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Talking About Detective Fiction

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At just over 200 pages, “Talking About Detective Fiction” reads like a master class on British mysteries, with heavy emphasis on the Golden Age (roughly defined as the years between World Wars I and II). Since there are few living mystery writers more widely respected than James, it’s hard to imagine a better guide.

In case that sounds too heavy for holiday reading, James also includes a collection of witty cartoons that will delight mystery fans and inspire them to make T-shirts. (Under a picture of a butler bearing a tray, the caption reads, “Your red herring. My Lord.”)

The jacket copy overstates its case, claiming that James “examines the genre from top to bottom.” Well, hardly. At 200 pages, James couldn’t have covered the whole of the wide-ranging field if she had used all her pages to simply list titles.

What she does is retrace the genre’s beginnings with William Godwin’s “Caleb Williams” and Wilkie Collins’s “The Moonstone.” (She even includes details about the unsolved murder and investigator that inspired Collins.) Then she devotes some real estate to iconic characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Philip Marlowe, and Sam Spade, before talking in depth about four female writers of the Golden Age. Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham come off rather better than Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie, although James cites the latter’s “formidable cunning.” And James acknowledges a debt to all four, who, in her estimation, succeeded in moving the genre forward and provided a valuable sociological portrait of Britain during the 1930s and ’40s, especially regarding the lives of working women.

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