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Thursday, March 4, 2010

P. D. James and Detective Fiction

After a long spell of concentrating on writing, it's been a joy to spend four hours reading a book. The book is by P. D. James (2009) Talking about detective fiction. P.D. James, it seems to me, is in the forefront of writers of detective fiction, not just in recent times, but in all time. Intelligent, concerned with human issues rather than merely intellectual puzzles, a writer of beautiful sentences and of engaging thoughts.

James is now 90 years old. Talking about detective fiction has all the qualities one expects of her. Although the book is brief, although it includes a familiar procession of writers in the history of detective fiction—from Wilkie Collins, to Arthur Conan Doyle, to Dorothy Sayers, to Agatha Christie, to Raymond Chandler—what she writes is always thoughtful. The concerns of her book extend to whether detective fiction is quite serious. Her answer is that that both is and is not. In both cases it manages to be worthwhile. James is full of respect for her forbears and contemporaries. She has a lovely chapter on the women who wrote detective fiction in the years between World War I and World War II, arguing that they enable us to see society at that time rather acutely, and to see the changing conditions for women. And James is not shy of making literary comparisons. She has interesting ideas about Jane Austen and E.M. Forster. This, for instance, she cites from Forster, from "The raison d'ĂȘtre of criticism in the arts," a work I did not know:
What about the creative state? In it a man is taken out of himself. He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious, and draws up something which which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experiences, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art … And when the process is over, when the picture or symphony or lyric or novel (or whatever it is) is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did do it on earth (James, p. 158).
When I wrote my second novel A natural history, I had the idea of writing about a chain of inference in the mind of a scientist of the kind that people like to read in detective stories. It would be just as intricate, I thought, just as dependent on picking up clues. But rather than being focused on one measly murder, it would be focused on how a disease—cholera—killed thousands of people. Wouldn't that be thousands of times better? And wouldn't the reader be able at the same time to understand how scientists think: a bonus? The reader would come to know, too, about what is still the most important discovery in medicine, that germs cause infectious disease.

I was wrong. Not just a bit wrong, but comprehensively wrong. It isn't that my novel didn't work. It worked more-or-less all right, and I am happy with how it turned out. It's just that it did not achieve that resonance with the detective-story-reading public about which I had fantasized. I learned the reason by going to a talk by P. D. James.

The detective story has its appeal, she said in her talk, not because of a death, but because of a murder. Murder is the most horrific of crimes. It damages the fabric of our everyday world. The role of the detective is not to be clever, it's to heal the wound in society. To bring justice, to make the world whole again.

In her current book James says this again: "The detective story proper" she says, "is concerned with the bringing of order out of disorder and the restoration of peace after the destructive eruption of murder" (p. 13). This is the inner movement, the archetypal machinery of the detective story. I hadn't properly understood that. I had thought that the dying of people from disease, and the train of inference to understand how it happened might be equivalent. It isn't. Disease is damaging, but it has no moral dimension. It's human agency that makes murder so destructive to society. That's what makes us want to understand it in such a way that the world can be put right again.

E. M. Forster (1951). The raison d'ĂȘtre of criticism in the arts, in Two cheers for democracy (pp. 107-122). Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace.

P. D. James (2009). Talking about detective fiction. New York: Knopf.

Keith Oatley (1998). A natural history. Toronto: Viking Penguin.

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