Sunday, March 26, 2017
"Talking About Detective Fiction"
P.D. James died at age 94 in 2014. The creator of Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, she was a keen student of crime fiction and in 2009 published "Talking About Detective Fiction" ($14 in paperback from Vintage; also for Amazon Kindle), an enlightening exploration focusing especially on the flowering of British detective fiction between the two World Wars.
James considers the staying power of Sherlock Holmes; hard-boiled detectives; female novelists; how the story is told; and critics and fans. Along the way the reader will be regaled with James' readings of her fellow novelists and will likely find authors and titles little known today but central to the development of the form. It is wise to keep a notebook nearby.
The origin of the detective story is really quite recent. James' choice for the first detective novel is The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (a friend of Charles Dickens), from 1868. "In my view," she says "no other single novel of its type more clearly adumbrates what were to become the main characteristics of the genre."
"The Moonstone," she writes, "is a diamond stolen from an Indian shrine by Colonel John Herncastle, left to his niece Rachel Verrinder and brought to her Yorkshire home to be handed over on her eighteenth birthday by a young solicitor, Franklin Blake. During the night it is stolen, obviously by a member of the household. A London detective, Sergeant Cuff, is called in, but later Franklin Blake takes over the investigation, although he himself is among the suspects."
There are clues aplenty, "clever shifting of suspicion from one character to another," lots of eerie atmosphere, and a detective that is "eccentric but believable"; I've read it twice.
While detective stories often contain great violence they are "novels of escape. … For whomever the bell tolls, it doesn't toll for us. Whatever our secret terrors, we are not the body on the library floor." And, in the end, the mystery will be resolved.
"Very few readers," she observes, "can put down a detective story until it is solved, although some have fallen into the reprehensible expedient of taking a quick look at the last chapter."
You have been warned.