Her most famous character is the poet-detective Adam Dalgleish, but some of her novels feature a female sleuth, Cordelia Gray. They tend to be set in dramatic stretches of bleak English countryside, often East Anglia, and are known for their gruesome descriptions of imaginatively murdered corpses.
So who better to read on the topic of detective fiction, primarily (but not exclusively) British detective stories? She records her admiration for Ross Macdonald, Ian Rankin and Sara Paretsky, but the bulk of her account of the detective story is focused on early 20th century English authors.
This most meticulous of writers begins with a definition: the detective story is distinguished from mainstream fiction and general crime novels by a highly organised structure, and recognised conventions. Readers expect a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects, and a detective who solves the mystery. Most importantly, by the end of the story, the reader, the armchair detective, should be able to arrive at the solution from logical clues inserted into the novel “with deceptive cunning but essential fairness”.
There speaks the insider: like many people, I have probably read hundreds of detective stories, but so strong is the pull of the story (if it’s any good) that I rarely notice the planting of clues until it is all over, and the detective explains how he or she worked out “who dunnit”.
As Robert Graves wrote of Dorothy Sayers, “As writing it is not distinguished, but as story it is superb”. James’ definition applies chiefly to what she calls the Golden Age of detective fiction, the 1920s and 30s.
The reality today is often a detective struggling with a single adversary, who must be run down and defeated (as in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, for example). But still there must be a central mystery, and it must be solved logically, not by luck or intuition, but by intelligent deduction from the clues supplied. The detective should never know more than the reader. Whether you are dealing with an elderly spinster solving a murder in a vicarage, or the outlandish adventures of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, by the end of the book a puzzle must have been solved, and order restored.
James traces the origins of the genre to the gothic tales of horror written in the 18th century, generally set in exotic locations. Wilkie Collins, whose best-known novel, The Moonstone appeared in 1868, and Conan Doyle, whose scientific-minded detective Sherlock Holmes made his debut in 1887, transferred the horror from foreign locations to familiar English scenes, and a genre was established. Edgar Allan Poe was a precursor, with four of his tales of the macabre being classic detective stories. The Purloined Letter (1844) is the first example of the killer being the most unlikely suspect, a ploy that was over-exploited by Agatha Christie.
PD James never loses sight of the relation between developments in real life crime, and the contents of detective fiction. For part of her civil service career she worked in the Home Office, dealing with criminal policy, and has used that experience well. Even though Sherlock Homes was a maverick and an eccentric, his career ran parallel to the increased importance of detective work and forensic investigation in the police force of the time.
PD James surveys the Golden Age of detective story writing, exemplified by G.K. Chesterton, Josephine Tey and others. Many of these writers, like her, also had a professional “day job”, and wrote thrillers as a sideline, for example, Monsignor Ronald Knox, and the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, aka Nicholas Blake.
PD James devotes a chapter to Four Formidable Women, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, all of whom are still in print. She looks briefly at the American “hard-boiled” school, exemplified by Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler, before returning to an overview of the later “soft-boiled” English practitioners.
To W.H. Auden, who wrote an essay on his addiction to the genre, The Guilty Vicarage, the idyllic English village settings so beloved of the genre, were an essential part of the pleasure: “the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of the murder”. These picturesque rural settings have now become a staple of televised detective stories.
PD James identifies several paradoxical features of detective fiction: that murder stories are read for entertainment and comfort, giving “cosy relief” from the anxieties of everyday life.
The aim of the story is to establish the truth behind the crime, yet they glory in deceit: the murderer aiming to deceive the detective, and the writer aiming to deceive the reader, to postpone for as long as possible the revelation of the murderer’s true identity.
DETECTIVE stories are also highly moral. As Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot said, “I have a bourgeois attitude to murder: I disapprove of it.” The detective is often a secular priest, expert in extracting a confession from the guilty one, and has an unusually deep knowledge of the workings of the human mind, and a tendency to quote or write poetry. Chesterton wrote: “The only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will”. PD James identifies these words as central to her beliefs as a writer.
In considering writers who move between detective fiction and mainstream novels, she mentions Kate Atkinson, Susan Hill, Joan Smith and John Banville, who writes detective fiction as Benjamin Black. Banville has spoken eloquently of the difference between the pleasure of writing under his pseudonym, and the agony of writing as himself.
PD James concludes that at its best the detective story is as good as any mainstream novel, providing “relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge”, celebrating reason and order in an increasingly complex and disorderly world.
The book was written at the request of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, which is receiving a proportion of the royalties, and is illustrated by cartoons of the English fondness for detective stories.