Talking about Detective Fiction: PD James

Talking About Detective FictionTalking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I love PD James’ very wordy detective stories. I can wallow in them as well-written novels with a mystery plot, or race through them as a regular mystery. She is a favourite and I only wish there were more of her novels about.

This book of James’ thoughts about detective fiction is also very well written. I never felt the urge to put it down, but neither did I feel that I was getting much other than an afternoon’s enjoyment out of it. I suppose it is difficult for most writers to explain how they do what they do – I’ve been to enough writer’s conferences to know this. James does not instruct in this book. She does “talk about detective fiction.”

James takes us on a lovely trot through primarily British writers of mysteries, primarily from the “golden age”, which seems to have plunged into tin about 1959. She spares no bile when talking about Agatha Christie, returning to diss her several times, and it’s obvious she has little time for the American tough guy writers Marlowe and Chandler. She adores Chesterton, and has some tolerant things to say about Dorothy L Sayers. Even poor Conan Doyle gets treated like a hack, with comments about the unlikeliness of his hero, the stupidity of Watson, the unreality of his plots.

She is entitled to her opinions, of course, but entire swaths of writers are cast off as being unworthy. Writers post-1950 apparently have written nothing worth discussing, though Henning Mankell comes in for a mention in a sentence or so, and a couple of British writers get a whisper, if they’ve managed to score a series on the Beeb. In amongst the gossip and such, she tries to find some truths about detective fiction. They aren’t very helpful.

I’m sorry in a way that I read this book. It reads as if she was asked to write it and really really didn’t want to, dug through some old notes from when she was beginning to write, and tossed it together with more than a bit of miffiness. She comes across as snotty, bored, and as if she would rather be doing almost anything else than writing for people who might think themselves writers.

That said, it IS written well. Of course. I think I’ll retreat to her mysteries and give this book away. I like it better when I don’t see behind the screen.

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