I’d like to welcome readers to this special edition of At the Scene of the Crime, in which I’m joined by a very special guest: Curt Evans, mystery scholar extraordinaire and author of a soon to be published book on “Humdrums”, authors from the Golden Age like John Rhode who are often dismissed despite their importance in the genre’s history.
It seems ironic, now that I think about it, that Curt’s agreed to join me and examine P. D. James’ Talking About Detective Fiction, which is a book that examines the mystery genre. I’ve taken good-natured cracks at P. D. James on the blog before. I haven’t read any of her books, but their size frankly scares me—in the wrong hands, one of her books would make an admirable bludgeoning weapon. But just how well would the Baroness analyse that noblest form of literature, the mystery? The only way to find out would be by reading the book…
Curt, thanks for joining me!
Perhaps I should start by saying that I found this book could be charitably called a train-wreck. I disagreed often with Julian Symons throughout Bloody Murder, but with P. D. James, I rarely got the chance to agree! Her history of the genre is highly selective, going from Jane Austen to the Crime Queens to a cursory glance at modern day, with barely a glance at anything else in between! The entire non-hardboiled American school of writing is treated as a non-entity, as though it never existed! John Dickson Carr is lucky to escape with a mere half-sentence acknowledging him as master of the locked-room mystery, while Helen McCloy, Anthony Boucher, Ellery Queen, and S. S. Van Dine are never mentioned!
James also has a curious fixation on Ronald Knox’s “Commandments” of Detective Fiction, treating them as though they were the only set of rules ever written. Van Dine’s Commandments are never mentioned, for instance, and James gets things horribly wrong when she writes: “Rules and restrictions do not produce original, or good, literature, and the rules were not strictly adhered to.” Did you hear that, Bill Shakespeare? You and your silly sonnets are neither original nor good, because you restrict them to 14 lines! The only rule you can really apply to detective fiction is for it to play fair with the clues, which I don’t see as a problem: it’s simply something that defines the genre.
From my perspective James' work is clearly inferior to that of Julian Symons' Bloody Murder, a much more intensively-researched work; but then James herself probably would agree. I always enjoy James' writing as writing, but as history Talking about Detective Fiction is far from a cornerstone work. James obviously relied quite a bit on Bloody Murder herself!
I agree with you that TADF is highly selective, even given its obvious overall space limitations. Generally it has rather an out-of-date feeling. Some sections of it actually are drawn from older pieces by James and, as mentioned above, the Symons influence is big. The original edition of Symons’ book is now forty years old.
You mention James' coverage of her beloved Jane Austen. It is an odd quirk of the book that Austen— who was not a crime novelist— gets a nod, rather than the women Victorian sensation novelists like M. E. Braddon and the writer formerly known as Mrs. Henry Wood, who have been the subjects of a furiously energetic academic revival of late.
But then, as you mention, James leaves out a great company of writers. If you blink you miss Carr, as you mentioned; but even more striking, given the attention he got from Symons, is the absence of Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles. Freeman Wills Crofts, S. S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen are other people who should at least rate a mention. Instead, James rather perpetuates the idea that the four Crime Queens were completely dominant in the Golden Age and that that period in the U.S. was dominated by hard-boiled writers--which is hardly the case at all (though she does at least briefly "talk about" some additional British Golden Age writers, like Cyril Hare, Michael Innes and Gladys Mitchell).
The problem with the omissions is that for quite a few people this book may well become the standard history reference on the genre. That's not exactly James' fault if people do that, of course, but I would really urge people to supplement their reading with Julian Symons at least. I certainly don't agree with Symons on a lot of points, but one learns a lot more from his book.
On James' larger view--that following "rules" prevents crime writers from achieving greatness--for all the talk about rules it strikes me that they really all boiled down to one key thing: fair play in the presentation of clues--i.e., giving the reader a chance to solve the mystery. Does fair play really prevent an author from writing a "great" crime novel? I don't think so. I can't imagine, really, that James does either, because she has written quite a few fair play detective novels now--some of which I imagine she thinks rather highly of!
