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Talking About Detective Fiction Hardcover – Dec 1 2009

4.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada; First American Edition edition (Dec 1 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307398803
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307398802
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 2.1 x 19.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 295 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #440,660 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


“She writes so wittily and with such authority that this lucid little book may well join the handful of classic essays on the genre.”
The Globe and Mail
“A task she is more than capable of handling. . . . Her writing shows a vast knowledge and abiding love for the genre she describes. . . . Talking About Detective Fiction is fascinating. It’s as rich in characters and literary detail as the novels that have made James famous.”
USA Today
“It is P. D. James’s longevity, as well as her serene intelligence, that makes this book especially noteworthy and enjoyable. . . . If you want to extend your own reading, discover new authors or clarify your thoughts, this is an excellent way to do so.”
The Independent
“Who better to ask about the reasons for the ever-increasing popularity of crime fiction than one of the genre’s most revered practitioners? . . . James is as clear-eyed as her hero [Adam Dalgliesh]. . . . A pioneer among those mystery writers who make their readers see the world more clearly even as they try to pull the wool over their eyes.”
“A short book, but it has heft, and little wonder, given Lady James’s literary mastery and deep familiarity with her subject. . . . Her literary sensibility—calm observation and exact description—is on ample display in Talking About Detective Fiction.”
Wall Street Journal

About the Author

P. D. James is the author of 20 books, most of which have been filmed for television. Before her retirement in 1979, she served in the forensics and criminal justice departments of Great Britain's Home Office, and she has been a magistrate and a governor of the BBC. The recipient of many prizes and honors, including being inducted into the International Crime Writers Hall of Fame, she was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991. In 2000 she celebrated her 80th birthday.

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Customer Reviews

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By D Glover TOP 500 REVIEWER on March 23 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is an ode to, as well as a look beneath the surface of, a specific genre (or subgenre) of popular literature: detective fiction. One of the things that makes this book special is that it is written not by a literary critic or a book reviewer but by arguably one of the ablest present day practitioners of the craft, P.D. James, author of the Adam Dalgliesh detective novels.

This relatively brief book (about 196 pages of text - the book dimensions are small and the pages have large margins all round) touches on a broad range of considerations, including the origins of detective fiction and how it was prefigured in Dickens, Austen, Bronte and others as well as the history of the genre through the Victorian and Edwardian ages as well as the "golden age" between the wars and immediately following WWII, up to the present day. James also discusses briefly the major differences between detective fiction on either side of the Atlantic, comparing the "hard boiled" heroes (or anti-heroes) of the American authors with the tidy and familiar heroes, and their "Watsons", of the English "golden age" authors, with stories often set in an idyllic and largely imaginary iconic English country side. Also touched upon is the changing psychology between the "golden age" and the present one, as well as the huge shifts in cultural climate in which detective fiction nevertheless still finds a prominent place. James deals with many more aspects of the genre that I won't get into here. However, for the reader who is looking for an in depth, scholarly and comprehensive work on detective fiction, this is not it. While there is obviously much thought, reflection and broad reading behind it, by James's own admission, this is not a penetrating critical or exhaustive work.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Reading P. D. James on the topic of detective fiction is like eating dark chocolate while drinking fine wine. Reading doesn't get much better than this - my favourite genre and a writer who knows it inside out as a writer, a reader and a consummate researcher.
Originally published in England, most of the examples come from English literature (as opposed to American) and many of them are from books that I enjoyed as I grew up. Seeing them critiqued gently, affectionately but with a mind sharp as a scalpel is a rare treat.
The writer shows how they fit and illuminated the sense and mores of the time they were written. She slices and dices her topic with logic and thoroughness. The icing on the cake (sorry about all the food references - I must be hungry) are the well-chosen cartoons that illustrate most of the chapters.
If you are an Anglophile who loves the mystery genre, this book is for you. Read and enjoy!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've been a P.D. James fan for years. What a wonderful read to have P.D.James share her insights into the world of writing detection fiction. I bought a used book in very good condition. It was delivered promptly as promised.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars 36 reviews
57 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a marvelous and instructive work by the mistress of detective fiction Dec 11 2009
By Israel Drazin - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Imagine Copernicus explaining astronomy to you, or Einstein teaching you physics, or Moses clarifying difficult biblical passages that confused clergy and prompted discord and even wars. Imagine also that the expert could write clearly, interestingly and with wit, such as Sigmund Freud explaining the principles of psychology with examples from fascinating case studies.

