Monday, March 8, 2010


“In the detective story we have a problem at the heart of the novel, and one which is solved, not by luck or divine intervention, but by human ingenuity, human intelligence and human courage. It confirms our hope that, despite some evidence to the contrary, we live in a beneficent and moral universe in which problems can be solved by rational means and peace and order restored from communal or personal disruption and chaos."
--P.D. James
P.D. James, aka Baroness James of Holland Park, will celebrate her 90th birthday in August. Since 1962, when her first Adam Dalgliesh mystery was published, James has written 15 more mysteries (most of which have been made into TV shows), 2 other novels, and a memoir; and she shows no sign of slowing down. If you don't already know her as one of the best writers of detective fiction of all time, consider that in 2008, when the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame award was launched, it was bestowed on only three people: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Agatha Christie, and James.

This little book of essays about her favorite genre gives us fans a rare opportunity to sit at the feet of one of our most brilliant contemporary writers as she comments on the history, influential authors, and methods of writing detective fiction. The more I read, the more I thought, I want to read all the books she's talking about. Alas, the bibliography contains only books about detective fiction. If I wanted her list of mysteries, I would have to compile it myself.

So I did, and here it is.
These are not necessarily James's favorite books and authors; they are simply the ones she mentions in Talking About Detective Fiction. Except for Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, most are British (and even Chandler lived in England during his teens and early 20s). That is because the book began when, "at the request of the Bodleian's Publishing Department, the then Librarian invited [James] to write a book on British detective fiction in aid of the Library." Perhaps someday a publisher will persuade Sara Paretsky, another non-Brit James mentions, to talk about American detective fiction.

10 authors that James discusses in detail
One original: Wilkie Collins
Two early giants: Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton
Three hard-boiled pioneers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald
Four Golden Age women: Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy L. Sayers

100 books, more or less, that James mentions
Most of these books are still being published. I've tried to avoid adding links for out-of-print books, but things change ...

Allingham, Margery. Cargo of Eagles, Dancers in Mourning, The Fashion in Shrouds, Flowers for the Judge, More Work for the Undertaker, Mystery Mile
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey
Bailey, H.C. Call Mr. Fortune
Bentley, E.C. Trent's Last Case 
Brett, Simon. [Charles Paris series]
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre
Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye
Chesterton, G.K. [Father Brown stories]
Christie, Agatha. Hallowe’en Party, The Mousetrap, The Murder at the Vicarage, A Murder Is Announced, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Postern of Fate
Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone, The Woman in White
Conan Doyle, Arthur. [Five collections of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes], The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Sign of Four, A Study in Scarlet, The Valley of Fear
Crispin, Edmund. The Case of the Gilded Fly, The Moving Toyshop
Davis, Lindsey. [Marcus Didius Falco books]
Dibdin, Michael. [Aurelio Zen books]
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Fyfield, Frances. Blood from Stone
Godwin, William. Caleb Williams
Greene, Graham. Brighton Rock
Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest
Hare, Cyril. Tragedy at Law
James, P.D. Devices and Desires, A Taste for Death, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
Keating, H.R.F. The Perfect Murder [and other Inspector Ghote books]
King, Frances. Act of Darkness
Le Carré, John. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Lewis, Matthew "Monk." [18th century gothic tales of horror]
Lovesey, Peter. [Cribb and Thackeray books]
Macdonald, Ross. [Books about Lew Archer]
Marsh, Ngaio. [James mentions nearly half of Marsh's 32 detective novels by name. Most are out of print in the U.S. If your library doesn't have them, your best bet is to order one or more of the 11 volumes of the Ngaio Marsh Collection from Amazon U.K.]
McCall Smith, Alexander. [No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books]
Milne, A.A. The Red House Mystery
Mitchell, Gladys. Speedy Death
Orczy, Baroness. Unravelled Knots
Paretsky, Sara. [V.I. Warshawski books]
Perry, Anne. [Thomas and Charlotte Pitt books]
Peters, Ellis. [Brother Cadfael books]
Radcliffe, Ann. [18th century gothic tales of horror]
Rendell, Ruth. [Chief Inspector Rexford books]
Sansom, C.J. [Matthew Shardlake books]
Sayers, Dorothy L. Busman’s Honeymoon, Clouds of Witness, The Documents in the Case, Gaudy Night, Have His Carcase, Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, Strong Poison, Unnatural Death
Summerscale, Kate. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
Tey, Josephine. Brat Farrar, The Daughter of Time, The Franchise Affair, The Man in the Queue, The Singing Sands
Trollope, Anthony. Orley Farm, Phineas Redux
Upson, Nicola. [Books with Josephine Tey as protagonist]
Walsh, Jill Paton. [Sayers's Wimsey saga, continued]

1 comment:


    Any book that analyzes in detail the detective fiction of Collins, Doyle, Chesterton, Chandler, Christie, and Sayers (Baroness James is patron of the Sayers Society) is an instant add to my reading list. Thanks for this, LaVonne.

    Have you guys watched Jeremy Brett's brilliant portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the 1980s TV series? If not, then run, don't walk, to Netflix or any other DVD source and do so. Yes, that's a 9.1 rating in imdb. Yes, Brett was clinically OCD, and it pushes his portrayal into fascinating territory. Yes, you can watch a bunch of these episodes on Netflix Instant Watch.