TEXT review

Murder, she wrote

review by Jay Daniel Thompson



Talking About Detective Fiction


P.D. James
Talking About Detective Fiction
Faber and Faber, London 2009
ISBN: 978-0-571-25355-5
Pb 159pp AUD26.99


P.D. James is a prolific author of detective novels. In Talking About Detective Fiction, the London-based writer provides an analysis of her chosen genre. Her text is very readable, though it contains some distinct limitations.

James begins by exploring the origins of detective fiction in the work of Victorian authors such as Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There is an extensive discussion of the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction. According to James, this ‘Golden Age’ spanned the first half of the twentieth century and encompassed the work of Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Sayers, amongst others (72). James looks at more recent detective fiction, including some of her own novels. The writer concludes by speculating that twenty-first century readers will continue to enjoy the ‘relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge’ that detective narratives offer (157).

James writes in a lively, engaging style and demonstrates a great passion for her subject matter. She admits that detective fiction is her ‘favourite relaxation reading’ and a genre that she had always wanted to contribute to (124). James makes some intelligent observations about the production and consumption of detective narratives. My favourite of these concerns the importance of a novel’s setting:

Setting … is important to characterisation, since people react to their environment and are influenced by it. When an author describes a room in the victim’s house, perhaps the one in which the body is found, the description can tell the perceptive reader a great deal about the victim’s character and interests. (115)

The importance of setting can also help explain the prevalence of the quaint English village in the work of authors such as Agatha Christie. According to James, this village setting ‘retains a powerful hold on our imagination, an image compounded of nostalgia for a life once experienced or imagined and a vague unfocused longing to escape the city for a simpler … life’ (113). The cosy atmosphere of the mythical English village is disturbed when a murder takes place.

Also, I commend James for defending detective fiction against charges that it glorifies and provokes violence. James argues that ‘fictional murder is usually … more complicated and ingenious than murder in real life’ (135). The fictional murderer ‘is always found out’, and this distinguishes them from many real-life killers (135). James concedes that ‘it is possible to deal with the intellectual side of the detection’ and also portray ‘the emotional trauma’ of characters affected by a murder (136). This is more ethically sound (and accurate) than suggesting that murder affects nobody but the victim.

The field of detective fiction is broad. There are (unsurprisingly) aspects of this field that James touches on barely, if at all. She focuses primarily on detective narratives from the UK and US. Those searching for references to Australian crime novelists such as Shane Maloney will be disappointed. James devotes a whole chapter to work of women (for example, Agatha Christie) who have written detective narratives. She cites female sleuths such as Miss Marple and V.I. Warshawski. Puzzlingly, though, James refers to writers and readers of detective fiction using the masculine pronoun.

The main problem with Talking About Detective Fiction is that James’ research is dated. The author approvingly quotes insights about literature and representation by modernist writers such as W.H. Auden and A. A. Milne. Conversely, she deplores the impact that psychoanalytic literary theory has supposedly had upon contemporary authors and critics: ‘For a time in the late twentieth century it seemed that the story was losing its status and that psychological analysis … (was) taking over from action’ (140). This is a broad statement, and one that James does not attempt to support by quoting any purveyors of ‘psychological analysis’.

James’ text could have benefited from an engagement with recent studies of detective literature and popular fiction. These studies include Sally R. Munt’s Murder By the Book (1994) and Ken Gelder’s Popular Fiction: The Logic and Practices of a Literary Field (2004). By engaging with this work, James could have avoided making such problematic arguments as the following one:

Crime fiction today is more realistic in its treatment of murder, more aware of scientific advances in the detection of crime, more sensitive to the environment in which it is set, more sexually explicit and closer than it has ever been to mainstream fiction. (146)

Representations of sex and violence in contemporary detective fiction are frequently more explicit than they were during the genre’s ‘Golden Years’. Yet explicitness does not always equal realism. James seems to imply that detective fiction is not ‘mainstream’. She then aligns detective novels with ‘popular literature’ (157). James never clarifies the difference between ‘popular’ and ‘mainstream’, nor does she define these terms. James argues: ‘We do not expect popular literature to be great literature …’ (157). Such views about popularity and literary merit are outmoded.

Talking About Detective Fiction is best read as an homage to James’ love for this literary genre. Readers looking for a more comprehensive and nuanced analysis of detective narratives are advised to look elsewhere.


Dr Jay Daniel Thompson completed a PhD in Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne in 2009. He is currently a freelance writer, researcher and reviewer. Jay lives in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. 


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Vol 14 No 2 October 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb