P.D. James, who turns 90 this year, has written some of the most engrossing detective fiction of the past 50 years — rich, twisty, character-driven novels like An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and A Taste for Death. Every bit as welcome as a riveting new mystery from James is Talking About Detective Fiction, her elegant and trenchant history of the craft she has practiced so adroitly.
The book is no comprehensive and rigorous academic survey, but a slim, tart and highly personal meditation on an art form whose built-in limitations she cheerfully embraces. "To say that one cannot produce a good novel within the discipline of a formal structure is as foolish as to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to fourteen lines," writes James, who dates the origin of the genre to the 1868 publication of Wilkie Collins' novel The Moonstone. From this seminal work — about the theft of an inherited Indian diamond and the subsequent sleuthing — she moves fluidly through the oeuvres of such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, "a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practiced cunning." Just as absorbing are her appreciations of more obscure talents, like Gladys Mitchell, whose work featured a psychiatrist sleuth who was "elderly, bizarre in dress and appearance, with the eyes of a crocodile." (Fans of detective fiction will find themselves madly jotting down titles to seek out). There's also an astute detour into the hard-boiled detective fiction of the United States. While Ross Macdonald is often eclipsed in reputation by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, James singles him out as her particular favorite, for his stylistic vigor and his detective's "empathy for human suffering."
Detective fiction today is as popular as it ever was; it is also increasingly reputable, with the works of Kate Atkinson and Ruth Rendell often reviewed alongside serious literary novels. Rightly so, James would argue. Beyond their obvious lurid appeal, detective novels confirm "our hope that, despite some evidence to the contrary, we live in a beneficent and moral universe in which problems can be solved by rational means and peace and order restored from communal or personal disruption."
Talking About Detective Fiction accomplishes what a compelling work of criticism should: it whets your appetite to read (or reread) the books under discussion with new insight and, in this case, vastly diminished guilt about the pleasure they bring.