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12 May 2011

Talking About Detective Fiction by P. D. James

Written by one of our present day detective fiction masters, this slim volume contains a plethora of historical background, author analysis and exploration of writing methods. A book conceived following a request by the Bodleian Library's Publishing Department, located in her native Oxford.

From start to finish it's intelligent, insightful and informative. And she doesn't sit on the fence when expressing her views on fellow authors' techniques and proficiencies - for example Agatha Christie's reliance on 'pasteboard characters' and occasional less-than-credible narrative scenarios. But, for myself, this only adds to the book's readability.

Many pages are devoted to Arthur Conan Doyle's famous 221B Baker Street tenant, the literary richness of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the graphic realism of Dorothy L. Sayers and the story telling brilliance of Agatha Christie with her talent to deceive. And there's similar thoughtful discussion on Richard Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Georges Simenon, and many others.

It's always interesting to hear an author articulate her approach to novel writing. In particular, there's her rational, clearly presented argument for preferring a setting-based starting point, a notion which differs from many other authors in this genre.

In the forward P. D. James declares her intention to 'interest and entertain'. Regardless of whether you're a fan of detective fiction, I believe she achieves this aim. A particularly illuminating book in so many ways, and a fascinating read.

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