Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Mysteries of Crime Fiction? P. D. James Is on the Case
By Janet Maslin in The New York Times
Published: December 6, 2009

TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION By P. D. James llustrated. 198 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $22.
(Pub.by Bodleian Library in UK)

Author photo by Ulla Montan

In her avid book-length essay on the roots, ethics and methods of the detective story, P. D. James places an imaginary traveler in a hotel room where there are two books beside the bed. One book is a prestigious literary prizewinner; the other is an old chestnut by Agatha Christie. Ms. James surmises that most travelers would pick the Christie book “to assuage the half-acknowledged fear of contemporary travel and the discomfort and boredom of a long night.”

In other words, Ms. James has a sly way with a shiv. She doesn’t think much of Christie’s drawing-room mysteries, regarding them as overrated relics of the English crime story’s much-vaunted golden age. While Ms. James admires the style of that period and rues that so many golden age classics are now out of print, she is vexed — her sort of word — by Christie having eclipsed so many of her contemporaries.
“Agatha Christie hasn’t in my view had a profound influence on the later development of the detective story,” Ms. James writes with typical sweeping assurance in “Talking About Detective Fiction,” a book she wrote to benefit the Bodleian Library at Oxford, though it hardly reads like a make-work project. Christie, she adds, “wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre.” Above all, Ms. James states, Christie “is a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practiced cunning.” As an indication that Ms. James can deliver a backhanded compliment almost as lethally as she can conjure a murder weapon, she also lobs this one: “Perhaps her greatest strength was that she never overstepped the limits of her talent.”

Thus dispelling any doubts as to whether the nearly 90-year-old, demure-looking Ms. James has the toughness to dissect the world of crime writing, “Talking About Detective Fiction” goes on to offer many precise examples of what Ms. James admires and what she doesn’t. Her opinions are often surprising and determinedly contrary. She finds Dr. Watson a much more honorable and plausible figure than Sherlock Holmes, and she raises some all too obvious questions about their household.
Read more at NYT.
And for a UK review link here.

1 comment:

Vanda Symon said...

I feel a trip to the University Book Shop coming on...