Review: Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James

Okay, I know you remember that I said no more books I can get at home. I know I know I know. I realize this post means that Diary of a Provincial Lady was not my last exception to the rule. Actually the rule was, I will only read books that I cannot get when I am at home, unless the author gives his or her name as two initials followed by a surname. Please do not be perturbed by my Orwellian alteration of a previously established rule.

P.D. James, acclaimed writer of detective fiction, has a number of things to say about the genre, as you may imagine. She spoke of Agatha Christie and of Dorothy Sayers, and of how detective writers enjoy (as they should) a lovely country house mystery, with a finite number of suspects to play with. I liked it when she complimented Agatha Christie. I appreciate compliments to Agatha Christie’s cleverness at mysteries: James gave an example of a book in which a butler peers at the clock; and you are given to understand that this is a clue relating to times and dates, when in fact the clue is that the butler is short-sighted. That is clever! Agatha Christie! She’s clever!

I don’t read that much detective fiction, actually, and thus I have very little to say about this book. Agatha Christie (for the cleverness) and Dorothy Sayers (for the superb writing and for Harriet Vane) and Elizabeth Peters (for being hilarious) and that, I believe, is it. But I like reading books about books – I have made a special section on my TBR list for books about books, although it is rather short because there are not enough books about books. I am contemplating renaming the section and including books about words in it as well.

What I do have to say about this book: P.D. James said something about the “reprehensible expedient” of reading the end of a book. Reprehensible expedient! I do not do it as a reprehensible expedient! I do it because it is joyful! P.D. James hurt my feelings when she said that. I snapped the book shut and said “YOU are a reprehensible expedient!” And then I remembered that P.D. James is ninety, and it’s not nice to call ninety-year-old women a reprehensible expedient. Or anyone really. In my defense, it is unbelievably hot this week, and being hot all day every day makes me a less nice person.

My method of reading is perfectly valid and I stand by it. But I have been considering doing an experiment later on this year, maybe in September, where I take one whole month, and throughout that entire month, I don’t read ahead in any book whatsoever for any reason. What do you think? Attempt the experiment, in a spirit of true scientific inquiry, risking the possibility that I won’t enjoy any single book I read in September? Or maintain my customary reading methods without a sustained effort to appreciate the other side’s view?

Other people that read it:

A Striped Armchair
A Work in Progress
Fleur Fisher Reads
Lost in Books
A Bibliophilist’s Reading List

Did I miss yours?

35 thoughts on “Review: Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James

  1. I like mysteries, and books about books, so I am requesting this one at the library.

    Hah, she called you out on the reading the end, eh.

    I think you should read how you like. The scientific experiment sounds intriquing, but I wouldn’t want you to ruin your reading enjoyment.
    Baby steps – try one book and see how it goes, but pick a mystery to be the experiment, as a tip of the hat to PD James.

    • I’ve tried one book at a time and found myself mightily dissatisfied with the results – Fingersmith and Special Topics in Calamity Physics are two that spring to mind – which is why I’m contemplating a more lengthy experiment, to be certain I’m giving the mainstream (but crazy) method a fair trial. :p

  2. I think knowing the ending can actually make for more “mindful” reading – you can take your time and enjoy the prose because you’re not racing through to find out what happened. But I don’t do it. Probably it’s some ingrained thing I learned like, “always take a sweater with you.”

    • That’s exactly why I do it, actually. I was always glad I didn’t get the ingrained lesson not to do it – I chose to do it once, with Jane Eyre, because I couldn’t resist, and thereafter I found it was better that way.

      • Me too! I don’t get all that curious about endings any more, but when I read Jane Eyre for the first time, I was young and I couldn’t bear not to know her fate.

  3. I tried that experiment in my late teens. I had noticed that reading (fiction) and writing didn’t go well together for me, so I would alternate months reading with months writing. I actually kept it up for a while. It wasn’t that great. Months are arbitrary units.

