Former Mystery Writers of America Grand Master P. D. James preaches what she practices in her newly released nonfictional work, Talking About Detective Fiction (December 2009). The acclaimed author of the Inspector Adam Dalgliesh mystery series provides a historical and critical analysis of the genre in which she has achieved her own remarkable success.
James’ study of the detective novel begins with Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. She includes in her analysis the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Dashiell Hammett and Peter Lovesey, among many others. James’ particular interest is in the writing styles of these authors and in the characters they have created.
James offers an extensive discussion of the Golden Age of mystery writing, which consisted of the two decades between the World Wars. She views this epoch as having been dominated by four writers – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. Of these, she claims that Dorothy Sayers had the most influence on her own writing. James also believes that the high quality of contemporary detective fiction demonstrates that the genre is now experiencing a second Golden Age.
New York Times crime fiction reviewer Marilyn Stasio commented on the success of James’ latest work in her December 13, 2009 column:
In expounding her ideas on how detective fiction works, James makes fearless reference to everyone from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh. While she is gracious about the appeal of the tough guys . . . she is more incisive about the work of her favorite classic authors — Dorothy L. Sayers chief among them. Perhaps not unaware that she herself is our great modern classicist, James speaks of her own methods, telling a wonderful anecdote about a blunder she made in writing about a motorcycle.”
On December 22, 2009 James discussed Talking About Detective Fiction with Linda Wertheimer on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” A recording of that interview is embedded below. In it, James summarizes the structure of the detective novel: “”What we have is a central mysterious crime, which is usually murder. We have a closed circle of suspects with means, motive and opportunity for the crime. We have a detective . . . who comes in rather like an avenging deity to solve it. And by the end, we do get a solution.” She concludes, “In a sense, the detective story is a small celebration of reason and order in our very disorderly world.”
For more info:
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Times Online cites P.D. James’ surprise attack on BBC director Mark Thompson in author profile
Crime Writers Association launches National Crime Fiction Week June 14-20, 2010
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