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Talking About Detective Fiction

Cover of Talking About Detective Fiction

Talking About Detective Fiction

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In a perfect marriage of author and subject, P. D. James--one of the most widely admired writers of detective fiction at work today--gives us a personal, lively, illuminating exploration of the human...More
In a perfect marriage of author and subject, P. D. James--one of the most widely admired writers of detective fiction at work today--gives us a personal, lively, illuminating exploration of the human...More
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  • In a perfect marriage of author and subject, P. D. James--one of the most widely admired writers of detective fiction at work today--gives us a personal, lively, illuminating exploration of the human appetite for mystery and mayhem, and of those writers who have satisfied it.

    P. D. James examines the genre from top to bottom, beginning with the mysteries at the hearts of such novels as Charles Dickens's Bleak House and Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, and bringing us into the present with such writers as Colin Dexter and Henning Mankell. Along the way she writes about Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie ("arch-breaker of rules"), Josephine Tey, Dashiell Hammett, and Peter Lovesey, among many others. She traces their lives into and out of their fiction, clarifies their individual styles, and gives us indelible portraits of the characters they've created, from Sherlock Holmes to Sara Paretsky's sexually liberated female investigator, V. I. Warshawski. She compares British and American Golden Age mystery writing. She discusses detective fiction as social history, the stylistic components of the genre, her own process of writing, how critics have reacted over the years, and what she sees as a renewal of detective fiction--and of the detective hero--in recent years.

    There is perhaps no one who could write about this enduring genre of storytelling with equal authority and flair: it is essential reading for every lover of detective fiction.

    From the Hardcover edition.

 
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  • From the book

    ForewardThis book had its beginnings in December 2006, when, at the request of the Bodleian's Publishing Department, the then Librarian invited me to write a book on British detective fiction in aid of the Library. As a native of Oxford I had known from early childhood that the Bodleian Library is one of the oldest and most distinguished in the world, and I replied that I was very happy to accept the invitation but must finish the novel on which I was then working. The book which I was privileged to write now makes its somewhat belated appearance. I was relieved that the subject proposed was one of the few on which I felt competent to pontificate, but I hope that the many references to my own methods of working won't be seen as hubris; they are an attempt to answer some of the questions most frequently asked by my readers and are unlikely to be new to audiences who have heard me speaking about my work over the years--nor, of course, to my fellow crime-writers.

    Because of its resilience and popularity, detective fiction has attracted what some may feel is more than its fair share of critical attention, and I have no wish to add to, and less to emulate, the many distinguished studies of the last two centuries. Inevitably there wil be some notable omissions, for which I apologise, but my hope is that this short personal account will interest and enterntain not only my readers, but the many who share our pleasure in a form of popular literature which for over fifty years has fascinated and engaged me as a writer.

    Chapter 1: What Are We Talking About and How Did It All Begin?

    "Death in particular seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject."--Dorothy L. Sayers

    These words were written by Dorothy L. Sayers in her preface to a volume entitled Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror, Third Series, published by Gollancz in 1934. She was, of course, talking not of the devastating amalgamation of hatred, violence, tragedy and grief which is real-life murder, but of the ingenious and increasingly popular stories of mystery and detection of which, by that time, she herself was an established and highly regarded writer. And to judge by the worldwide success of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie's Poirot, it is not only the Anglo-Saxons who have an appetite for mystery and mayhem. It seems that this vicarious enjoyment in "murder considered as a fine art," to quote Thomas De Quincey, makes the whole world kin.

    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.

    Novels which enshrine a mystery, often involving a crime, and which provide the satisfaction of an ultimate solution are, of course, common in the canon of English literature, and most would never be thought of in terms of detective fiction. Anthony Trollope, who, like his friend Dickens, was fascinated by the criminal underworld and the exploits of the newly formed detective force, frequently teases us in his novels with a central mystery. Did Lady Eustace steal the family diamonds, and if not, who did? Did Lady Mason forge the codicil to her...

About the Author-
  • P. D. James is the author of twenty previous books, most of which have been filmed and broadcast on television in the United States and other countries. She spent thirty years in various departments of the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Law Departments of Great Britain's Home Office. She has served as a magistrate and as a governor of the BBC. In 2000 she celebrated her eightieth birthday and published her autobiography, Time to Be in Earnest. The recipient of many prizes and honors, she was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991 and was inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame in 2008. She lives in London and Oxford.

Reviews-
  • USA Today

    "Talking About Detective Fiction is fascinating. It's as rich in characters and literary detail as the novels that have made P. D. James famous . . . Her writing shows a vast knowledge and abiding love for the genre she describes."

  • Wall Street Journal "Talking About Detective Fiction is a short book, but it has heft, and little wonder, given Lady James's literary mastery and deep familiarity with her subject . . . Her literary sensibility--calm observation and exact description--is on ample display here . . . [Detective fiction] is a realm she mastered and over which she graciously reigns."
  • Boston Globe "P. D. James is the undisputed grande dame of the modern mystery . . . She presents an energetic, insightful, and often witty history of the genre."
  • New York Times Book Review "Slim as it is, P. D. James's Talking About Detective Fiction has biblical heft. Like her own novels, the style is clean, thoughtful and full of grace. In expounding her ideas on how detective fiction works, James makes fearless reference to everyone from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh . . . Incisive."
  • Christian Science Monitor "Talking About Detective Fiction reads like a master class on British mysteries . . . It's hard to imagine a better guide . . . Fans of Baroness James's novels will be rewarded by plenty of insights into how she approaches her chosen profession, as well as some intelligent and well-read discussion of a genre that has perhaps never been more popular."
  • New York Times "An avid book-length essay on the roots, ethics and methods of the detective story . . . James's opinions are often surprising and determinedly contrary . . . Refreshingly outspoken."
  • Independent (London) "Anyone who is interested in P. D. James's own fiction will want to read this, but it stands in its own right as a deeper, more thoughtful enquiry into what it is we get out of detective fiction . . . If you want to extend your own reading, discover new authors, or clarify your thoughts, this is an excellent way to do so . . . Elegant and thoughtful."
  • Booklist "It's like sitting across from P. D. James over tea, and that, naturally, is a delight."
  • Publishers Weekly "For crime fiction fans, this master class from one of the leading practitioners of the art will be a real treat."
  • The Times (London) "An amiable, personal appreciation of the genre by someone who has been one of its most accomplished and popular exponents."
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