Nearing her ninetieth birthday, modern-day "Crime Queen" P. D. James has published Talking About Detective Fiction (Bodleian Library, 2009), a book of her thoughts on the genre in which she has written for nearly half a century. It’s quite a short book–a small, thin, highly selective volume of 160 pages with no footnotes or endnotes–and some sentences in it appear to have been lifted from earlier critical pieces published by James. Nonetheless, critical observations from a writer of James’ caliber are always worth reading. I recommend Talking About Detective Fiction to people interested in the fascinating history and nature of the detective fiction genre.
Of the book’s eight chapters, two concern the genre before the Golden Age of detective fiction (this "Golden Age" is generally given the years 1920 to 1940), one is about the Golden Age itself, one about the American "hardboiled" private detective subgenre associated with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, one about the British Golden Age Crime Queens (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh) and three deal with, respectively, the design of the detective story, its appeal (and lack of it to some people), and its future.
The bulk of the book addresses the British Golden Age, with greatest emphasis being laid on the celebrated Crime Queens of that time, who are still popular today. The Crime Queens get a chapter that constitutes about 17 percent of the book, and references to them appear throughout its pages. Not surprisingly, six of the seventeen works consulted by James for Talking About Detective Fiction concern specific Crime Queens.
People familiar with James’ interviews and critical writings will know that she has had a tendency over the years to be somewhat dismissive of Agatha Christie in relation to Christie’s sister Crime Queens. This tendency can again be glimpsed in James’ new book. Although James lists as a source Laura Thompson’s 2007 biography of Christie, Thompson’s forcefully argued thesis that Christie should be taken more seriously as a crime novelist (as opposed to a "mere" puzzle-maker) makes little headway here with James.
James asserts, for example, that her illustrious predecessor "employs no great psychological subtlety in her characterizations" and that "the last thing we get from a Christie novel is the disturbing presence of evil." This is the usual line popular critics have taken on Christie’s work, conflicting with evidence provided by Thompson in her recent biography and by John Curran in his just-published book on Christie’s writer’s notebooks.
In my view it is beyond doubt that there was a shift in emphasis and tone evidenced in Christie’s books beginning in the late thirties, with several taking on features commonly associated today with what is called the crime novel (as opposed to the mystery novel). There is very much a sense of evil–sin, I would say–in Endless Night (1967), for example, or And Then There Were None (1939), books as bleak as any penned by James. There also is more complex characterization in Sad Cypress (1940), say, or Five Little Pigs (1942) or The Hollow (1946) than Christie is typically given credit for.
Many academic scholars have come round to recognizing this, and it would be good to see more mainstream critics and skillful writers such as James do so as well.
James does admit having reread some Christie novels for her new study. Some of these she found unreadable, we learn, yet others surprised her by being "better written" than she recalled. She cites as a specific example of the latter A Murder is Announced (1950), a Miss Marple novel that vividly portrays social conditions in the postwar, austerity-ruled Great Britain of the Labour Party.
James is quite kind to the other Crime Queens. She recognizes qualities people dislike about their work, such as intimations of intellectual and social snobbery, but she makes clear she holds these writers in great esteem for, in her view, having moved the detective novel closer to the realistic novel of manners.
Like Julian Symons–the crime novelist and author of the influential genre survey Bloody Murder (1972), which is favorably cited here several times–James clearly ranks the "realistic" modern crime novel higher on the artistic scale than she does the often "artificial" Golden Age detective novel. Like Dorothy L. Sayers, who similarly is cited a number of times in her capacity as a literary critic, James uses the Victorian-era novel as an aesthetic guide, praising Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope in these pages. Readers familiar with the increasing girth of and material detail in James’ novels over the last forty years again will not be surprised by this preference.
James finds Sayers’ college novel Gaudy Night (1936) the greatest achievement of the Golden Age in terms of combining a puzzle "with the novel of social realism and serious purpose." Critics Q. D. Leavis and Edmund Wilson would turn over in their graves at the notion of Gaudy Night as an example of "social realism," though there’s no question the novel has a "serious purpose" (most significantly, assessing the position of educated women in society). Interestingly, we learn James first read this novel in 1936, 73 years ago. Manifestly, it had a great influence on her future writing career.
Sayers’ greatest weakness in James’ eyes seems to be that the murders in her tales often are "unrealistic." "Today, in choosing how to despatch our victims," writes James, " we are less concerned with originality and ingenuity than with practical, scientific and psychological credibility." No doubt, though one might raise some similar questions about the mechanics of the James murders in, say, Unnatural Causes (1967), Shroud for a Nightingale (1971), and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972). Of course these all are novels that were written under the setting sun of the Golden Age, when people were not yet ashamed to enjoy ingenuity at the expense of "realism."
James includes a chapter discussing some of the other writers of the Golden Age, and her emphasis is overwhelmingly on
British writers. Luminaries such as E. C. Bentley, Michael Innes, H. C Bailey, Gladys Mitchell, Edmund Crispin, Cyril Hare, and Josephine Tey all get a well-deserved paragraph or more. Nicholas Blake and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole are mentioned, as intellectuals who wrote detective novels. Monsignor Ronald Knox is discussed, though for his detective fiction writing rules, not his six forgotten detective novels.
Unfortunately, James ignores S. S. Van Dine, the highly influential American detective novelist whose novels were big bestsellers in the United States in the 1920s, along with the once very popular and highly regarded Ellery Queen, confirming a marked Anglo-centrism in James’ focus Surprisingly, John Dickson Carr, the highly regarded master of the locked room mystery, is omitted as well. Aside from Edgar Allen Poe, the only Americans I can recall being discussed are Chandler, Hammett, and Macdonald–one would get the impression from Talking About Detective Fiction that only hardboiled mysteries were produced by Americans in the Golden Age, which is certainly not the case.
The main discussion of pre-Golden Age writers in Talking About Detective Fiction is given over to Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton, the illustrious creators of, respectively, Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. R. Austin Freeman, creator of the great scientific detective Dr. Thorndyke, is omitted, which is unfortunate, since James praises scientific realism in the modern crime novel and thus might well have been expected to appreciate the Thorndyke tales.
Similarly, the underrated Golden Age British "Humdrum" writers are omitted, except for G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, who really are not Humdrums anyway. Usually Freeman Wills Crofts will get a perfunctory mention in genre surveys, but not here (unless I missed something–there is no index). Most regrettably, there is no mention of Henry Wade, a much underappreciated, sober Golden Age writer who was actually more of a precursor in theme and tone to James herself, in my view, than any of the Crime Queens.
Generally speaking, James breaks no great new ground in Talking about Detective Fiction, and the opinions expressed are pretty familiar to those already familiar with James, but it is a pleasure to have all her thoughts collected in one small, smoothly written volume. I should note that James is occasionally wryly amusing, as when she writes about Baroness Orczy’s rather antiquated Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. James has always had an excellent sense of humor, something we do not get to see as much of in her work as I would like.
At the end of James’ "talk," when speculating on the future of the genre (on this she is optimistic), she deems detective stories "unpretentious celebrations of reason and order in our increasingly complex and disorderly world" that we read for "relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge." The Moonstone may not be Middlemarch, concludes James, but we can honor the genius which produced the one without devaluing the ingenuity and artistry that produced the latter.
Fair enough. I, for one, shall continue to reread my clever Golden Age favorites in the years to come, just as I shall reread certain ingenious detective tales by P. D. James.
Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) is published by the Bodleian Library, to which Baroness James has donated the author’s royalties from the hardback edition. Recently published in Great Britain, it will become available for purchase in the United States on December 1.