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Reviews: Crime Fiction Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

Motive, Means and Opportunity

A preoccupation with the causes and consequences of evil, especially murder, lies at the heart of crime fiction. Perceptive readers of mystery stories avoid those that sacrifice literary style and convincing characters for the sake of the plot. Today, with the enormous amount of fiction written, the boundaries between genres have blurred. Often a work of literary fiction revolves around a crime – for example, Rose Tremain’s brilliant novel, Trespass. At the same time, some mysteries of stylistic excellence and masterful characterization fit authentically into the category of literary fiction. Susan Hill’s ingenious Simon Serrailler series comes immediately to mind. And book after book, Elizabeth George’s vivid and intelligent prose style continues to merit for her works the label “literary fiction.” The esteemed 90-year-old P.D. James, author of some 20 mysteries and considered by many to be the writer of the best in British crime fiction, has published a book that explores the genre. Titled Talking About Detective Fiction, it sheds light on the human appetite for who-done-its, and discusses its prominent practitioners.

James reminds us that in addition to a central crime – usually murder – the detective novel portrays a closed circuit of suspects, each with a motive, means and opportunity for the crime. It features a detective, either amateur or professional who comes in like an “avenging deity” to solve the crime. And, by the end of the book, there should be a solution. The reader must be able to arrive at this resolution through logical deductions made from clues inserted in the story with “deceptive cunning,” but essential fairness.

A certain segment of fiction readers avoid crime stories on the grounds that such books sacrifice plausible characterization and vivid setting in order to feature a plot that conforms to a formula. In rebuttal, James points out that all Jane Austen novels have a common storyline. Namely, an attractive and virtuous young woman surmounts difficulties to achieve marriage to the man of her choice. James asks us to keep in mind what Austen so brilliantly achieves within this form!

According to James, although read for pleasure, detective fiction deals with the “most desperate effects of rage, jealousy and revenge.” It views death and mutilation with a dispassionate eye. Often, it cannot reveal the inner workings of the murderer’s mind because the identity of the murderer is hidden until the end of the book.

James and other experts in the field consider Wilke Collins’s The Moonstone the first detective story in English. The moonstone refers to a diamond stolen from an Indian shrine by Colonel John Herncastle. It was bequeathed to his niece, Rachal Verrinder, and brought to her Yorkshire home to be handed over on her 18th birthday by a young solicitor, Franklin Blake. During the night it is stolen, obviously by a member of the household. A London detective, Sergeant Cuff, is called in, but later Franklin Blake takes over the investigation, although he himself is among the suspects.

The Moonstone is a complex and brilliantly structured story told in narrative by different characters involved directly or indirectly in the story. “The varied styles, voices and viewpoints not only add variety and interest to the narrative,” notes James, “but are a powerful revelation of character.”

With time The Moonstone has dwindled in popularity. Today’s readers tend to be attracted to detectives Poirot and Miss Marple, creations of the ineffable Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976). Christie’s writing, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, has been translated into more than one hundred languages. Also she holds the honor of having authored The Mousetrap, the longest-running play ever seen on the London stage.

James describes Christie’s natural world as that of the romanticized, cozy English village, and comments that Christie’s universal appeal doesn’t lie in blood or violence: “Not for her the bullet-ridden corpses down Raymond Chandler’s mean city streets, the urban jungle of the wise-cracking, fast-shooting, sardonic private eye or the careful psychological examination of human depravity.”

Readers seem comfortable with Christie’s predictable social hierarchy: the wealthy squire, his new young wife (often with a mysterious past), the retired, irascible colonel, the village doctor and the district nurse, the chemist (useful for the purchase of poison), the gossiping spinsters behind their lace curtains, and the parson in his vicarage. James commends Christie for consistently delivering a strong and exciting narrative, the challenge of a puzzle, and an accessible style.

Although they were contemporary crime-story authors, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) – another mystery writer profiled by James – possessed vastly different styles and tones. It was Dorothy Sayers who, in fact, made the detective story intellectually respectable, and she strongly influenced the genre itself and its succeeding writers. James points out that to her detractors, Sayers was “outrageously snobbish, intellectually arrogant, and pretentious.” To her admirers, her writing style was articulate and elegant, and her tone was intelligent, scholarly and witty.

