Review: Talking about Detective Fiction

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.

16 thoughts on “Review: Talking about Detective Fiction

  1. I have to admit that the reason why I love Sayers is exactly the characterisation and social commentary rather than the mystery itself 😛 This tends to be true of all the mysteries I enjoy, so I worry that Christie might not be for me. Anyway, I’ve only read Sayers’ Harriet Vane books, which are Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon.

    And I want this book! It sounds like a fascinating analysis of the genre. Plus I’m very curious to hear how Emma could be considered a mystery 😛

    1. Haha, well then I can at least understand your preference for Sayers 😉 I´ll have to try the Harriet Vane books, and when I do, I´ll just think of them has novels with a bit of mystery on the side.

      I hope you´ll enjoy this book, James doesn´t go into much detail, but it´s a good overview 🙂

  2. I’ve heard alot about PD James and I’ve yet to take the plunge. Rather daring to characterize Christies’s work with pasteboard personalities. Interesting to hear how other writers interpret classical mysteries in a larger context of literary work. Another “piece de resistance” review. Bravo Bina!

    1. Thank you! 🙂

      Me too, we should read her together! 🙂

      Yes well, I´m a bit sensitive when it comes to Dame A, too much of a fan 😉 I´m also currently reading The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, which is much more celabratory 😉 But I really never found her characterization wanting.

  3. Lovely review, Bina! It was interesting that James mentions that ‘Emma’ is a detective story! I haven’t read ‘Emma’ and so I think it will be interesting to read ‘Emma’ with this in mind. It was interesting to read about why you haven’t read the Father Brown stories till now. I think that is a good reason 🙂 Also, what does James say about Dorothy Sayers?

    I couldn’t stop laughing when I read this line of yours : “I had already marvelled at Poirot´s abilities to solve a murder without leaving his apartment and Holmes´ crawling around in search of footprints was rather less impressive after that.” 🙂 That is a really good one 🙂

    Does James mention Georges Simenon? If she doesn’t, it is sad, because Simenon was one of the greats in detective fiction and his detective Maigret is quite famous. Simenon was also extremely prolific. One of the problems with ‘history’ books these days is that they are anglo-centric. I have a book on the history of comics and it talks only about American comics – there is no mention of Tin Tin, Asterix, Lucky Luke, Tex Viller, XIII, Spider, Louis Grandel or all the other wonderful comic heroes and heroines that I love – just because these characters first appeared in other languages!

    Does P.D.James mention James Hadley Chase? Chase was one of those writers who wrote pulp fiction, some of which involved detectives or crime, and one of the interesting things that I liked about his books, when I first explored them as a teenager, was that the main characters were always villains or normal people who had committed a crime or were planning to commit a crime and the story was about whether they were able to do it successfully or they get caught in the process or later. In some ways I felt that it was the reverse of a murder mystery – because the details of the person committing the crime is known at the beginning of the book and we race along with the author to find out what happens to the guilty person. I felt that Chase made this into a successful and winning formula and I don’t know any other writer who wrote like this.

    Some of the interesting detectives that I have encountered, who made an appearance in recent times are Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano and Boris Akunin’s Sister Pelagia (probably because of their recent origins, they must be outside the purview of James’ work).

    It is sad that James says that Agatha Christie’s novels had pasteboard characters. Maybe James is jealous of Dame Christie’s popularity 🙂

    On James’ own detective works, I have read one called ‘The Lighthouse’ a few years back for my book club. I liked the fact that her detective, Inspector Adam Dalgleish is a poet 🙂 But, unfortunately, it looked to me that James was past her prime when she wrote this book and the way the mystery gets resolved was quite unsatisfactory. I will have to read one of her early works to appreciate Dalgleish’s talent – both detective and poetic.

    Thanks, once again, for this lovely review Bina 🙂 I will have to read this book soon.

    1. Thanks for your lovely long comment, Vishy! 🙂

      I have to admit that when I tried reading Emma I didn´t really love it that much, but James´ comment has made me want to try again 🙂 Hope we´ll figure out what she meant!

      Oh, she´s really into Sayers´ stuff, the characterization and writing seems to be better. But I have to say that while I liked her writing and social critique, I lost interest in the mystery. Perhaps Sayers´ works are better read as novels (at least if you´re an ardent Christie fan 😉 ).

      Haha, thanks. Poor Holmes, but most people name him first when asked for the name of a famous detective, instead of saying Poirot like me 😉

      She doesn´t actually name any non-anglosaxon detective at all, I think we´ll have to look elehere for that. But I once tried a Maigret and remember liking it, it was very comforting somehow and made me wish I liked red wine 🙂 I think I should try another Maigret book soon! Is there one you would specifically recommend?

      I´ll have to look into Chase and the other ones you named. They sound very interesting!

      Hehe, maybe, Dame A is super popular still! It´s better to read Charles Osborne´s work on Agatha Christie, he sounds like a fan, too 🙂

      Dalgleish sounds like an interesting detective, I really want to try one of her mysteries now. We should do a read-along if we can agree on one work! 🙂

      1. I haven’t read any Sayers’ book recently. I am tempted to try one out and read it from this perspective.

        It is sad that James doesn’t talk about non-anglo-saxon detectives in her book – but I think it is difficult to write a history of detective fiction from across the world in a slim volume. Glad to know that you have liked Maigret books when you read them. Simenon has written quite a number of them. Let me think a bit and suggest some to you.

        Chase is quite a popular writer in my place, but frequently his work is qualified as pulp fiction and so they probably don’t come near the top of the literary pyramid. Some of his books that are my favourites are ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’ (his most famous one), ‘Hit and Run’, ‘You have this one on me’ and ‘Knock, Knock who is there’.

        It will be fun to do a read-along of P.D.James’ work featuring Inspector Adam Dalgleish 🙂

  4. I am not normally a crime ficiton reader but I have been reading a lot more crime and mystery than usual lately. I have heard good reviews about this one, but I think I will leave it unti I have a broader experience of crime fiction. I haven’t read any of PD James’s novels, but I have 2 at home that I hope to read soon

    1. Sounds like the genre is growing on you! 🙂 There are so many different styles of crime fiction, perhaps you´ll find one that´ll make you a fan.

  5. Fantastic review, and on such an interesting topic. I read Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James and was sorely disappointed, but Talking About Detective Fiction sounds much better based off of your review. I am also quite confused about her comments on Christie’s characterization… I keep thinking back to An Appointment with Death, where the characters are so captivating that they drive the story.

    1. Thanks so much! I only saw the movie and thought it was okay, but I’ve never really gotten into her mysteries. I guess Christie’s characters are fairly static but she does capture them so well, I can always picture them exactly based off her description. But otherwise James’ primer in detective fiction is a good overview.

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