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21 September 2010
Review: TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION, P.D. James - audio
Read by Diana Bishop
BBC Audio Books 2010
Text P.D. James 2009
Playing Time 4 hrs 20 mins
To judge by the worldwide success of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie's Poirot, an appetite for murder, mystery and mayhem is universal. Talking about the craft of detective writing and sharing her personal thoughts and observations, P. D. James examines the challenges, achievements, and potential of a genre which has fascinated her for nearly 50 years. From the tenant of 221b Baker Street to the Village Priest from Cubhole in Essex, from the Golden Age of detective writing between the wars to the achievements of the present and a glimpse at the future, P. D. James explores the metamorphosis of a genre which has gripped and entertained the popular imagination like no other type of novel.
What this book illustrated for me more than anything else is what an encyclopaedic knowledge P.D. James has of the history of detective fiction. She is particularly strong on its beginnings and on the writers of the Golden Age, particularly the "big three" of Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie. Her love of, and study of the genre, comes through very clearly. I felt that when it comes to her contemporaries, and younger writers, then her knowledge is not quite as deep, although she has quite clearly read very widely. As she herself points out, she is writing about detective fiction, not the whole gamut of crime fiction.
But while she mentioned in passing the "new" crop of writers we are reading in translation like Henning Mankell, and other unique contributors like Alexander McCall Smith, and paid tribute to her contemporary Ruth Rendell, she omitted a number of 21st century female writers like Ann Cleeves, Pauline Rowson, and Aline Templeton. Australian creators of detectives simply don't appear in her scan, although New Zealander Ngiao Marsh does, albeit as somewhat of a disappointment, someone who didn't fulfil her potential.
By the time I got to disc 4, I was feeling a bit as if I was attending a lecture, as well as that James is more comfortable in talking about the distant history of the genre, and hasn't got a lot to say about the 2000s onwards.
Nevertheless, if you are interested in learning quite a lot about the history of the genre, this narration by Diana Bishop is a good one to pick. If you are a writer of detective fiction, then there is something in this book for you too, particularly when she talks about genre rules that earlier writers have tried to set in stone.
My rating 4.5
See interview with P.D. James