It´s crime time again on this blog! Apologies to all of you who are not fans of the genre, I do occasionally read and review other books 😉 Since this book is called Talking about Detective Fiction, I´ll just add my (very subjective) two cents.
Famous crime writer P.D. James has written a small volume on detective fiction. In eight essays she looks at the begginnings of detective fiction, the four queens of crime, the differences between British and American detective fiction, the Golden Age, and the way the genre has evolved since then.
Beginning at the beginning, James credits Wilkie Collins´ The Moonstone as the first real example of detective fiction, tells us that Austen´s Emma is in fact a detective story, and also mentions Bleak House and E. A. Poe´s C. Auguste Dupin stories. She grants the obligatory chapter to Sherlock Homes, and examines the Watson figure, which has been emulated by Agatha Christie with Poirot´s ami Hastings. I think I haven´t read more than two Sherlock Holmes stories, and it´s probably more usual to start off with this great detective and then go on to read the queen of crime, but for me it was the other way around. I had already marvelled at Poirot´s abilities to solve a murder without leaving his appartment and Holmes´ crawling around in search of footprints was rather less impressive after that.
James also looks at G.K. Chesterton and his Father Brown, another influential detective I haven´t read yet. There are these rather sacrilegious German film adaptations, starring Heinz Rühmann. The films present Pater Brown as a mischievous detective who only wants to help his flock but is always, not so reluctantly, drawn into situations that require his detective skills. The bishop is rather less than impressed with his infamous pater, and transfers him to more and more remote places, to the eternal regret of the long-suffering housekeeper. But crime always finds Pater Brown. The films were made during a time when English books were made into films here in Germany and everything was kept English (the setting, the names, etc) except for the language, with, to me, hilarious results. It´s just so fun to hear the actors brutalize English names while pretending to be English. But I´ve grown up with these films, and can remember countless cosy Sunday afternoons spent watching them with my mum. Which is a complicated way to explain that I never dared read the Father Brown books because of how attached I am to the ridiculous films.
James for the most part talks about British detective fiction, but in one essay she goes into the different directions detective fiction took in the UK and the United States. While cosy crime reigned surpreme in the UK, in the U.S. the genre was rather more violent and evolved into hardboiled detective fiction of the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I´ve always been more partial to the British variety, but can highly recommend The Big Sleep, which does not only have a great mystery but is also beautifully written.
The to me most interesting parts of this book were the essays on Golden Age detective fiction and the four queens of crime. James explains how it is possible for crime fiction to be cosy while also dealing with murder. This paradox is possible because of the pattern of creating order out of chaos which is at the base of the classic mysteries, and as such it comes as no surprise that the years between the wars formed the Golden Age. In these classical mysteries, the murderer is removed from society (hanged in those times, of course), order is restored, and social healing can begin. Add to that that these murders are rarely very brutal or explained in detail, and the classic formula which promises fair-play of the author and a puzzle to the reader, and there you have the explanation why detective fiction is an escapist genre, and people enjoy these books with a hot cup of the on the couch.
The only thing that spoilt my fun a bit was that whenever P.D. James mentioned Christie, backhanded compliments were involved. Agatha Christie apparently wasn´t innovative enough and filled her works with pasteboard characters. The critique of Christie´s characterization is something I´ve only recently become aware of. True, when I read her mysteries I was only a teenager, but I never once felt that her characters were pasteboard. Instead, I remember being awed that it took her only one sentence to make a character come alive. Her characterization never interefered with her plotting, is that what people are criticizing? Perhaps then I can begin to understand what people are talking about, although this is exactly why she was such a great mystery writer. I suppose it comes down to what you want more in a detective book, mystery or characterization. I don´t want more emphasis on the characters, because in that case I´ll just read a novel, not a mystery. The crime writer to turn to for more characterization and social criticism seems to be Sayers. I´ve only read two or three by her and from what I understand they weren´t her best, so I´ll make sure to read others before giving up on her. Because I loved her writing style and would have been perfectly satisfied if the books had been novels, but as mysteries, they didn´t do much for me. So, what´s her best? Murder Must Advertise? Then there are the other two Golden Age ladies who seem to be lesser known, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. I tried reading Sweet Danger by Allingham but that seems to have been more of an adventure story than a mystery, so I want to try a later work of her. Any suggestions? Sadly there are hardly any Ngaio Marsh works in my library.
I still think Talking about Detective Fiction is a wonderful work, it gives a good overview of the genre, and I can recommend it to fans of the genre as well as to those who are new to it. And there are wonderful cartoons in it! 🙂 I´ve also resolved to finally read a mystery by P.D. James herself, and try some of the detective stories and nonfiction works she mentions here.
This book also counts towards the 2010 Bibliophilic Books Challenge.