Monday, December 21, 2009

Off Topic---Talking Detective Fiction with a Master Writer


Talking About Detective Fiction, P. D. James, 208 pages, illustrations, bibliography, Knopf Publishing, $22.00.

James wrote Talking About Detective Fiction, at the request of the Bodleian Library, one of the great libraries of the world. As a detective fiction writer and reader for over 50 years James is fascinated by the history of detective fiction and in particular English novels and short stories of the inter-world war years when there was a surge of excellent writing. As representative of the best of British detective fiction written before and during the Golden Era, James offers The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham, Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers, and Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare.

In Talking About Detective Fiction James notes that detective fiction came about with the institutionalized of law enforcement in England, France and America in the 1840s. Edgar Allan Poe's four short stories with French policeman August Dupin are credited as being the first detective stories with William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) being an antecedent to Poe's work and Wilkie Collins The Moonstone (1868) being an predecessor. She notes that Charles Dickens, a close friend of Wilkie Collins, wrote true crime stories from interviews with police and that Dickens' Bleak House has several of detective fiction's unique features.

The writings of the Scotsman Arthur Conan Doyle, the Englishmen Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Americans Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are discussed in general by clarifying their individual styles and their talent for creating indelible characters. She examines detective fiction as social history and having distinct stylistic components within itself. James' Talking About Detective Fiction is a fine introduction to the history and elements of detective fiction. Those who are familiar with Otto Penzler's or Julian Symons' works on the history of the genre will find little new here though. Without a doubt, James who is a master creator of story, character and setting does contribute noteworthy remarks regarding other authors' strengths and weaknesses in creating each of these foundation stones upon which any good novel rests.