Talking about Detective Fiction

James, P.D. (2009). Talking 
about detective fiction. London: 
Faber & Faber. 
ISBN 978-0-571-25355-5
Pp-159, Rs. 399/-

Talking About Detective Fiction, as one would expect of any work by P.D. James, is at once engaging, easy to read and informative. It covers a wide range of works of detective fiction; beginning with an analysis of nineteenth century fiction (which had strong elements of mystery) to Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Hercules Poirot, Albert Campion and James’s own creation, Dalgleish. However, the book does not assume for itself to be a critical study of the genre. Rather it claims to be an account of the history of detective fiction written with the purpose of entertaining those who enjoy reading detective fiction or wish to gain knowledge of the genre in general terms.

As would be expected of any study of detective fiction, James’s work too provides a prehistory to the genre. However, she limits her discussion of the prehistory of detective fiction to the large scale appearance of elements of crime, mystery and the careful unraveling of both in the nineteenth century English fiction. Her study includes The Moonstone, Pheanus Redux, Bleak House, Jane Eyre and, interestingly enough, even Emma. However, James overlooks the role that magazines and newspapers played in the creation of detective fiction. Much before Collins, Dickens and many like him began to incorporate elements of crime and mystery in their novels. A whole body of literature on the subject of crime existed in the

form of Newgate Calendars, Newgate Novels and the penny dreadfuls to name a few. Moreover, the elements of mystery and crime which were found in gothic novels and their relation to detective fiction too do not find any mention in James’s work. To that extent, her “talk” on detective fiction is very traditional beginning, as it does, with the nineteenth century.

‘Talking about Detective Fiction’ does, nonetheless, provide a succinct discussion of what constitutes detective fiction, features that make it formulaic and reasons for the formula to have been successful with some alterations over the century. James acknowledges that there is no easy or generally accepted answer to questions regarding the genre’s popularity; a point that almost all researchers of the subject have come to agree upon. In their opinion, detective fiction flourishes in a society which is a strong supporter of institutional law and order and it confirms the reader’s belief that we all live in a comprehensible world.

The chapters on Sherlock Holmes and what is now called the Golden Age of detective dictionary are concise but interesting accounts of the works of Doyle, Bentley, Chesterton, Sayers, Christie and Bailey. These two chapters talk about the literary detectives created by each of the aforementioned writers and the reasons for their popularity. But these chapters fail to discuss a transition that takes place in the genre of detective fiction from Sherlock Holmes to Poirot, Marple and thereafter; a development of which P.D. James, herself a writer of detective fiction is a legatee: the development in the telling of the mystery and its solution, from the short story to the full length novel. This is a serious short coming of James’s study.

Shilpy Malhotra

Shilpy Malhotra, PhD, is an academician at Delhi University. Her interest areas include Popular Literature and Detective Fiction.