Uncommon Mystery - Talking about Detective Fiction

Aug 6, 2010

Murray, KY – Mystery fans recently celebrated the 90th birthday of award-winning novelist P.D. James (August 3). James is most famous for her iconic poet-policeman Adam Dalgliesh. Her most recent book, published in 2009, is a work of literary cricitism, titled Talking about Detective Fiction. Fellow mystery critic Michael Cohen peeks through the pages of this "entertaining" analysis of the genre.

James's survey of detective fiction is quirky. She begins with a definition more or less limited to the Golden Age, as she admits: the crime is usually murder, there is a closed circle of suspects, a detective, and a solution that the readers could reach themselves.

She thinks the first detective novel is The Moonstone, which she praises from a writer's viewpoint as "a complex and brilliantly structured story . . . . The varied styles, voices and viewpoints not only add variety and interest . . . but are a powerful revelation of character."

Somehow in her treatment detective fiction becomes the detective novel, and there is no mention of Poe's short stories at this point, but she goes back to mention Poe in the chapter Sherlock Holmes shares with Father Brown, saying that "many critics" would argue that credit for "inventing the detective story and influencing its development should be shared by Conan Doyle and Poe." But Poe and Doyle are more than half a century apart, and either Poe invented it or he didn't. She doesn't seem to remember the Poe stories very well, and makes the very odd statement that "The Purloined Letter" is "an example of the perpetrator being the most unlikely suspect," when in fact we know that Minister D__ is the perpetrator from the beginning in that story, and he is the only one who could have purloined the letter.

The advantage to James's book, as opposed to the many scholarly treatments of the subject, is that it is written by an author working in the genre. I know of no other book on the subject by a mystery writer except Julian Symons's Bloody Murder. When she explains why the mystery novel is preferable to the mystery short story, she does so from a writer's standpoint: "Novelists," she says, "if visited by a powerful idea for an original method of murder, detective or plotline, were unwilling and indeed still are to dissipate it on a short story when it could both inspire and form the main interest of a successful novel." This is in response to G. K Chesterton's remark about long versus short, where he takes a more aesthetic view.

Another instance where we see James in conversation with a previous writer about the genre is her answer to Dorothy Sayers' depreciation of the mystery novel because it "rarely touches the heights and depths of human passion" and "does not show us the inner workings of the murderer's mind" because the murderer's identity has to be hidden until the end of the book. James's reply is that "the writer who can solve the problem of enabling the reader at some point to share the murderer's compulsions and inner life . . . will have a chance of writing a novel which is more than a lifeless if entertaining conundrum." I imagine James adding to herself, "and I, my dears, have done precisely that."

Talking about Detective Fiction by P.D. James was published by Knopf in 2009. Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University. His book of mystery criticism, Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and is available on Amazon.com. If you have an opinion, interest or review you'd like to share with WKMS listeners, see guidelines on the commentaries page of our web site and send us an email.

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