I have just spent the most intriguing weekend in the company of P D James. (I was going to say delightful – but is that appropriate considering the subject is murder?) The thing is when I’m under pressure, I binge on cream cakes crime reading. So when I saw this in the newly published lists, I simply grabbed it and gorged myself. (Book-buying embargo notwithstanding!) Just one word of warning, this is the literary equivalent of that cream cake you gain 5lbs just looking at! Let’s come back to the weight that my TBRs (both real and virtual) gained reading 150 pages of crime-related literary criticism ….
Need I introduce P D James, author of 18 novels, creator of the delectable Adam Dalgleish, and winner of numerous crime fiction awards? I didn’t think so. One of the undisputed queens of British crime fiction, her insights in the world of detective fiction are distilled into this slim volume of 8 chapters and a selection of hilarious crime-reading related cartoons. She covers a lot of ground from the beginnings of detective fiction in the work of Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins through the Golden Age of crime fiction right up to the contemporary scene (although coverage of this latter subject is somewhat cursory). The history of the genre then coupled with a personal appreciation of the most influential authors and her personal favourites. Now we don’t always agree – I can’t stand Sherlock Holmes for example. But James does at least make me understand his significance – so my literary blindspot won’t be so quite so total from here on in … well, perhaps not.
At 89 years of age, James isn’t simply theorising about the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, she has lived through it. So the chapters relating the 4 grandes dames of the golden age, Agatha Christie, D L Sayers (another of my blindspots), Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh are particularly illuminating. I’m glad to report that she is much kinder to Dame Agatha in this book than she was when I saw her speak, rather mockingly, I thought, about closed group murder mysteries a few years ago. (Yes, it was ironic given that I had just read James’s own, very good closed group mysteries The Murder Room and The Lighthouse.) In this volume, however, James discusses Christie’s strengths and weaknesses in an honest and balanced measure. I’m glad that we both hold the innovation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in high regard. (…. and the writing of my own favourites Michael Dibdin and Reginald Hill).
While the emphasis is very much on the British crime scene, there is an excellent chapter on American crime noir, examining the reasons why British crime-writing was soft-centred and American hard-boiled. There is also much about the craft and choices that crime writers make in relation to setting, viewpoint and characters with James divulging some of the secrets and inspirations behind her own novels … and the progression of the sychophantic Watson character, a man who irritates me only slightly less than his “lord and master” Holmes.
Particularly enjoyable is the chapter “Critics and Aficionados – why some don’t enjoy them and why others do”. Are you an Edmund Wilson who in 1945 published an essay entitled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Or are you a W.H.Auden who wrote that his reading of detective stories was an addiction, the symptoms being the intensity of his craving, the specificity of the story and its immediacy?
Well, like Auden, I’m craving crime at the moment and so watch this space. I haven’t had a crime binge for a couple of years but right now, I’m studying for a professional qualification, so in my spare time, I need easy reading, story, narrative pace and entertainment. However, I’m of the opinion that crime fiction can also be literary.
So it’s now time to confess the books that have been added to my in-the-very-near-future-to-be-read-TBR as a result of spending a couple of days in the company of P D James.
1. Emma – Jane Austen (This has never appealed but P D James assures me that it is a detective story!)
2. Phineas Redux – Anthony Trollope (Likely to be my first Trollope!)
3. The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins (Been meaning to read this forever.)
4. Something by Margery Allingham (About time I read her.)
5. Something by Ngaio Marsh (About time I read her too!)
6. The Continental Op – Dashiel Hammett (Perfect reading for my forthcoming trip to San Francisco.)
7. The 100 Best Ever Crime and Mystery Novels as chosen by H R F Keating …..
I am not going to divulge how badly my book buying embargo has been busted during the last few days. Let’s just say it’s criminal!