"Talking About Detective Fiction," by P.D. James
Detective fiction is not a British invention -- Poe predated the English writers of the 19th century -- but nobody has done it better.
The Brits manage to combine great characters with page-turning plots. Their American cousins, on the other hand, pour their efforts into characterization while their stories resemble a big hunk of Swiss cheese.
No matter. Readers gobble up crime books like popcorn, making them a mainstay of publishers' yearly fiction lists. Every so often, a writer tries to make sense of the situation. That lineup includes W.H. Auden, Edmund Wilson and Mr. "Mean Streets" himself, Raymond Chandler. The latest explicator of the genre is one of Great Britain's most honored and prolific crime authors, the baroness of Holland Park, P(hyllis) D(orothy) James. (And I thought the initials stood for Pretentiously Dense.)
Starting in 1962, James wrote 18 novels, mostly murder tales investigated by her fictional sleuth, poetry-writing Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard.
In response to a request by the Bodleian Library at her alma mater, Oxford, to discuss the British detective novel, James wrote this slight, somewhat charming treatise on her field and its practitioners.
Unsurprisingly, her favorites are citizens of the British Commonwealth -- Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey -- members of what she calls "the Golden Age" of the genre, the 1930s. Her knowledge and direct insights into this period are wide-ranging and sharp.
More recent eras are not her strong point, especially the American "hard-boiled" crime writers of the '30s and '40s.
"[Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler were depicting and exploring the great social upheavals of the 1920s," she writes inaccurately.
James ignores Hammett's successful frothy "Thin Man" series of the Depression era and misstates not only Chandler's era (the 1930s and '40s) but his concerns, which were not upheaval, but the corruption lurking in the shadows of sunny Los Angeles.
She writes that Chandler retired "in 1933 to devote himself to writing." He lost his job at an oil company for drinking and womanizing and turned to writing pulp fiction as a last resort.
James does, fortunately, acknowledge the writing of Ross Macdonald and his Southern California settings.
Contemporary crime writers are glided over, even though James gets a few digs in at Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse series. She ignores Elizabeth George, the American novelist whose British detective is a modern-day Lord Peter Wimsey, Inspector Lynley.
The most serious omission however, is insight into why her writing is filled with darkness and despair about modern Britain. I've found her more recent books after her 1993 non-crime novel, "The Children of Men," growing more and more misanthropic, bitter, cynical and humorless. Approaching 90, James sounds weary of the modern world.
There are flashes of a yearning for an England of yesterday in these books, understandable now that we learn how much she loves the Golden Age.
Then, there's the writing, growing heavy and stilted:
"The fantasy which the mystery provides is one of escape to a prelapsarian state of innocence, and the driving force behind the daydream is the discomfort of an unrecognised (sic) guilt," she offers, confusedly and redundantly.
There are several passages of helpful commentary for would-be crime novelists here, one good reason to read this book. Otherwise, except for James' observations on the Golden Age, the work is a shallow skimming of the world of detective fiction.
First Published January 10, 2010 12:00 am