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A few days back I was looking for some light, breezy reading and when I looked at my bookshelves, ‘Talking about Detective Fiction’ by P.D.James leapt at me. So I took the book down from the shelf and read it. It was a fast read, and I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

What I think

 

In ‘Talking about Detective Fiction’ P.D.James gives an overview of British detective fiction in the past one hundred and fifty years. The key operative word here is ‘British’. She begins with how it all started, the debates on which novel can be regarded as the first ever detective novel and how the creation of a detective unit in the actual police force was a pre-requisite before a novel could be regarded as a detective novel. She then talks about Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’ and how it was the pioneer in this area. She goes on to talk about the familiar icons – Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the kind of influence Holmes had on subsequent detectives, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and how they were detective superstars for decades, though the overall structure of their stories was very predictable. She then talks about the Golden Age of British detective fiction and the authors and detectives who peopled those times. She takes a digression here and goes beyond British detective fiction and talks about American hardboiled fiction by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and talks about how they are very different when compared to the fiction written by the Golden Age authors. She goes on to talk about the four great women authors who wrote detective fiction – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. She then describes the basic elements of a detective story and how different authors had improvised these elements in their own unique way, sharing her own experiences when she was working on her books.  She then concludes by looking at why some critics like detective stories and others don’t and describes how the detective fiction landscape looks like today and gives her prediction on how it will look like in the future.

 

Before I started reading the book, I smiled at it. I have been reading detective fiction in different languages ever since I can remember and I thought I knew one or two things about it. One or two things that P.D.James might not know 🙂 So, I first made a list of things that I knew, which I thought James may not include in her book. The list had these things :

(1)   As the book is called ‘Talking about Detective Fiction’, I thought I will make a list of detective fiction authors who were American. My list had authors like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett,  Mickey Spillane, Robert B. Parker, Walter Moseley (all American). I ignored the Scandinavian guys, Andrea Camilleri (Italian), the Russian Agatha Christie Alexandra Marinina and detective fiction writers in my own language like Tamilvanan, Sujatha, Rajesh Kumar, the famous Urdu writer Ibn-e-Safi and the Chinese writer Qiu Xiaolong, because I knew that P.D.James wouldn’t have heard of them. (If we get curious and ask the question – is it possible to write a global history of detective fiction? My answer – ‘Impossible’! There are too many writers in far too many languages!)

(2)   I included Georges Simenon as a separate name on the list. Though Simenon wrote in French, he is a true legend of the detective fiction genre and he started writing detective fiction at the same time that the Golden Age authors did and his career coincided with Agatha Christie’s career for decades. So I thought that anyone who ignored Simenon did so at their own peril.

(3)   I added a couple of British writers, who don’t seem to be so well known today as detective fiction writers, to the list. They are Freeman Wills Crofts and A.A.Milne. Milne wrote just one detective novel called ‘The Red House Mystery’, but I thought he deserved to be talked about. After a lot of reluctance, I also added Georgette Heyer to the list.

(4)   I added a few writers of historical mysteries to the list. Though they wrote novels which are set in ancient times, I thought they were important, because they also wrote mysteries. The names I included were Ellis Peters (who wrote the Cadfael mysteries), Lindsey Davis (whose mysteries featuring Marcus Didius Falco, one of my favourite detectives, is set in ancient Rome), Margaret Doody (in whose novels Aristotle features as a detective), Umberto Eco (whose ‘The Name of the Rose’ can be regarded, among other things, as a detective novel), Boris Akunin (who wrote the Fandorin and the Sister Pelagia novels) and Susanna Gregory (who wrote the Matthew Bartholomew novels set in Cambridge university). 

(5)   I also added Edgar Allan Poe as a separate name on the list. Many people regard Poe as the founder of modern detective fiction because he was the first to introduce a fictional detective – Auguste Lupin in some of his short stories. Poe, however, never wrote a detective novel. I wanted to know what James thought about Poe and whether she gave him credit for inventing the genre.

