Christina Vasilevski

Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience

Book Review: Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. JamesTitle: Talking About Detective Fiction
Author: P.D. James
Publisher: Vintage Canada
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

A few weeks ago, I read an old article by Jo Walton on Tor.com about reading protocols for SF. I’ve been aware of the concept of “reading protocols” for some time, but this article, simply by giving that concept a name, has been very useful.

Since then, I’ve wondered about how exposure to one genre affects one’s perceptions of other, different genres. Put simply: how easy is it to switch from one set of protocols to another? Are there shortcuts you can use to learn new protocols quickly?

That’s what I wanted to know when I read Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James. Part history of the genre, part inquiry into detective story tropes, and part memoir, this book seemed like the shortcut I was looking for. Like speculative fiction, mysteries often follow a set of conventions that provide the reader with familiarity, comfort, and structure. Also like speculative fiction, mysteries have tropes that typify the genre to outsiders yet are seen as dated and stale by insiders. Space aliens don’t carry ray-guns anymore, and the butler didn’t always do it.

So, what have I learned about detective fiction from this book? Lots – mostly that my own perceptions about it are indeed out of date. I learned that “Golden Age” mystery novels often sacrificed plausibility in favour of ingenuity. I learned about how the post-war climates of the US and the UK contributed to making “hard boiled” and “murder mystery” fiction such divergent subgenres. I learned that the “Watson” figure long ago transformed from a walking exposition receptacle into something more nuanced.

Most surprisingly, I learned that “Golden Age” mystery was relatively welcoming to women writers. James devotes an entire chapter to Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham, examining their differences, similarities, and legacies. In contrast, it’s hard for me to think of four female science fiction writers (even ones who relied on male pseudonyms like Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr) who wielded such influence during SF’s own Golden Age, although I would be happy to be proven wrong.

Has this book given me all of the necessary protocols to appreciate detective fiction on its own merits? I doubt it – there are large parts of my brain that need to be rewired to fully appreciate the intricacy of the genre. But this book is as good a start as any.

Book statistics, genre love, and genre hate

Last week I started an additional side project related to my reading efforts. Spurred on by an article in Salon talking about gender bias in book reviews, I have decided to keep a spreadsheet of my own reading efforts with the intention to derive some nice statistics at the end of the year. Will I end up giving print books higher ratings, on average, than eBooks? What about female authors versus male ones? There are so many questions to ask and answers to seek, and so many ways from which to view this information, that this project is impossible to resist.

Regardless of this, one thing has become obvious despite the small pool of books I’ve read so far this year: I really don’t like crime/detective fiction.

My chief complaints about both Zoo City and Empire State (oddly enough, both published by Angry Robot Books) had to do with their attempts to blend sci-fi/fantasy story elements with crime/detective story elements. The combination didn’t work for me, and in Empire State in particular, I found that the author’s application of sci-fi elements was used to wallpaper over some glaring inconsistencies.

This raises an interesting question, then: do I dislike the crime genre as a whole, the mixing of genres, or just the way those two books handled said mixing? Well, now that I’ve got my handy-dandy spreadsheet, the question will be a little easier to answer come December 2012, won’t it? Assuming, that is, that we don’t blow up in some Mayan calendrical apocalypse.

Anyways.

I read Old City Hall near the end of 2010 and really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that when I went to Word on the Street in September 2011 and told the author, Robert Rotenberg, how much – oh my god, can I tell you what an intriguing character Albert Fernandez is? – he gave me an autographed copy of the book for free.

OCH is about a crime, and one of the main characters is a police detective. Does the book fall, then, under the rubric of crime fiction? Or rather, since many of its most important events take place in a courtroom, should it be classified as a legal thriller? Where does one draw the line dividing genres? In this case, is there even a line to be drawn? I have no idea. All I know is that I found the book’s analysis of coutroom behaviour fascinating, and wanted even more of it.

On top of that, I also enjoyed the movie Children of Men when I saw it, and that was based on a book by noted detective fiction writer P.D. James. Would I like her Adam Dalgleish books just as much if  I tried one? I don’t know. Part of me doesn’t want to read mysteries because my knowledge of the genre is so poor that it will feel like work – the literary equivalent  of eating broccoli (make sure to read at least 5-8 servings per year!). However, another part of me knows that I’m missing out on some amazing fiction because of my own wariness.

This is another issue that I hope tracking my reading on a spreadsheet will be able to rectify: If I can analyze my reading habits and figure out what patterns and holes there are in said habits, I’ll be closer to improving them and to becoming an even better editor.