but first I am going to finish, "They Never Die Quietly" by
D. M. Annechino, which if you haven't done so already, you really should- is also a must read for most (however not for the faint of heart). If you liked Silence of the Lambs, you will love it. Thanks again for the book suggestion. I am really looking forward to reading it.

12:35 AM  
Blogger Becky said...

I meant to say that if you haven't read the book already you should... that sentence didn't make sense (oops :) )

10:13 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I understood what you meant, Becky ;)

10:22 AM  

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