Sayers created Lord Peter Wimsey, a likable and memorable character through whom she offers her readers vicarious satisfaction in the privileges and pleasures of wealth. Unlike Agatha Christie, who was reluctant to describe physical violence, Sayers graphically portrayed ingenious, grisly murders. “Finding the body” was for her the moment of highest drama in a good crime story. The fact that most crime-story authors writing today realistically depict horrifying and blood-filled crime scenes is evidence of Sayers’s strong influence on the genre.

Gaudy Night, arguably the best of Sayers’s books, is an unusual mystery story because it does not have a death as it underpinning. It is set at the fictional Shrewsbury College, Oxford. There are, however, two attempted murders – one of the sensitive Shrewsbury student, Miss Newland and one of the main characters, Harriet Vane herself. Though the academic setting Sayers portrays is gone forever, the book, with its psychological subtlety, is an outstanding example of a true detective story. Readers are eager to find out who among a closed circle of suspects is responsible for the malicious disruption at Shrewsbury College. And the clues to the mystery are fairly, indeed, plainly presented.

James underscores the importance of the chapter in a mystery novel that describes the finding of a body: “To find a murdered corpse is a horrible, sometimes life-changing experience for most normal people, and the [description] should be vivid and realistic enough to enable the reader to share the shock and horror, the revulsion and the pity.”

After James’s compelling presentation of prominent mystery writers from the past, she writes about her own detective novels, emphasizing two vital aspects of fiction – setting and point of view.

According to James, when an author describes a room in the victim’s house, perhaps the one in which the body is found, the description can tell the perceptive reader a great deal about the victim’s character and interests. Furniture, books, pictures – all the sad detritus of the dead person – tell a story. The emotions of that moment of finding a corpse and the language used to convey them should reflect the person who makes the discovery.

Setting detective novels in a closed society, perhaps a hospital, school, office, or publishing house, has a number of advantages. The stain of suspicion cannot be allowed to spread too far if each suspect is to be a rounded, credible, breathing human being, not a cardboard cut-out. An official investigation for murder often necessitates the illumination of all that was once private in each suspect’s life. An exhaustive rendering of the private lives of too many characters would simply derail any credible plot.

James cleverly used setting as contrast in her best-selling novel, A Taste for Death. Two bodies, each with its head almost severed, are discovered in a church vestry. “The contrast,” she notes “between the sanctity of the setting and the brutality of the murders intensifies the horror.”

She writes eloquently about one locale in England: “East Anglia has a particular attraction for detective novelists: the remoteness of the East Coast, the dangerous, encroaching North sea, the bird-loud marshes, the emptiness, the great skies, the magnificent churches, and the sense of being in a place alien, mysterious and slightly sinister where it is possible to stand under friable cliffs eaten away by the tides of centuries and imagine that we hear the bells of ancient churches buried under the sea.

James believes that point of view is of equal importance to setting in mystery fiction. Through whose mind, eyes and ears should readers participate in a book’s plot? She explains: “The first-person narrative has the advantage of immediacy and of reader identification and sympathy with the one whose voice she hears. It is also an aid to credibility because the reader is more likely to suspend disbelief [regarding] improbable plot twists when hearing the explanation in the first-person.”

Yet as in all fiction, mystery and otherwise, the disadvantage of a first-person narrative is that the reader can only know what the narrator knows – seeing only through his eyes and experiencing only what he experiences. James herself prefers the omniscient narrator point of view. With this technique she moves credibly into the minds of the different characters, seeing with their eyes, expressing their emotions, and hearing their words.

James believes that today detective fiction and detective heroes, both male and female, amateur and professional, are more popular than ever. Any glimpse of the reading choices of passengers seated on an airliner will reveal everything from Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series to the sordid and sexually graphic novels of Stieg Larsson. In James’s study, the genre she examines does not, of course, include mass-market pulp fiction or “bodice rippers.”

P. D. James’s lively study of detective fiction succeeds on so many levels. Unquestionably, no one can match her authority and flair in writing about the genre.