What P. D. James Talks About When She Talks About Detective Fiction*

pdjamestalkingaboutI finally picked up P. D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction, which I’ve been mildly interested in reading ever since it came out in 2009. I say ‘mildly’ because I’ve read all of James’s novels (some of them multiple times) as well as her autobiography and numerous interviews with her, not to mention essays, critical articles, and reviews about her work. I’ve also read quite a bit of historical and critical material on detective fiction more generally. So I didn’t expect any revelations from this little volume.

And there really aren’t any, although (because after all, James is both sharp and experienced!) her potted history of the genre is enriched by some interesting digressions on issues or writers of particular interest to her. She opens with a disclaimer — that she has “no wish to add to, and less to emulate, the many distinguished studies of the last two centuries,” aiming only at a “short personal account.” I actually wished her account had been more personal, as the survey material was so very familiar to me, whereas her commentary on, say, Ngaio Marsh, was more idiosyncratic and thus more thought-provoking:

Reading the best of Ngaio Marsh, I feel that there was always a dichotomy between her talent and the genre she chose. So why did she pursue it with such regularity, producing thirty-two novels in forty-eight years? . . . Marsh was a deeply reserved, indeed in some respects a private person, and she may well have felt that to extend the scope of her talent would be to betray aspects of her personality which she profoundly wished to remain secret.

 Her chapter on “four formidable women” of the Golden Age was in fact one of the most interesting parts of the book for me, along with her remark – made quite in passing – that if she’d begun her own series today “it is likely that I would choose a woman [detective]” as the main character. I find James somewhat evasive (here and elsewhere) on the gender politics of crime fiction. She says very little here about the woman detective she did create, Cordelia Gray (I think the only explicit reference to An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is in her discussion of setting), but I think it is widely agreed that in the second Cordelia Gray book she backed away from the feminist potential of the first, making Cordelia a much more conventional character and also much less effectual as an investigator. In the context of Kate Miskin, James has talked about the Met being a “very masculine organization,” though, and about the different experience women have of policing than men. In her chapter on the “four formidable women,” she emphasizes their work as “social history,” but also what they tell us of “the status of women in the years between the wars.” Then about Sara Paretsky (whom she calls “the most remarkable of the moderns”) she says,

No other female crime writer has so powerfully and effectively combined a well-crafted detective story with the novel of social realism and protest.

To me, James seems tempted towards a more explicitly feminist approach, but her Dalgleish novels, rich as they are as examples of social (and especially moral) exploration, have no air of “social protest.” It’s fun to imagine what kind of books — what kind of female protagonist — she would have given us if she had, as she imagines, started writing today!

But Talking About Detective Fiction is not the place to look for sustained analysis of either feminism and detection in general or of gender issues in James’s novels — or, indeed, of any aspect of detective fiction. Overall, the book is just an amiably brisk tour of the genre, and not even a very thorough one, as it spends a lot of its time on Golden Age figures, a bit on the hard-boiled turn, but none explicitly on, say, the police procedural (the subgenre to which most of James’s own novels belong). The discussion of recent developments in the genre has a haphazard quality because James draws her examples only from the writers she happens to have read –she makes the disarmingly honest comment that “new novels are being reviewed with respect, many of them by names unfamiliar to me.”

Still, if you didn’t know anything about detective fiction beyond the examples you yourself happened to have read, this would be a fine place to start, and it would give you lots of leads to follow up for further reading. (She completely convinced me that one Father Brown story is not enough.) And I admit that the absence of surprises or revelations was actually reassuring for me: it means I’m probably doing a decent job sorting things out for my Mystery & Detective Fiction class. As it happens, it turns out I’ve actually been using an excerpt from the book as the epigraph for my syllabus for many years — because I transcribed it from a lecture James gave in 1995 at the Smithsonian (once available online):

In his book Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster writes,

‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. . . . ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development.

To that I would add, ‘Everyone thought that the queen had died of grief until they discovered the puncture mark in her throat.’ That is a murder mystery, and it too is capable of high development.

*I feel as if I should apologize for reworking this tired titling trope. That the book really is called Talking About Detective Fiction made the temptation irresistible, but I promise not to do it again. Twice is enough! And, as my penance for being so unimaginative, I also promise never to title a post with any variation on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” meme either — fair enough?

2 thoughts on “What P. D. James Talks About When She Talks About Detective Fiction*

  1. Elizabeth December 1, 2014 / 2:48 am

    This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. (REVISION 11/30/14: The number is much higher. Going back over the work a second and third time I see I missed a lot in my initial sweep.) I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 1, 2014 / 11:54 am

      I don’t quite see the connection between this post and your comment, but it’s interesting that you find Macdonald’s language so metaphorical – that’s certainly true of Chandler as well. I wouldn’t see the number of similes as important in itself, since a hack writer can ladle out bad ones more easily than a good writer can come up with memorable ones. I haven’t read Macdonald, but with Chandler I can sometimes feel he lays it on too thick.


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