One of my Christmas gifts this year was P.D. James’ Talking About Detective Fiction. At less than 200 pages, it might be the shortest thing she’s ever written. But for anybody who enjoys crime-writing in general and British crime-writing in particular, it’s a fun, illuminating look at the evolution of the craft over the last 150 years.
The title doesn’t exactly grab you by the throat, does it? But it’s accurate. It’s like having tea with Ms. James as she warms to her subject — which, as she puts it, “was one of the few on which I felt competent to pontificate.” She talks about Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, but also discusses her own work and those of the modern masters like Ian Rankin. I gather she’s not a big fan of Christie, and her view of the Golden Age writers on this side of the pond — Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald, say — may be something short of unalloyed admiration.
Which is another reason I like this book. I hate the book jackets where one famous writer is fawning over another, knowing that a return favor is part of the deal. P.D. James is near 90 and past that now, and has nothing to gain by doling out insincere praise. When she says something she means it. And because of that, I also take heart from her line near the end: “We may well be at the beginning of a new Golden Age.” As someone who loves to read detective fiction and aspires to write it, that’s good news indeed.