I agree with you; John Dickson Carr realized this when he wrote his essay “The Grandest Game in the World”. The best books will take any rule you try to create, smash it into pieces, and hand it back to you with a smile. But this odd obsession James has with Knox’s Commandments results in the perpetuation of another misconception: Agatha Christie, Archbreaker of the Rules!!! I’ve read Christie’s works multiple times and I’m highly annoyed by this point of view. She plays scrupulously fair in all her books, with the only exception coming to mind being Postern of Fate… which I think everyone can agree is no classic! She invented the infamous “Roger Ackroyd” gimmick, but she played scrupulously fair with it. It’s true that some readers have never forgiven her for it— when I was a regular part of the AC forum, one contributor always furiously ranted about how unfair the book was even though I kept pointing out just how fair it played.
This is where we enter into gray territory: how fair is fair play supposed to be? James oddly never discusses this. Is JDC’s infamous example of a green tie buried in the recesses of Chapter Six unfair play? Not necessarily. Maybe that green tie was disguised in a comic scene, or was so outlandish or so often stressed that it will stay in the reader’s mind. You can’t really generalize in most cases—this is fair, this is unfair. You usually have to take this kind of question up on a case-by-case basis. But some things are unquestionably unfair: withholding evidence from the reader, hinging the twist on previously unknown characters, mysterious poisons unknown to science…
And yes, while we’re at it, James does get the “Chinamen” rule absurdly wrong, when she muses that “The prohibition of Chinamen is difficult to understand. Or was it perhaps the general view that Chinamen, if inclined to murder, would be so clever and cunning in their villainy that the famous detective would be unfairly hampered in his investigation?” I think the prohibition was mainly because it made for a far-too-easy cop-out ending, right up there with the never-mentioned identical twin, the supernatural agency behind the crime, and the detective having no clue what happened only to overhear a convenient confession by accident. I far prefer Bloody Murder, which, although flawed, has more research and covers far more of the genre.
James’ chronology of the genre in particular is flawed, especially in comparison with Julian Symons. For instance, she gets the entire picture wrong when she comments that ‘In “The Purloined Letter” (1844) we have an example of the perpetrator being the most unlikely suspect, a ploy which was to become more common with Agatha Christie and in danger of becoming a cliché, so that readers whose main interest in the story was to correctly identify the murderer had only to fix on the least likely suspect to be sure of success.’ This is nonsense, because the Purloined Letter gambit is something hidden in such an obvious place that nobody thinks about it. The culprit is not the least likely suspect— he’s known from the very beginning and the only question is where he has hidden his letter. And in the very same sentence, we perpetuate the myth that Agatha Christie was The One Who Did Everything. I think this particular cliché applies far more to the second-rate hacks, who would blame the murder on the train conductor, the man on the street corner, and sinister gangs of “Chinamen” you never even heard of!
Patrick, I agree, I don't see what's unfair about Ackroyd. You sometimes read about how there was this great controversy about the book, but I don't think that's true. Some reviewers said the book was unfair (S. S. Van Dine questioned it), but most people seem to have loved it. There's even this apocryphal story that Christie was threatened with expulsion from the Detection Club over the publication of Ackroyd (Christie's latest biographer repeats this)—which would have been pretty impossible, since the Club was not formed until 1930!
The claim is an effort to show that no really great mystery writer could work under the framework of fair play, but it's simply untrue.
Part of the reason people like James don't get the Chinaman prohibition is we don't talk about the Golden Age thriller much anymore. I wonder whether James has actually ever read Sax Rohmer, Sapper, Edgar Wallace. These were hugely popular writers in the 1920s (they sold much more than the detective novelists). The Detection Club and people like Father Knox were setting the detective novel as something distinct from--and superior to--the mere thriller. James indicates that the detective novel was not intellectually respected until Sayers wrote Gaudy night, but this is untrue. Intellectuals were probably the most passionate readers of puzzle-oriented detective fiction in the 1920s. They didn't see these books as "great novels" but they did see them as intellectuality respectable entertainment.
That's a good point about Poe. There certainly are serious errors and omissions made in TADF. Like when James raps writers of the period for not knowing anything about forensic science. She makes what I think are exaggerated criticism of Christie's The Body in the Library and Sayers' Have His Carcase but, worse yet, ignores R. Austin Freeman, who is the Grand Old Man of forensic science in the English detective novel. I find his omission an astonishing and very unfortunate one. It certainly perpetuates the myth that all Golden Age British detective novelists confined themselves to writing comedies of manners set in country houses and that REALISM and SERIOUSNESS never came along until people like Symons and James started writing!
