My wife and I were nosing around the gift shop of the Bodleian Library at Oxford during our recent vacation. She tugged on my sleeve and said, “Did you see the book by P.D. James?”
The book in question was Talking About Detective Fiction, packaged in an attractive boxed slipcover (= not inexpensive). Not only that, it was a numbered limited edition (No. 41 of 450) and autographed by the author. The Bodleian was using it as a fundraiser (see the Bodleian press notice). I looked at the back, half afraid to see the price – and was surprised to see only 30 pounds (about $48 US). (The regular edition is more reasonably priced.)
The truth is, I’ve been an admirer of P.D. James’ detective stories for a long time. I’ve read most of them; her hero Adam Dagleish is part of my reading history. She’s currently 92; she’s been writing for a long time. She received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her writing almost 30 years ago, and she continued to write after that. This particular book was published in 2009, and it has all of the sharp insight and understanding that she brings to her own detective stories.
This is a tour of the history of the detective story – where it came from, how it developed, and where it is today. James walks the reader through the origins – stories by Edgar Allen Poe, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (her nominee for the real start of detective fiction), and then the two authors who more than anyone else turned detective fiction into a distinct genre – Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown).
James delves into the Golden Age of detective fiction and mysteries (roughly World War I to World War II), the popularity of women writers like Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey, and the contributions of the “hardboiled school” – the only Americans included (Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) in an otherwise British history of the genre.
“We do not expect popular literature to be great literature,” she says, “but fiction which provides excitement, mystery and humour also ministers to essential human needs. We can honour and celebrate the genius which produced Middlemarch, War and Peace and Ulysses without devaluing Treasure Island, The Moonstone and The Inimitable Jeeves.”
James is a fine writer; she’s always been a fine writer, always bringing clarity, mystery and imagination to her stories. She’s managed to do the same thing with Talking About Detective Fiction.
And I’ve got a wonderful souvenir of the Bodleian and Oxford (James lives there, by the way), and of our vacation to the U.K. this past September. (And an autographed copy!)