Question: What made you decide to write a book about detective fiction?
P.D. James: I wrote my book, Talking About Detective Fiction, because the Bodleian Library, one of the great libraries of the world, asked me to write about detective fiction in aid of the Library. I said I would do so when I had finished writing The Private Patient. Detective fiction has fascinated me both as a reader and a novelist for over 50 years, and I enjoyed revisiting the books of the Golden Age which have given me such pleasure, and describing how I myself set out on the task of writing a detective story which can be both an exciting mystery and a good novel.
Question: How do you explain our seemingly unending appetite for mysteries? What is it about the mystery that so engages our minds and imagination?
P.D. James: The human race has had an appetite for mysteries from the earliest writings and no doubt tales of mystery and murder were recounted by our remote ancestors round the camp fires by the tribal storyteller. Murder is the unique crime, the only one for which we can make no reparation, and has always been greeted with a mixture of repugnance, horror, fear, and fascination. We are particularly intrigued by the motives which cause a man or woman to step across the invisible line which separates a murderer from the rest of humanity. Human beings also love a puzzle and a strong story, and mysteries have both.
Question: Do you think there is (or was) a Golden Age of detective fiction?
P.D. James: The years between the two world wars are generally regarded as the Golden Age of detective fiction and certainly, in England in particular, there was a surge of excellent writing. The detective story became immensely popular and a number of very talented writers were engaged in the craft. I feel that there are so many good novelists writing mysteries today that we may well be entering a second Golden Age.
Question: Do you feel that your own Adam Dalgliesh owes anything to any particular literary detectives who came before him?
P.D. James: I don''t feel that Adam Dalgliesh owes anything to a particular literary detective as the heroes of the mystery novels which I particularly enjoyed in the Golden Age were usually amateurs, and I was anxious to create a professional detective.
Question: If you were to recommend 3 or 4 books that represent the best of detective fiction in all its forms, which books would they be?
P.D. James: It is difficult to know what books to recommend as personal taste plays such a large part and modern readers may feel out of touch with the Golden Age mysteries which I so much enjoyed. Among them are The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham, Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers, and Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare. It would take a much longer list to represent the mystery in all its forms, and it would certainly include the American hard-boiled school.
In a perfect marriage of author and subject, P. D. James—one of the most widely admired writers of detective fiction at work today—gives us a personal, lively, illuminating exploration of the human appetite for mystery and mayhem, and of those writers who have satisfied it.
P. D. James examines the genre from top to bottom, beginning with the mysteries at the hearts of such novels as Charles Dickens’s Bleak House andWilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, and bringing us into the present with such writers as Colin Dexter and Henning Mankell. Along the way she writes about Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie (“arch-breaker of rules”), Josephine Tey, Dashiell Hammett, and Peter Lovesey, among many others. She traces their lives into and out of their fiction, clarifies their individual styles, and gives us indelible portraits of the characters they’ve created, from Sherlock Holmes to Sara Paretsky’s sexually liberated female investigator, V. I. Warshawski. She compares British and American Golden Age mystery writing. She discusses detective fiction as social history, the stylistic components of the genre, her own process of writing, how critics have reacted over the years, and what she sees as a renewal of detective fiction—and of the detective hero—in recent years.
There is perhaps no one who could write about this enduring genre of storytelling with equal authority and flair: it is essential reading for every lover of detective fiction.
From the Hardcover edition.
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