Wednesday, February 18

Talking About Detective Fiction

Talking About Detective Fiction



Have you ever read P.D. James’ insightful and beautifully written book, “Talking About Detective Fiction”? In it she gives an impassioned defense of mystery as an art form as well as a fascinating history of how the genre came to be. In what follows I focus on what makes murder mysteries unique.

The Essential Ingredients of A Murder Mystery


P.D. James writes:

"Although the detective story at its highest can also operate on the dangerous edge of things, it is differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organised structure and recognised conventions. What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motive, means and opportunity for the crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it; and, by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness."

So there we have it:

a. A central mysterious crime.

b. A closed circle of suspects, often in an isolated, rural, community.

c. Each suspect should have a motive for committing the crime, the means to have done the dastardly deed as well as the opportunity to have done so.

d. A detective “who comes in like an avenging deity” to solve the mystery when the police are baffled.

e. A solution, one which the reader should be able to arrive at themselves from the clues left by the writer (clues inserted with “deceptive cunning but essential fairness”).

f. A respectable and prosperous setting.

g. James holds that the detective story proper is fundamentally "concerned with the bringing of order out of disorder and the restoration of peace after the destructive eruption of murder."

As James notes, this definition of a murder mystery came to us from those stories written in the inter-war years (roughly, 1919 to 1939), that period of time known as the Golden Age of Murder Mysteries.

Still, James feels that certain core elements of a murder mystery will be present in any murder mystery story. Namely, (a) and (e) above.

The Role of the Police


Generally speaking, while murder mysteries may portray police officers as “ineffective, plodding, slow-witted and ill-educated” they are never corrupt. James writes that:

“Detective fiction is in the tradition of the English novel, which sees crime, violence and social chaos as an aberration, virtue and good order as the norm for which all reasonable people strive, and which confirms our belief, despite some evidence to the contrary, that we live in a rational, comprehensible and moral universe. And in doing this it provides not only the satisfaction of all popular literature, the mild intellectual challenge of a puzzle, excitement, confirmation of our cherished beliefs in goodness and order, but also entry to a familiar and reassuring world in which we are both involved in violent death and yet remain personally inviolate both from responsibility and from its terrors. Whether we should expect this detachment from vicarious responsibility is, of course, another question and one which bears on the difference between the books of the years between the wars and the detective novels of today.”

The History of Murder Mysteries


I confess I didn’t know very much about the fascinating history of the murder mystery genre before I read “Talking About Detective Fiction.” James takes the reader on a journey from Edgar Allen Poe and his detective, C. Auguste Dupin (1840s), through Wilkie Collins' “The Woman in White” (1860) and “The Moonstone” (1868). That’s just the beginning, of course, she ruminates about the changes brought to the world by the end of the Second World War, the differences between American and English murder mysteries, and much more. James makes the history fascinating and I would highly recommend the slim volume for this section alone.

What I’ve discussed here barely touches the surface of the wealth of material in P.D. James’ extraordinary book. I highly recommend it to any and all readers—and writers—of detective fiction.

Well, that’s it for today. Thanks for reading and good writing!

Photo credit: Halloween.

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