P.D. James: Talking About Detective Fiction

This slim volume can easily be read in an evening, and for any lover of traditional detective fiction, it is practically a must. Not only for insights that James provides into the origins of detective fiction, but the insights it provides into James herself as a working writer, one whose intellect, at age 90 plus, is far from dimmed. In one of the early chapters, discussing the author G.K. Chesterton, she quotes the author of the Father Brown books as saying: “the only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will.” She goes on to say (and this is really no surprise to any devoted fan of James) that this is her own personal credo as a writer.

While she delves as far back as Poe and Collins, and cites Kate Summerscale’s recent The Talented Mr. Whicher as an illustration of the fusion of a real life detective and crime with detective fiction, her real interest, unsurprisingly as well, is centered on the Golden Age writers who are her true ancestresses—Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and my own personal favorite, Ngaio Marsh. Agatha, for all her popularity and acclaim, is the one who gives her the most pause. Her respect for “Mrs. Christie” as James refers to her in the text, is genuine, but she still cites her characters as pasteboard, her plots as sometimes ridiculous, and yet James herself can’t help but admire Mrs. Christie’s ingenuity. When she writes about Agatha, it’s almost like she’s worrying away at a bone that particularly troubles her.

The nuance she finds in Sayers, Allingham, and Marsh is more to her taste, and in Marsh she sees the most gifted novelist fighting to get out from under the traditional genre restrictions. The affection she feels for all four women is undisguised, as is her love of detective fiction in general. She almost modestly relates how she herself forms her plots, and how she came up with the idea for her classic character of Adam Dalgleish. A brisk read, the book is full of flashes of insight, the most profound of which may be that in an unsettled society (as the Golden Age ladies were writing about between the World Wars) the reliability and comfort of detective fiction, with it’s tying up of lose ends, is beyond satisfying. It’s almost essential.

She also makes a case for the detective story as literature, one which for anyone who has read Ms. James’ A Taste for Death or Devices and Desires, probably doesn’t need to be made. The real thread in her book is how the detective story has grown into the detective novel, with a real love on her part of the past authors on whose work contemporary writers stand. While she cites authors as recent as Henning Mankell and Ian Rankin, her real look is a backward one. It’s also a breath of fresh air that may illuminate your own reading.