Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Review: Talking About Detective Fiction

Author: P.D. James
Format: hardback 196 pages
Subject: writing crime fiction
Genre: non-fiction
Source: public library

A short, readable treatise on the history, structure, and importance of detective fiction written by one of the genre's best practitioners. P.D. James, at the age of 90 has more than a few decades of successful crime writing to her credit. In this easy to understand book she reviews what works and why, features the best of the Golden Age of detective fiction --defined as between the two world wars-- and goes on to opine about where the genre is heading in the future.

She gives us quotes from other critics and writers; she explains how she develops her stories; she offers her thoughts on which is more important-setting, plot, or characters. There is a delightful chapter about four of the women who were the stars of the Golden Age-Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

In explaining why this is such an important form of the novel, she writes:
The classical detective story is the most paradoxical of the popular literary forms. The story has at its heart the crime of murder, often in its most horrific and violent form, yet we read the novels primarily for entertainment, a comforting even cozy relief from the anxieties, problems and irritations of everyday life. (pg. 175)
 She certainly validated my love of the genre when she ended by saying:
Our planet has always been a dangerous, violent and mysterious habitation for humankind and we all are adept at creating those pleasures and comforts, large and small, sometimes dangerous and destructive, which offer at least temporary relief from the inevitable tensions and anxieties of contemporary life.  A love of detective fiction is certainly among the least harmful.  We do not expect popular literature to be great literature, but fiction which provides excitement, mystery and humour also ministers to essential human needs. (pg. 195)

Well worth reading for any lover of crime or detective fiction.


  1. this one has been on my wish list for awhile and I am glad to see that you liked it.

    I am hoping Ms. James can explain to me why I love to read about murder and mayhem.

  2. Who else but P.D. James to write such a book? She is the master of the genre and yet so much more.


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