Agreed— too many people seem to believe that every pre-WWII mystery was set in the snowed-in country house of Lord and Lady Partridge, where the biggest concern over the cook’s murder was who would serve dinner now. The reality couldn’t be more different from this misconception. John Dickson Carr was a master of not just the impossible mystery, but also of style. He could create atmosphere at the drop of a hat. His enigmas were ingenious, with variation after variation, all rooted firmly in fair play. Here’s one author who didn’t see fair play as a restriction on the genre!
But I recall S. T. Joshi’s analysis of Carr’s work. It starts out as the work of an enthusiast, but once you’ve done with the Henri Bencolin stories (which he seriously overrates, especially in comparison with Carr’s other achievements), Joshi takes out the big guns, attacking Carr’s characters and chastising him for not writing about a lower class detective. “Where are the Realism, Seriousness, and Social Commentary?” he seems to be wailing. After all, all Great Authors must have Something Deep to Say. Right?
To which I say poppycock. I’ve been in a handful of English classes at the university thus far, and every time, the professor comes up with wild conjectures about what the author intended to say by such-and-such. If you try hard enough, you can make anything sound like that kind of art. Don’t believe me? I direct your attention to the second sentence in this paragraph—why did I use a comma after the words “thus far”? Don’t you see the symbolism? The comma, like a winding trail—the long path of life, a journey of self-discovery—and the irony of its juxtaposition with the words “thus far”. Oh, how much of the way remains undiscovered! What tragic irony!
Honestly, though, this conventional view of literature seems to me rather silly. Sure, it’s nice to have an author integrate some messages into their work, especially if it’s done with skill. But if the story is well-written, why isn’t that just as literary if it hasn’t got a shred of social commentary in there? I personally would rather read a well-written entertaining book any day over a dull book loaded with social commentary.
I think that’s the big difference between the Golden Age mysteries I love and the mysteries published nowadays that I don’t care for at all. Nowadays, you must take everything as seriously as possible. Everything must be grim, dark, and “gritty”. It’s not enough to have a woman murdered—she has to be dismembered as well and, if at all possible, raped. Any mention of alcohol must result in a subplot where the main character is struggling with alcoholism— any lightly-taken binge will result in excommunication from the Church of the Gospel of Literary Criticism. This kind of style is becoming its own self-parody.
I'm a historian not a literary critic, but I think writing a novel that genuinely entertains in some way--what Jacques Barzun calls a tale--is nothing of which to be ashamed--far from it! Some of Carr's books aim at greater "seriousness"--The Emperor's Snuff-box, say, or She Died a Lady--but most of them are splendid entertainments, with atmospheric writing, if not deep characters and heavy doses of intentional social commentary. And what's wrong with that?
But James and many like her today privilege what she calls realism and credibility over "mere" ingenuity. Of course writers who do this, I've noticed, usually are not the most ingenious writers. Surprise! Some of James' early books were not necessarily so credible in terms of their murders--see Unnatural Causes or An Unsuitable Job for a Woman--but they were much more ingenious than the books she has done from the last twenty, thirty years. Personally, in a mystery novel I like ingenuity! James strikes me as someone who just should have made the leap into writing straight novels (she comes close with A Taste for Death). But writers like James seem to want to hold onto the mystery structure for some reason. She only completely abandoned it with The Children of Men (which is still genre). In the process, she's given us the last thirty years what I see as a long string of mediocre mystery novels: well-written, but not especially interestingly plotted. I don't feel she's a good enough "serious novelist" to justify the trade-off.
Which isn't to say you can't have ingenuity and the sort of dark, gritty "realism" that you mention. Ian Rankin often is quite ingenious and also quite gritty. Is he a superior writer to Carr? He's a better "novelist" I would say, but Carr is still a better writer of mystery plots (meaning no disrespect to Rankin--Carr surely is in the very upper bracket in this respect, a Warren Buffet of mystery plotters). And a brilliant mystery plotter is a rarer thing than a competent mainstream novelist. Agatha Christie will continue to outlast most more lauded mainstream writers--she has a more unique gift.
