As the Nazis dropped bombs onto London in the summer of 1944, P.D. James—pregnant with her second child—retreated to her friend’s basement and read Jane Austen. The world was at war, but for a few moments James found a “blessed atmosphere of sanity and peace” in the pages of a book.
Literature, at its simplest, offers an escape from reality, a distraction from our present troubles, a glimpse of better possibilities. We often turn to fiction when life becomes unpleasant, overwhelming, or incomprehensible, for we find in imagined worlds what is missing in the real one. Detective fiction—a genre that James mastered in her acclaimed career as a writer—offers a particularly satisfying escape for many readers. As she writes in Talking About Detective Fiction, “It confirms our hope that, despite some evidence to the contrary, we live in a beneficent and moral universe in which problems can be solved by rational means and peace and order restored from communal or personal disruption and chaos.”
Talking About Detective Fiction begins with an inquiry into the origins of the detective story. James asks (and articulately answers) a few essential questions: What is a detective story? How does it differ from other fiction? How and when did it arise as a genre? She is mainly concerned with the British tradition of detective fiction that was established by Arthur Conan Doyle and taken to a pinnacle during the “Golden Age” between the two World Wars. Her definition of this kind of detective fiction, though somewhat restrictive, is useful for the purposes of this book:
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.
James then proceeds to review some of the more important authors, books, and characters of the genre. Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton are given affectionate portrayals, as are their respective detectives, Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers are discussed at length, and the work of Josephine Tey is given an interesting appraisal. But James knows that there is more to detective fiction than one finds in these favorites, and she gives significant attention to lesser-known and forgotten authors: Michael Innes, Ronald Knox, and Gladys Mitchell, to name a few. “The writers of the Golden Age attracted to this fascinating form were as varied as their talents,” she writes. “It must at times have seemed as if everyone who could put together a coherent narrative was compelled to have a go at this challenging and lucrative craft.” Fortunately for the reader, James is an expert guide through this crowded terrain.
Many readers will be pleased to find a chapter devoted to American crime fiction, with a particular focus on the work of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Sara Paretsky. “Although this book is primarily about British detective novelists,” James writes, “the commonly described hard-boiled school of American fiction, rooted in a different continent and in a different literary tradition, has made such an important contribution to crime writing that to ignore its achievements would be seriously misleading.”
Here she also discusses the assumptions, beliefs, and prejudices that can lie beneath the surface of a text and tell us important details about the time and place in which it was written. In this way, novels reach beyond the bounds of fiction and serve as historical documents. James explores this idea further in a chapter on four female writers from the Golden Age: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. “To read the detective novels of these four women,” she writes, “is to learn more about the England in which they lived and worked than most popular social histories can provide, and in particular about the status of women in the years between the wars.” With this remarkable claim, James gives readers who look down on detective fiction a good reason to reconsider their stance.
Throughout most of this book, James is reluctant to discuss details of her own fiction. In the sixth chapter, however, she turns away from literary history to examine the craft of writing, and here she cannot avoid talking about herself. She focuses on three elements in particular: setting, viewpoint, and characters, with setting receiving the lengthiest consideration, for as a novelist James drew great inspiration from places. The success of a novel, she suggests, is often dependent upon the portrayal of the place in which it is set. “If we believe in the place,” she writes, “we can believe in the characters.”
Aspiring writers of detective stories will find this chapter especially informative, and fans of James’s novels will be delighted by certain items of trivia. (Did you know, for instance, that her beloved detective, Adam Dalgliesh, was named after her high school English teacher?) But there is also plenty here for the reader with “higher” tastes, for James is appreciative of—and influenced by—a literary tradition that extends beyond the genre of detective fiction. Frequent references to Auden, Trollope, Forster, Hardy, and Austen add a complexity that the average reader of detective stories might not expect to find.
As one can see from the preceding list of authors, there is a British bias to this book. James is aware of this bias, and not unduly blinded by it, but it does lead to a few disappointing oversights. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, is discussed somewhat perfunctorily. James downplays his role as the inventor of the detective story, choosing instead to focus almost exclusively on Arthur Conan Doyle. (Conan Doyle would have condemned this decision: Poe, he wrote, “was father of the detective tale, and covered its limits so completely I fail to see how his followers can find ground to call their own.”) Georges Simenon is acknowledged only in passing, and his famous detective is not even named. (It is strange, I think, to write a book about detective fiction and not once mention Maigret.) But these oversights are inconsequential compared to the general success of the book, and it would be misleading of me to dwell on them at length.
In a 1986 essay in the New York Times, the critic and novelist Julian Symons described James’s “utter lack of affectation and pretension” and “the way she radiates good nature and pleasure in whatever she is doing.” These qualities are apparent on every page of Talking About Detective Fiction, where they are carried along by graceful and intelligent prose. With the elegance and clarity that readers have grown accustomed to in her novels, James acts as literary historian, critic, biographer, and expert on the craft of writing. Additionally, Talking About Detective Fiction is a wonderful source of recommendations for further reading. It is a book that every enthusiast of the genre should have on her shelf.
A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Millions, and Full Stop.