Books About My 2011 Reading Challenges: I
Talking About Detective Fiction
Toronto: Knopff, 2009.
Before I began my mystery reading challenge, I decided to knock this book about mystery books off of my TBR pile. I’m glad I did, because in addition to offering a useful overview of the genre, James has strengthened my resolve to catch up with some mystery writers from the Golden Age that I’ve not read yet. (Nicholas Blake and E.C. Bentley. And because of the TBR Dare I won’t be able to read them until April 1! No matter. Plenty to keep me busy until then.) If you are looking for a quick read, a well-informed historical overview of the genre of detective fiction, and an impassioned discussion of the value of great writing, this book will do it.
Talking About Detective Fiction was first published by the Bodleian Library; in 2006, the Library approached James to write it as a fundraising venture. Not only, then, is there a wonderfully apt conjunction of author and subject, but also of patron. Oxford is up to its eyeballs in fictional detectives, including, of course, my favourite curmudgeon, Inspector Morse.
I thoroughly enjoyed James’s “talk,” but it is in a bit of an odd spot, rhetorically speaking. There are several notable tensions. Here is an expert on the topic—as researcher, consumer and practitioner—but her objective is to offer an overview.
Given that she is writing an overview, it is odd that she also assumes that her readers are already familiar with the sub-genres of detective fiction. She refers offhandedly to the “dons’ delight” and the “cozy.” It is a pinning down of these sub-genres that I’d been hoping to find when I read the book, so I was disappointed with her ready assumption that I already knew their names and definitions.
The most striking tension, though, is that she assumes her readers’ familiarity with many of the books to which she refers, even, on occasion, spoiling the plot, a cardinal sin of any reviewer of mysteries. The most overt example of a plot spoiler is her discussion of Agathe Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, so shut your eyes when you get to that bit if you don’t want to know! (As it happens, I already knew the identity of Roger Ackroyd’s murderer, even though I have not yet read the book. My husband read it last summer and exclaimed when he got to the end, and, over his protests, I told him that it was alright to tell me whodunit, fully assured of the frailty of my memory. I was sure I’d forget. I haven’t.)
The reader, then, is supposed to be a novice in need of an overview, but already in on the secret of whodunit in more than one case.
I forgive James her rhetorical awkwardness, though, for including a marvellous quotation from Dorothy Sayers about how detective fiction is as much a form of escape for the writer as the reader. In a letter to her American publishers about her amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, she wrote:
Lord Peter’s large income (the source of which, by the way, I have never investigated) was a different matter. I deliberately gave him that. After all, it cost me nothing, and at that time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room, I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare, I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. (107)
Marvellous! Just look at how she paces that last sentence! “A style of sober magnificence”: a perfect description of the escape offered by expertly written detective fiction.
I let James’s book be my first book about books for the year and be my guide to my first novel, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. Technically, it is a re-read, but my frail memory was happily dependable in this case, and I not only forgot the all-important solution to the mystery, I forgot how deliciously bookish it is. Gabriel Betteredge, the butler, reads his Robinson Crusoe like a bible. He treats the novel as a kind of oracle, and Collins plays with his readers’ probable compulsive reading and attempts to divine the future of his own text. It was a delightful read, cunning in its humour and plot. The Moonstone ticks boxes in about six of my reading challenges, too, so I’m off to a great start.