You do seem to be right, to be taken seriously as a "crime novelist" one seemingly has to be dark and gritty. I don't know why this is the case. Many acknowledged classic works of literature are not dark and gritty. I've gone back to look at Ian Rankin's first Rebus novel and, while it's an enjoyable book in my view, many of the elements are now so over-familiar they seem clichés. It's all about the downtrodden detective: he's miserable, overworked, all his superiors are mean to him, his wife has left him, he smokes too many cigarettes. Nowadays it's a great surprise in a crime novel when you have a happy detective leading a relatively "normal" life. Long gone are the days of the equanimous Inspector French!
I remember when I read Peter Lovesey’s Bloodhounds that I was pleasantly surprised that Peter Diamond had a perfectly normal and content marriage! No vehicle for hackneyed social commentary to be found there!
Unfortunately, when it comes to James’ work overall, I cannot yet comment—like I said, I haven’t read any of her books yet. It does seem to me ridiculous, though, that critics like James chastise Golden Age writers for their supposed upper-class worship. Let’s look at John Dickson Carr again— in The Bride of Newgate, he has a rich character who is a nasty bit of goods, striking a chained prisoner and getting away with it because of his social standing. Dick Darwent is found guilty of murder, but the verdict is soon repealed due to a loophole in the legal system left there for the rich, a privilege they fight tooth-and-nail to keep! I don’t see this upper class worship…
Now to be fair, some authors and detectives romanticized the upper class, like Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham. But what about the work of a nobleman himself? I am of course referring to Henry Wade. I have taken Julian Symons to task before for classifying him as Humdrum, and P. D. James fares no better. Of the three books I’ve read, Wade shows no signs of being a Humdrum, and his books all included at least one bit of excellent social commentary, even the somewhat underwhelming Gold Was Our Grave, which concludes with a moment of very dark humour and social commentary combined!
Now, I could spend hours talking about the omissions this book makes. In fact, I could probably spend hours just listing the omissions P. D. James makes! A study of this kind will inevitably be incomplete—even something that intends to be complete, like William DeAndrea’s Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, misses out an entry or two, such as anything about Anthony Wynne. However, James takes it to a whole new level. I still can’t believe nothing was said at all about Ellery Queen— not even a mention in passing! The Queen writing team was influential as authors, but also as editors and publishers, founding EQMM which is still around today. These are pretty important contributions— but EQ was American and non-hardboiled, so in James’ version of the genre, EQ was a non-entity.
But perhaps I should take some time to talk about the book’s strengths. Well, it’s well-written. James’ writing, considering her age, is remarkably clear and to the point. There are also some interesting insights into James’ own writing techniques. Unfortunately, there are some alarming moments related to this kind of insight as well. (I know I was trying to be positive, but I just can’t do it…)
As I’ve mentioned earlier, James takes Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments far too literally, and this results in one of the strangest moments in the book. “Could the writer not enter into his mind when he wakes in the small hours with memories of some traumatic event in his childhood which the writer can exploit in clue-making and use to give some idea of the killer’s character?” James asks. The answer, as I shouted out in my mind, is: “For crying out loud, don’t you understand the Commandments are just guidelines which nobody ever took that seriously?” I’m reminded of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie:
“First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate's code to apply and you're not. And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.”
Whatever alternate dimension that quote made me peep into seems a far more unpleasant place that the Black Pearl.
In all seriousness, this shows a remarkably unilateral way of thinking on James’ part, refusing to look away from those Ten Commandments and being all the worse for it. Yes, you can show a flashback to some traumatic event from the killer’s childhood, but in all honesty, that’s the main reason I’ve been avoiding James’ books! My suspicions have now been confirmed: James makes an argument for what has become a self-parodying cliché, and she believes it to be far superior to anything from the Golden Age. I find this another justification of my choice to avoid James in the past, and I will probably continue to do so in the immediate future. I will end up giving her a shot someday, but that quote doesn’t make me want to precipitate that date.