    • Wow, that is embarrassing. I totally missed the “ahead” in “don’t read ahead.” I thought you were undertaking a penitential reading fast. Which seemed strange enough I went back and reread the paragraph…

      By all means, try your experiment! But you’ll want to make sure you read the kind of book where it matters whether you read the end first, though.

      • Oh God, I’d never ever ever go on a penitential reading fast. For one thing I know I wouldn’t be able to sustain it; for another thing I get these wicked awful headaches if I don’t do any leisure reading for a while.

        The reason I’m thinking of doing it for a whole month is that I’ll be reading a variety of books – books where it really doesn’t matter whether you read the end, and books where it really does. Then I’ll have a genuine idea of how I feel about it.

  4. Speaking of books about books, have you read Howards End is on the Landing? The author takes a year to read only things in her home, in her own collection. I’ve been lusting after it for at least a year now, but haven’t been able to find a copy nearby. I’m going to have to break down and order one online.

    • I haven’t read it, although I’ve heard a lot about it. I read one review of it that quoted Susan Hill saying something that made me really angry, so I decided not to read the book. The quotation is gone from my mind now… :p

  5. I also read the end of a book way before I should, and I don’t find that reprehensible at all! In fact… I find it enjoyable. PARTICULARLY for mysteries. So there, PD.

    • Yeah! I am not the only one!

      It is fun with mysteries, isn’t it? You can spot all the clues then, and plus you know not to get invested in any youthful romance if one of the lovers turns out to be teh killer.

  6. I told someone about my habit of reading spoilers and full synopses of (books and) movies, and he made an interesting point. He said that knowing what was going on made for a different kind of viewing experience, allowing one to more clearly see the different aspects of the film and how they related to one another, rather than concentrating on retaining the thread of the plot. I think the same applies to books.

    Of course, I also CANNOT STAND ANTICIPATION. At Christmas, it is hard for me to resist telling people what I’ve got for them as soon as I get it.

    • It’s not the anticipation thing exactly, although that’s a factor too, so much as it is that, as your friend says, it lets you see all the moving pieces as they’re in the process of fitting together. The anticipation I can take – and I love Christmas. I love not telling people what they are getting. Then the surprise will be greater!

  7. I’m a person who likes to read the ending sometimes, especially when my interest is flagging, and I’m not fully convinced by James or anyone else that this is something I need to change. So I vote for trying to resist doing it on a week’s worth of books. Or if you really want to break a habit, 14 days is enough.

    • I definitely don’t want to break a habit. I would actually be really sad if my experiment ended up causing me to break the habit. But I’m afraid I haven’t given a fair hearing to the traditional mode of reading books, because I’ve been reading the end since I was about eight. I think the experiment will give me a fair taste of traditional reading methods, and then I can reject them with a clear conscience. :p

  8. I definitely think that you should read in whatever way you want to, but I just can’t read ahead because it spoils it always spoils the book for me. And I know I’m inconsistent because I really don’t mind knowing what’s going to happen in a TV series or a film (I think it’s to do with how I engage differently with books). Causes friction at home as my husband likes to read ahead, which is fine until (as is happening right now) he’s reading a book that I’ve bought before I do; the rule is if he reads ahead he can’t do it in front of me because it’s too maddening. Rant over.

    • Do you reread? I am always curious about that with people who vehemently dislike learning the ends of books before they get to them by reading through to them. Are the books spoiled for rereading once you’ve read them once?

      • You have a good point here, Jenny. I am a MAJOR re-reader but a super spoiler nazi. I think I am trying to get the best of both worlds! I get one read through with the surprises and the rushing and the suspense and a second that is more thorough and thoughtful. I never thought of it that way! I do read the ends first — before the second time reading the book anyway. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Yes I do re-read, and I don’t find it a problem. If I’m re-reading it’s because something in the book spoke to me, and that something is more than just finding out what happens. I’ll be posting shortly on a novel which I’ve read for the third time and enjoyed just as much this time round. And sometimes with crime fiction I want to go back and see if I could have worked it all out. It’s just that first experience I want to be fresh; after that all bets are off!

