James begins with some definitions and boundaries, contrasting detective fiction with espionage novels and thrillers and looking at early influences such as Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and the Road Hill House case. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown then share a chapter.
There's a chapter on the (roughly inter-war) Golden Age and its approach to settings and plots. And another looks at four notable women writers: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. This is in dramatic contrast to the "hard boiled" detectives in the American tradition, where James looks at Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.
James doesn't attempt to survey more recent work. Instead she offers some general comments on settings, points-of-view and characterisation, drawing partly on her own work for examples. She also considers some of the appraisals of the genre by critics and fans, and its current status. Her own life extends from reading the latest Sayers or Allingham novel as a teenager down to the Internet, giving her some perspective when it comes to speculation about the future.
With the P.D. James name behind it, Talking about Detective Fiction will entice some readers who wouldn't normally touch literary criticism. I don't think they will be disappointed.
It is a slim volume that doesn't pretend to be comprehensive in any way, and there's nothing new or unexpected in it. For those who want more James provides a brief "further reading" list, with a mix of biographies and general critical works.
- Related reviews:
- P.D. James - The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders 1811
- P.D. James - The Murder Room
- more detective fiction
- more literary criticism