Talking About Detective Fiction
Having spent almost a half century writing novels of detection, P. D. James is eminently qualified for the task she undertakes in Talking About Detective Fiction: to survey the history and importance of the genre. While the book was intended originally to be a study of British detective fiction, James also remarks on the American contribution to the genre. At the outset, she struggles with a problem that besets many students of detective fiction: distinguishing it from mainstream fiction. The elements of mystery and crime that, by anyone’s definition, are essential to detective fiction are also frequently present in mainstream fiction. Nonetheless, James says, detective fiction is distinguished by a highly organized structure and recognized conventions:a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motive, means and opportunity for the crime; a detective, either amateur or professional; and, at the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction.
James argues that, while this definition of the genre is adequate, it has over time become restrictive. The tightly delimited circle of suspects, for example, has proved to be less essential than the other elements included in the definition.
In her survey of the origins of detective fiction, James takes the view that Wilkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone (1868) stands as the first “full-length classic detective story.” Only in a later chapter does she acknowledge that the American Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories featuring the fictional French sleuth C. Auguste Dupin contain all the essential elements of the emergent genre and were written more than twenty years before The Moonstone. Still, there can be little doubt that The Moonstone is a pioneering work, and in that novel Collins introduces the memorable Sergeant Cuff, a detective who is in many respects more representative of later detective heroes than is Poe’s Dupin.
Many of the finest works of detective fiction, especially in the early years, were works of short fictionparticularly Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. Regarding Doyle’s work, James has little to add to the already voluminous critical literature on the subject. Doyle’s historical importance lies in his break with the rather shoddy plot construction of the detective story in the late nineteenth century. He considered most of the tales of his predecessors to be “unimaginative, unfair in their denouement[s]” and burdened by detective heroes whose success depended on luck and the “stupidity of the criminal [rather] than their own cleverness.” Holmes, by contrast, relies consistently on the scientific method.
Nevertheless, James argues, the enduring appeal of the Holmes tales owes something their finely crafted Victorian atmosphere of “fog and gaslight,” an atmosphere that “conjures up an enveloping miasma of mystery and terror.” James regards Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (which first appeared in 1911 in the collection The Innocence of Father Brown) to represent a more profound contribution to the detective genre. Like Holmes, Father Brown is a brilliant amateur who relies upon logical deduction, yet he is also endowed with an intuitive sense of moral character that brings to Chesterton’s stories a depth of insight into the criminal mind that Doyle’s tales sometimes lack.
James emphasizes that Father Brown solves crimes “by a mixture of common sense, observation and his knowledge of the human heart.” Moreover, there is something deeply mysterious about him. Readers never learn much about his origins, his parentage, his life as a priest, or even his age. “Unencumbered by his past,” he appears at the scene of a crime like an “iconic harbinger of death.” For Chesterton, James says, crime fiction was not simply a matter of presenting a puzzle with an elegant solution; rather, he was a literary artist with a poetic vision whose tales invite readers “to see the romance and numinousness in commonplace things.”
While many aficionados of detective fiction regard the so-called Golden Age (roughly the period between the two world wars) as the high-water mark in the development of the genre, James makes no such argument. She admires many of the crime writers of the Golden Age and credits them with important innovations in the development of the genre. She criticizes their work, however, for its excessive preoccupation with original and surprising plots.
A strong plot is essential to effective detective fiction, and James is quite aware that much of the genre’s appeal during the Golden Age and thereafter has been its capacity for telling a story using conventional realist narrative techniques, by...
(The entire section is 1987 words.)