Sunday, May 29, 2011

A history of mystery

Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James

I saw this on the counter at Murder by the Book a couple of weeks ago, and the back-cover copy sold me: "Examining mystery from top to bottom...Here is P.D. James discussing detective fiction as social history, explaining its stylistic components, revealing her own writing process, and commenting on the recent resurgence of detective fiction in modern culture."  I was also reminded of a discussion last month over at Stuck In A Book, about P.D. James and Jill Paton Walsh debating Christie v. Sayers (where I was one of the few championing Sayers and Lord Peter over Christie).

As the above quote suggests, James is looking at (mainly English) detective fiction in the context of literary history, including the mysteries in "mainstream" fiction like Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope; but also for what it tells us about social history.  She traces the development of the mystery novel from William Godwin's Caleb Williams and Edgar Allan Poe, to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, stopping to acknowledge the influence of Jonathan Whicher and the Constance Kent case (Kate Summerscale's book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a must-read for anyone interested in the Victorian England or the history of detection).  Of course the most famous literary detective remains Sherlock Holmes, reimagined today through novels like Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series, and film and TV versions.

James devotes a chapter to the four best-known writers of "Golden Age" mysteries of the 1930s, all women: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh.  I would include Josephine Tey, whom James does discuss elsewhere in the book.  Of the four, James argues that only Marsh "could have left a more impressive legacy as a novelist."

I found this book to be entertaining and informative, and a good companion to her autobiography Time To Be In Earnest (which also includes a discussion of Dorothy L. Sayers).  It also reminded me that, as much detective fiction as I read, there are still so many authors to be discovered, including G.K. Chesterton (currently in the TBR pile) and Georges Simeon.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!