This is what happens with P.D. James marvelous book. James is the queen of modern detective fiction, certainly, without any doubt, one of the royal family.

James states that mystery novels are composed of several basic elements: a crime, usually murder; a small circle of suspects, each having a motive to commit the crime; opportunity; a detective; and a solution that is inserted into the novel with deceptive cunning, but with fairness. The last point means that readers will realize when they hear the detective's solution that the solution fits what was disclosed previously in the novel.

James describes the differences between detective stories, thrillers and horror tales. Each genre has its own elements and its own purposes. A reader who knows the elements and purposes can appreciate the tale better. Detective stories, she writes, do not, or at least should not, investigate a murder or another crime; nor should they dwell on the bizarre happenings; they should focus on the tragic fate of the people involved.

James describes the history of detective fiction and introduces her readers to over a dozen of the best writers, generally focusing on British women. She gives special attention to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. She discusses the strength and weaknesses of these stories, their history, psychology and sociology.

James is not reluctant to reveal her opinions on the authors she dislikes. She describes Agatha Christie disparagingly. She states that her style is neither original nor elegant and she is not a very good writer. Her characters are pasteboards. James writes cleverly: "Perhaps her greatest strength was that she never overstepped the limits of her talent."

Scholars, she reveals, differ as to who wrote the first detective story. Some say it was Caleb Williams in 1784. Some insist it was Edgar Allan Poe who invented the genre in1841 with The Murder in Rue Morgue. Others vote for Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone in 1860. James prefers the latter. She tells the fascinating true story that prompted The Moonstone.

James identifies the first great detective as the iconic Sherlock Holmes who Conan Doyle introduced in 1887 in A Study in Scarlet. Doyle was so enthralled and naïve that he sold his rights to this masterpiece for twenty five pounds.

James awards second place to G. K. Chesterton who began his Father Brown series in 1911. The tales were so delightful that few readers realized that they were never told the priest's first name.

James' book addresses many interesting questions. Why do some critics disparage some or all detective stories? What about these books attracts readers? Can people read detective stories more than once with pleasure? Do Protestants enjoy the books more than Catholics? How do readers experience relief of tensions? Why do many people like to read these tension filled novels in bed before sleeping? How do today's detective stories differ from those written in the past?

Those readers who enjoy deductive fiction will enjoy James' perceptive descriptions of it written with the same verve that she employs in her dramas.
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Talking Elegantly but Selectively Dec 19 2009
By Red Rivere - Published on
Format: Hardcover
A typically well-written book by James, though it nowhere comes close to replacing Julian Symons' classic "Bloody Murder" as a comprehensive survey of the detective fiction genre, being quite short (almost pamphlet size) and selective in its coverage. A great deal of "Talking About Detective Fiction" is given over to authors from the so-called British Golden Age of detective fiction (roughly 1920 to 1940), particularly the Crime Queens (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh and sometimes Tey). James touches on some writers who may not be familiar to her readers, like Gladys Mitchell and Cyril Hare, as well as the American hardboiled triumvirate of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald, but many significant names are left out (such as S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles, Freeman Wills Crofts and John Dickson Carr), giving a rather narrow picture of the period. Her readers, for example, might come away with the impression that no American wrote traditional puzzles during the Golden Age, or that British women detective novelists outnumbered the men. Neither impression would be accurate.

