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.
James also carries readers through the “rules” of mystery writing, as originally laid down by Ronald Knox. These range from essential fair play – “The detective must never be in possession of more information than the reader” – to the seemingly arbitrary: “No Chinamen must figure in the story.” (Yeah, James couldn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation for that one, either.)