L C Tyler recommends Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James

PDJTDF One of the problems with crime fiction, in my humble opinion, is that there is so much of it.  Crime writers are expected to be fairly omniscient concerning their genre; most of us (with the possible exception of Martin Edwards) aren’t.  Before I started writing, I would probably have regarded myself as being reasonably well-read – but there were gaps that, even then, I was dimly aware of.  For example (and I’m only telling you this because I know you won’t tell anybody else) I have never knowingly read anything by Ngaio Marsh.   And of course the deeper I have delved into the subject, the vaster the chasms in my knowledge that have been revealed.

Talking about Detective Fiction is, if nothing else, at least a marvellous way of mapping your ignorance of the subject and provides a great introduction to writers you may have missed up until now.  It is also an excellent overview of themes and sub-genres.

PD James’ book takes us from detective fiction’s murky beginnings, through the Golden Age and the origins of the hard-boiled novel, and up to the present day.  It is an easy read – both because it is well-written and because the length (just over 150 pages) leaves no scope for getting bogged down in unnecessary detail.  Nor is this just an adulatory homage to the Golden Age – of Christie, for example, James writes “she wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre”.  So much for some reputations, then.  But I defy you to read the book and not develop a sudden enthusiasm for (say) EC Bentley, Edmund Crispin or GK Chesterton.


Published by the Bodleian Library, the book appropriately includes a brief over-view of books set in Oxford, concluding that “in fiction, Oxford is the most murderous city in the UK”.  The link to the Bodleian is appropriate too in that this is, without being overly academic, a very erudite and (for its size) thorough survey of crime literature.  Its only weakness is arguably when it comes to discussing crime fiction this century – or to put it another way, I’m not mentioned at all.  Ah well, there’s always the second edition …

Talking about Detective Fiction would make a great present for the crime writer in your life or indeed for anyone remotely interested in the genre.  It is a classic to be placed alongside Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder and Watson’s Snobbery with Violence.  Highly recommended.

PDJTDFPB A hardback (cover above) is available from The Bodleian Bookshop here.  The paperback (left) is available from Waterstone's here.

With thanks to L C Tyler.  Find out more about the author and his works here.

4 thoughts on “L C Tyler recommends Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James

  1. Maxine

    I haven’t read this yet, either, but I wonder how “UK centric” it might be? Does it cover crime fiction from the USA, mainland Europe, Australia, elsewhere in the world? Barry Norman’s A Rough Guide to Crime Fiction is, by the sounds of it, a different type of book, being in short encyclopaedia (or long dictionary) format, and is better on lists of authors/books than on analysis, but it is impressively international.

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