That very title prompted in me a little Proustian epiphany. I was abruptly transported back to the mid-Fifties when, a swotty little creep, I would stow away my completed homework, switch on what we called the wireless and tune in to the Third Programme. For readers too young to have known that august institution, a typical evening’s edification might consist of, precisely, an illustrated lecture on detective fiction (although not, of course, by P. D. James — Jacques Barzun, perhaps, or Ronald Knox), sandwiched between a performance of Christopher Fry’s The Dark is Light Enough and a concert of Schütz motets.
And nothing changed when I opened the book. There they all were, the usual suspects — or, rather, the usual detectives — Auguste Dupin, Holmes, Father Brown, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, etc. There, too, were all the usual generic subsets: the pioneers (Poe, Conan Doyle, Chesterton); the so-called Golden Age (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Bentley, although no John Dickson Carr); a brief, single-chapter detour paying lip-service to the American hard-boiled tradition of buddies, baddies and bodies (Hammett, Chandler and James’ own personal favourite, the now rather forgotten Ross Macdonald, although no Horace McCoy, no James M. Cain); before haring back with relief to the current team of soft-boiled English practitioners, not excluding the author herself.
Nor have style nor substance budged much in 50 years. In James’ best fireside manner we are told, for example, that ‘Some novelists like to begin either with a murder or with the discovery of the body, an exciting and shocking beginning that not only sets the mood of the novel but involves the reader immediately in drama and action.’ True, true. We learn, too, that ‘Money, particularly great wealth, is always a credible motive for murder, as is revenge and that deep-seated hatred which makes it almost impossible to tolerate the continued existence of an enemy.’ True again.
To those who would contend that there is nothing new to be written about detective fiction, I would offer the counter-example of the waggish French academic Pierre Bayard who, in Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd? and L’affaire du chien des Baskerville, reinterpreted two classics of the genre so subtly and ingeniously that he succeeded in convincing the reader (at least temporarily) that both of the source novels climax with a gross miscarriage of justice. I would also propose that there are all kinds of new ways of writing about old mysteries (even if, to do so, one has first to jettison the ridiculous rule about never revealing the solution). One could write about Chesterton’s troubling fascination with the irreligious supernatural. Or analyse the queerly ‘sexual’ structures of Christie’s whodunits, from flirting with the reader to seducing him, from foreplay to orgasm. Or make the now increasingly evident point that the output of the more violent and ostensibly more ‘realistic’ American school is in fact just as corseted in convention, just as in thrall to narrative implausibilities, as that of its British rivals. Or, on a more trivial level, ask oneself if Conan Doyle really did mean to kill off Sherlock Holmes when he had him plummet over the Reichenbach Falls. Holmes’ corpse was never discovered, after all, and no one ought to know better than a thriller writer that, without a body, there will always linger a suspicion that the supposed death has been fabricated.
Yet I cannot bring myself to dismiss this book. One perfectly legitimate pleasure of reading a critical study of some beloved writer or genre is that of revisitation, of exploring from a completely different angle of approach a fictional world with whose primary manifestations, the novels themselves, one is almost too familiar. It scarcely matters whether the critic in question brings any fresh ideas, let alone theories, to bear on the subject, just so long as he or she proves to be a congenial companion on our walk down Memory Lane. Baroness James is just such a companion. For me, the ideal mystery novel is what might be termed an innocent book about guilt, and that would also be my definition of Talking about Detective Fiction.
Gibert Adair’s novels include The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, And Then There Was No One and A Mysterious Affair of Style.