Book Review: Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James
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 Lots – mostly that my own perceptions about it are indeed out of date.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.