(6)   I also added James Hadley Chase to the list. Chase was regarded as the British Raymond Chandler. In my own opinion, in terms of plotting and pace, Chase was better than Chandler, though Chandler’s prose was better and beautiful. I wanted to know whether James mentions Chase anywhere.

 

After having made my list, I read the book carefully. I wanted to find out whether James missed out someone. Whether she tripped up somewhere. I was ready to catch her if she did and point out the omission. It was an interesting experience to read the book this way. The result of this exercise was this (in football terms) : PD James 1 – Vishy 0 🙂 James didn’t trip a single time! To make her position clear, she says at the beginning of the book that it is a survey of British detective fiction. However, she gives a separate chapter for American hardboiled fiction writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (though she doesn’t mention Mickey Spillane or Walter Moseley or Robert B. Parker). She writes a wonderful few passages about A.A.Milne’s ‘The Red House Mystery’ (I really thought I would catch her here 🙂), she talks about Ellis Peters and Lindsey Davis in one of the later chapters (though she doesn’t mention Margaret Doody or Umberto Eco, especially Umberto Eco whose ‘The Name of the Rose’ can be both treated as detective fiction and literary fiction), she writes about how Edgar Allan Poe created the first modern fictional detective (though she gives more weight to Wilkie Collins as the father of the modern detective novel). Unfortunately, she doesn’t mention James Hadley Chase anywhere, which is unfortunate, because though he is unknown and underrated today, he was one of the most wonderful storytellers there ever was. Maybe James thought that he was a crime novelist and didn’t really write detective fiction. So far so good. But on one item, I thought I will really score a point over James. I thought she wouldn’t talk about Georges Simenon. It didn’t happen till the last chapter. But in the last chapter she gives Simenon his due and gushes about him. She also talks about detective fiction from Scandinavia, Italy, Russia, Iceland, Japan. I have to say that by the time I had finished the book, James had won me over completely by her knowledge, her warmth, her beautiful prose, her comprehensive tackling of the subject, her wisdom. I had total admiration and affection for her.

 

I have two minor quibbles though. The first one is that James misses out Freeman Wills Crofts. Freeman Wills Crofts was one of the greats of the Golden Age and his books were regarded as forerunners of the modern day ‘police procedural’. Unfortunately, he is not so well-known today. I think he should find a place atleast in a book on the history of detective fiction. My second quibble is that James doesn’t talk much about herself, though she does share her thoughts on how she got ideas for her novels and the kind of research she did to write them and how she came upon the setting described in her novels. As a detective fiction novelist, James is one of the greats in her domain and so her being modest, though it is the polite thing to do, makes the reader yearn for more. The book compares Agatha Christie’s novels with Dorothy Sayers’ and Margery Allingham’s and Ngaio Marsh’s. We would have liked to know how James’ novels stacked against these great women’s novels. But this is one of the conundrums in the book – it is like asking Maradona to write about the history of football or Tendulkar to write about the history of cricket or Steffi Graf to write about the history of tennis – how much will he / she write about himself / herself but still continue to be polite? It is a tough situation to be in.

 

Agatha Christie fans will have a few things to quibble about in the book. For example, James says this about Christie :

Her style is neither original nor elegant but it is workmanlike.

And then she says this :

Agatha Christie hasn’t in my view had a profound influence on the later development of the detective story. She wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre.

And here comes the double-edged sword.

Above all she is a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practiced cunning.

However she also says nice things about Christie, and explores why Christie’s mysteries have been so successful across the decades. Unfortunately, the above comments stand out, and Christie fans might be irked by this. 