As one reviewer has noted, James is rather disparaging toward Christie, though this is nothing new for James, who has been rather disparaging toward Christie for decades now. What is new is that James admits rereading some Christie and finding some of her works, like A Murder Is Announced, better than she recalled. One wishes James had gone back and read, say, Five Little Pigs, And Then There Were None, Endless Night or The Hollow; she might have altered her assertion that Christie simply creates pasteboard characters in whom the reader can have no possible interest apart from their contribution to the puzzle. Christie's continued great sales decade after decade would suggest that many readers are finding something in her books besides puzzles, for many ingenious puzzler contemporaries of Christie's have been forgotten. In Five Little Pigs, for example, Christie clearly has moved closer to a novel of character while at the same time providing readers with a teasing puzzle. Endless Night, published late in Christie's life, actually is more a "crime novel" in the modern mold. Even some of what are commonly seen as her pure puzzles, such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder at the Vicarage, are village satires with clever first person narration. And of course many of her "mere puzzles," like The ABC Murders, are sheer brilliance. And dare I say that Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, mannerisms and all, are more memorable characters than James' poet-policeman, Adam Dalgleish? Time will tell on that one ultimately, but in the meantime to conclude that Christie was not an innovator and that she had no interest in exploring her chosen genre seems simply wrong to me.

It should surprise no one who has followed James' career over the decades that she is a great admirer of Dorothy L. Sayers, long the pretender to Christie's throne. James not only admires Sayers' novels (though she criticizes some of the murder methods in them on grounds of realism), she emulates Sayers as a critic, elevating, as Sayers did, the Victorian sensation novels of Wilkie Collins as the model for the modern detective novel. Like the novels of Sayers, the novels of James have grown longer and longer over the years, with more and more emphasis on character study and description of place and less and less emphasis on clever puzzle mechanics. James sees this "realism" as making the detective novel stronger, something closer to the mainstream novel. Some mystery fans might feel that James' later books have become too much like mainstream novels and prefer earlier ones where the author placed more emphasis on providing her readers with a clever puzzle. Still, there is no question but that the Baroness remains, at nearly ninety years of age, an articulate and charming writer in "Talking About Detective Fiction"; and her admirers should enjoy this little book.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sprightly and intelligent Dec 15 2009
By Natalie - Published on
Format: Hardcover
PD James provides readers with a beautiful survey of significant detective fiction from its beginnings up through contemporary times. Her analysis of the four "grande dames" of the "Golden Age"--Christie, Allingham, Sayers, and Marsh--is deeply intelligent and insightful. Nor does she neglect the hard-boiled American genre or the Oxford dons. While I understand that the intended audience may perhaps be other writers, as a devout reader of detective fiction I was mesmerized by every page. Providing both perceptions about writers I have read and names of new writers for me to try out, this book makes me want to revisit and reread many of the books I've read before.

Brava, Dame James!
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Easy, informative read March 4 2010
By Master Cineaster - Published on
Format: Hardcover
An interesting but by no means enthralling survey of the genre, with the author's analysis of how and why some authors succeed (eg, the fun of giving a reader a puzzle to solve like Agatha Christie, or Conon Doyle's charming immortal sleuth) and the requisite rules of the game for all writers (eg, clues available to detective and reader simultaneously; no supernatural forces at play; no real investigation into the murderer's mind). The role of the female author in the genre (Christie, Sayers, Tey, etc) is highlighted especially well. As is often the case, a review of the genre holds little excitement next to its best reads, but recommendations abound (though some, like The Moonstone, are duds) and James' style is particularly fluid. Her own output is impressive, though the mysteries are uneven, but it's fun to hear about the shoulders she likes to stand on.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars On the who's who of whodunit writers and how they do it Dec 22 2009
By Sharon Isch - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
P. D. James's nifty little mystery history should be a welcome addition to any whodunit reader's library. At just under 200 pages and small enough to fit into a handbag, it makes a nice take-along book for sit-and-wait situations, an inspired gift for a mystery lover friend and, for many readers, an introduction to writers who'll likely be as new to you as they were to me.

Except for a chapter on Hammet and Chandler of the American hardboiled school and some admiring, but brief, tips of the hat to Sara Paretsky, Georges Simenon and Henning Mankell, James concentrates her attention on her fellow Brits--Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Crispin, Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Rendell and others--with particular emphasis on the so-called "Golden Age" when the plots were ingenious, the murders horrible and bizarre and the villains superhumanly cunning ... "not the days of the swift bash to the skull followed by sixty thousand words of psychological insight."

She also looks at how the genre has evolved since the Victorian age and why it has remained so popular. Then, perhaps most interesting of all, she takes us inside the writing process for a closeup look at some of the challenges peculiar to detective-story writing in general and to her own Adam Dalgliesh novels in particular. Most illuminating.