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Beautiful logic

A master of crime fiction takes us on a personalised tour of the genre, writes Indrajit Hazra.

books Updated: Feb 26, 2010 23:00 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

Talking About Detective Fiction

P.D. James
Rs 399 || Pg 159

This is a book about a love affair between iconic detective fiction writer Phyllis Dorothy James, more recognisable to most of us next to the bedside lamp as P.D. James, and the genre of writing she worships and has practised for the last 50 years. Written as a series of essays, Talking About Detective Fiction is a collection that has the feel of Sunday sermons from a friendly pastor and the voice of an aficionado with an addiction.

James starts at the beginning, locating Wilkie Collins’ 1868 novel The Moonstone as the first detective novel. She reminds us that Collins’ creation of one of the earliest fictional detectives, Sgt Cuff, was based on a real-life Scotland Yard inspector whose investigation of a murder became national news in Britain in 1860.

James deals with the great Sherlock Holmes and asks some fun side questions about Conan Doyle’s hero. (What did the residents of 221A think of their neighbour who regularly practised shooting his revolver indoors?) She then moves to her real hero, G.K. Chesterton, the creator of the short Roman Catholic priest, Father Brown, who solved crime by “a mixture of common sense, observation and his knowledge of the human heart”.

After charting through the inter-war ‘Golden Age’, the author revels in the smoky dialogue-driven world of the hard-boiled novels typified by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. In ‘Telling the Story: Setting, Viewpoint, People’, she dissects the works of writers as varied as Michael Dibdin and H.R.F. Keating and her own novels. This is the insider taking us into the cave.

Talking About Detective Fiction is a stylish paean to crime writing and the poetics of the genre. James quotes the last line from Chesterton’s short story, ‘The Invisible Man’: “But Father Brown walked those snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murder, and what they said to each other will never be known.” She writes a line later, “We can be sure that, whatever was spoken, it had little or nothing to do with the criminal justice system.” Her way of telling us that crime fiction is so much more than just about crimes being solved.