Considering the longevity of a form which began with Oedipus and which remains our most popular kind of TV drama, detective fiction has had surprisingly few essays written about it. PD James's slim, elegant and thoughtful eight chapters on the subject defines it on a number of levels as a history of the genre, as examinations of individuals authors she especially likes, and as an overview of a kind of fiction which has never seemed more compelling. "Whether we live in a more violent age than did, for example, the Victorians is a question for statisticians and sociologists, but we certainly feel more threatened by crime and disorder than at any other time I remember in my long life." It is PD James's longevity, as well as her serene intelligence, that makes this book especially noteworthy and enjoyable, for at 89 she has grown up with the Golden Age of detective fiction as well as made a substantial contribution to it. Perhaps the best meditation on the deep-seated charms and satisfactions of the genre since Auden's essay, "The Gentle Art of Murder", it comes to us from the mind of somebody steeped in nearly a century of literature.
A passionate admirer of both Trollope and Emma (which she was, I think, the first to point out is also a detective story) she brings the highest values in asking how the detective story differs from the mainstream novel and crime fiction. Is it just formula writing? Iris Murdoch, to whom James was once compared by Kingsley Amis, is now barely read by younger generations, but James remains very much in demand. Both assembled intriguing middle-class characters in eccentric settings, but only one remembered to keep telling us stories about them. Anyone who is interested in James's own fiction will want to read this, but it stands in its own right as a deeper, more thoughtful enquiry into what it is we get out of detective fiction. Our yearning for something that "confirms our belief, despite some evidence to the contrary, that we live in a rational, comprehensible and moral universe" reached its apogee in the so-called inter-War Golden Age, and the heart of the book is an examination of the virtues and failings of Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham and Agatha Christie. Yet detective stories are also at their most powerful when they show a universe that is malign and unjust. Some readers may wish she spent more time on the American "hard-boiled" genre, but to my mind, James spends just long enough, before moving on to the moral enquiry about the uniquely damaging nature of murder. I disagree with her about Agatha Christie lacking "the disturbing presence of evil"; I was terrified by the insight her novels gave me as a child into what adults could do in order to inherit money. James's own murderers are too clever, thoughtful and self-aware to be convincing killers. Yet that is part of their appeal. All detective novels are novels of escape if not from evil, then from ignorance. If you want to extend your own reading, discover new authors or clarify your thoughts, this is an excellent way to do so.
Amanda Craig's novel, 'Hearts and Minds', is published by Little, BrownReuse content