I think Golden Age detective fiction is less socially and politically conservative than it typically is made out to be (James herself is rather conservative, but her take on the Golden Age is similar to a political leftist like Julian Symons). When looking at the Golden Age most critics draw on Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh for their evidence, but they simply cannot fairly be said to represent all the British writers of the period (even assuming that these four writers are as uniformly conservative as they are made out to be).
Look at the idea of the dashing aristocratic male amateur detective. Critics going back to Raymond Chandler and Edmund Wilson and Graham Greene have decried the snobbishness of such characters You would get the impression from many critics that virtually all the Golden Age British detectives were dashing gents obsessively fawned over by their doting creators, but of course that's not the case.
Carr's Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale are not exactly Jane Austen dream boys, investigative Darcys and Knightleys. Look at the Humdrums. The tecs of Connington and Freeman Wills Crofts (the latter one of the most famous detective novelists of his day) are policemen. Crofts' Inspector French is the epitome of bourgeois. Connington Sir Clinton Driffield is decidedly unromantic. Rhode's Dr. Priestley is an acerbic old scientist. Wade's main series ‘tec is an attractive younger man, but a professional policeman, and his love affairs (if he really has them) are never brought to the foreground, really. Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley looks like a crocodile! Reggie Fortune is plump and indolent. Anthony Gilbert's is a shady lawyer. E. C. R. Lorac's is another rather plain copper. And so on.
There is also much more social criticism going on in Golden Age books than James ever allows (or Symons). Certainly Henry Wade, as you mention, does this. He is a most unjustly neglected writer. Even Freeman Wills Crofts, King of the Humdrums, does this! But it's almost certain James has not read these authors, so we can hardly expect her to incorporate them into her analysis.
One would think from her book that about the only person ever to indulge in social criticism was Dorothy L. Sayers in Gaudy Night. Sayers is a hugely important and influential figure in the genre, of course, but she's most certainly not the only person to have had social criticism in her books. Academics like to analyze her treatment of the problems of World War One veterans, for example, but this is an issue that Henry Wade, an actual World War veteran, wrote about at much greater depth and dare I suggest more persuasively.
After all this criticism, one might think I would not recommend James' book. I would, however. James is a very good writer in fact (age has not dimmed this). Her memoir, Time to be in Earnest, is well worth reading and so is TADF. I would recommend you read some fiction by her, say A Mind to Murder or Shroud for a Nightingale. But one should be honest about the limitations of TADF as a genre survey, which are considerable. Still, all through it one will find nicely turned insights and phrases. So I would recommend the book to admirers of James' prose but also urge people to supplement their reading with other works. Julian Symons, as much as I disagree with him too, is much more through, for example.
For my part, I really can’t recommend this book at all. Out of four stars, I’d give Talking About Detective Fiction half a star. The term “train wreck” seems a bit too positive to serve as a description. James has a bit more positive view of the Crime Queens than Julian Symons, but apart from that, this reads like a sloppy first draft of Bloody Murder if Symons wasn’t as well-read in the genre or as thorough. Readers are far better off reading Symons’ Bloody Murder in my opinion, despite the many differences of opinion I have with it.
Patrick's Rating: 0.5/4
Talking About Detective Fiction perpetuates several annoying generalisations about the genre, is extremely selective, and apart from analyses of Jane Austen and the Crime Queens, it tends to be on the cursory side. Last, but not least, the book is a rip-off. It’s less than 200 pages, the font size is rather large, and you could easily read it in a couple of hours like I did… and yet, the book costs $30! So mainly for this reason, I would advise readers to look at this book only if they can find it for free (at your local library) or at a very good deal. This book serves more as an educational tool about misconceptions of the genre; unfortunately, some people will use it as a Bible when condemning the genre we all know and love.
Well, at least you can have the good feeling of knowing that your money for the book went to support the Bodleian Library!
Well, we've been pretty critical of TADF, so I'll just close by quoting the Baroness's last words in the book, which actually are something with which even critics like ourselves might be able to agree, more or less!
"We do not expect popular literature to be great literature, but fiction which provides entertainment, mystery and humour also ministers to essential human needs....[The continued popularity of the detective story] suggests that in the twenty-first century, as in the past, many of us will continue to turn for relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge to these unpretentious celebrations of reason and order in our increasingly complex and disorderly world."