 

After reading the book, I discovered that despite having knowledge of some of the arcane aspects of detective fiction, I haven’t read books by many of the legends of the genre. There were so many gaps in my reading. So, I thought I will make a ‘TBR’ list of detective fiction, based on the books that James mentions in her book. Here is what it looks like :

 

(1)   Caleb Williams by William Godwin (published in 1794 and regarded as the first ever detective novel)

(2)   Four Auguste Dupin short stories by Edgar Allan Poe‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Mystery of Mary Roget’, ‘The Purloined Letter’, ‘The Gold-Bug’

(3)   The Father Brown Stories by G.K.Chesterton

(4)   Trent’s Last Case by E.C.Bentley (regarded as the novel which heralded the Golden Age of detective fiction)

(5)   Two books by Edmund Crispin – ‘The Case of the Gilded Fly’ and ‘The Moving Toyshop’

(6)   ‘Speedy Death’ by Gladys Mitchell (starring Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley – isn’t Beatrice Lestrange one of the villainous witches in the Harry Potter series? Why did J.K.Rowling give this name to one of the villains? Is there a story behind that?)

(7)   Books by Michael Innes (starring Sir John Appleby of Scotland Yard – I really want to read these stories!)

(8)   Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

(9)   Three novels by Josephine Tey – ‘The Man in the Queue’, ‘Brat Farrar’ and ‘The Franchise Affair’

(10)                       Books by Ross Macdonald (starring Detective Lew Archer)

(11)                       Books by Sara Paretsky (starring V.I.Warchawski)

(12)                       Three books by Dorothy L. Sayers‘Strong Poison’, ‘Have his Carcase’, ‘Gaudy Night’

(13)                       Two novels by Margery Allingham‘Flowers for the Judge’, ‘More Work for the Undertaker’

(14)                       Three novels by Ngaio Marsh‘Vintage Murder’, ‘Colour Scheme’, ‘Died in the Wool’

(15)                       Historical mysteries by C.J.Sansom

(16)                       The Lady Investigates : Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan

(17)                       The Great Detectives ed. By Otto Penzler

(18)                       Bloody Murder by Julian Symons

 

I loved ‘Talking about Detective Fiction’ by P.D.James. It is a slim gem but it is comprehensive and it is a must-read for detective fiction fans. Highly recommended.

 

I will leave you with a link to Bina’s wonderful review of the book and some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

One of the criticisms of the detective story is that this imposed pattern is mere formula writing, that it binds the novelist in a straitjacket which is inimical to the artistic freedom which is essential to creativity, and that subtlety of characterization, a setting which comes alive for the reader and even credibility are sacrificed to the dominance of structure and plot. But what I find fascinating is the extraordinary variety of books and writers which this so-called formula has been able to accommodate, and how many authors have found the constraints and conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of their creative imagination. 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 – an octave and a sestet – and a strict rhyming sequence. And detective stories are not the only novels which conform to a recognized convention and structure. All Jane Austen’s novels have a common storyline : an attractive and virtuous young woman surmounts difficulties to achieve marriage to the man of her choice. This is the age-long convention of the romantic novel, but with Jane Austen what we have is Mills & Boon written by a genius.

 

And however well I think I know my characters, they reveal themselves more clearly during the writing of the book, so that at the end, however carefully and intricately the work is plotted, I never get exactly the novel I planned. It feels, indeed, as if the characters and everything that happens to them exists in some limbo of the imagination, so that what I am doing is not inventing them but getting in touch with them and putting their story down in black and white, a process of revelation not of creation.

 

Certainly all the major novelists in the canon of English literature have told stories, some exciting, some tragic, some slight, some mysterious, but all of them have the virtue of leaving us with a need to know what happens next as we turn each page. For a time in the late twentieth century it seemed that the story was losing its status and that psychological analysis, a complicated and occasionally inaccessible style and an egotistic introspection were taking over from action. Happily there now seems to be a return to the art of storytelling.

 

(Comment : I am not sure whether novelists are back to storytelling these days, but I am happy that P.D.James feels that way.)

 

Have you read ‘Talking about Detective Fiction’ by P.D.James? Have you read books / writers in the above list? What do you think about them?

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