I devoured P.D. James’ new book about detective stories with a great deal of enthusiasm, as well as interest. Talking About Detective Fiction is a short book, and naturally, therefore, it cannot compare with some of the much more detailed studies of the genre (my favourite remains Julian Symons’ masterly Bloody Murder, and I was pleased to see that Symons is mentioned more than once by James.) But it is a pleasure to read.
With books of this kind, much critical attention often focuses on the boundaries that the author chooses to draw. Whereas Symons tried to show that the detective story had transformed into the crime novel, James differentiates the detective story both from ‘mainstream fiction and the generality of crime novels’. The difference, she argues, is that detective stories have ‘a highly organised structure and recognised conventions.’ The trouble with generalised dividing lines, of course, is that one can always come up with exceptions to the general rule. But this doesn’t really matter. James, like Symons, offers an assessment of our favourite genre that is articulate and appealing.
This is a highly personal book, and I found James’ references to her own work illuminating. She emphasises, of course, her fascination with settings for murder and explains how, in Original Sin, she tried to ensure that the River Thames exerted ‘a unifying and dominant influence on both the characters and the plot.’
Whenever I have heard James speak, I have been struck by her very agreeable wit – something which is not as evident in her novels, which can be rather bleak in mood. For instance, I liked her comment here about Baroness Orczy’s detective Lady Molly, who has the blokes at Scotland Yard swooning as she hunts for the truth about the murder for which her husband was wrongly convicted: ‘I suspect that Lady Molly’s husband was in no hurry to be liberated from Dartmoor Prison.’ Quite.