  9. Haha, I just borrowed THE MAGIC TOYSHOP from your shelves and I thought it was going to be lovely. But things weren’t looking too cheery after the first two chapters so I read ahead, and the last chapter was UTTER MISERY AND CREEPINESS, and I realized that it was not the right book for me. So not only is reading the end good for a different viewing of plot (a better one!) , it also saves me from wasting my time.

    Which, as you know, I loathe doing.

  10. The only problem I find with reading ahead is that sometimes I realize that I wasn’t really enjoying the book, I just wanted to find out what happened, and then I don’t have the energy to read through all the bits that I skipped. But I like to think that this is really the writer’s fault, not mine. I think that using suspense and plot twists rather than good writing to keep your readers engaged is a reprehensible expedient; if a book is good, reading ahead just gives you a fuller understanding of it.

    I love asking for spoilers, especially with TV, and people are always reluctant to give them to me. I think they think I’m going to change my mind and get mad.

    Have you read any of P.D. James’s mysteries? I read one (The Black Tower? The Dark Tower? something like that) and was horribly creeped out by it.

    • That’s definitely the writer’s fault, and I also do that kind of end-reading – the kind where I’m thinking the book’s not worth finishing, and I want to confirm it. But overall I do it just cause I like to.

      Nobody ever wants to tell me spoilers! I have to ask at least five times, and also, sometimes when people ask me the end of a TV show or film, and I tell them, they freak out! And ask me why I would spoil it for them! Crazy people.

      I read Children of Men and didn’t love it. I need to try one of her proper mysteries – Children of Men was more sort of a thriller.

  11. I have read PD James Dagliesh mysteries, which are almost like a modern-day version of Christie. Quite an enjoyable series.

    Of course, in my opinion though, Dame Christie is the absolute best in this genre.

    I can still reread her books time and again in spite of knowing the endings.

    • I love Agatha Christie too! She writes such good puzzle-type mysteries that I sometimes don’t read the end, to see if I can figure out all the clues myself. (Usually no.)

  12. I rarely read ahead, and don’t like having the ending spoiled for me. I definitely reread books, though, and have found that each time I read them I get something different from the reading. My mom, on the other hand, often reads the ending of books, especially when she’s reading mysteries so she can make sure her favorite character didn’t die. When the fifth Harry Potter book came out my brother and I threatened to give it to her one page at a time so she couldn’t check the ending to see who died. She was not amused ๐Ÿ™‚

    • But does she tell you the ending? If not I think you should live and let live – think of us poor end-readers all shunned and outcast by normal readers. :p

      (In the interests of full disclosure, I didn’t read the ends of the Harry Potter books. Except the sixth one, by accident – I was just trying to see if Ginny made it to the end alive, and I accidentally glimpsed a line about who does die in the sixth book.)

  13. On occasion, I will skip ahead and read the ending of a book before it’s time, but I don’t do it often. I don’t think it ruins the book for me, and often when I do it, it makes me read and think more consciously about the book, in a good way. I blow raspberries at P.D. James in this instance.

    • Hahaha, your raspberry-blowing is appreciated. Reading the end does make me more reflective as I’m going along through the book – I especially like it when I first think the ending is disappointing, and then as I go along reading I see more and more why the ending’s going to work. And then it does work! It’s so satisfying.

  14. I kind of want to call somebody a reprehensible expeident now, but I think I’d feel really bad afterwards. Maybe I could try it out on the cat? I don’t think she’d understand me, so there’d be no hurt feelings.

    I think you should keep on reading the way you want to read, P.D. James be damned (only not really. Only figuratively. On the damning, I mean, not the reading the way you want).

    • I’ll try it on my puppy when I get home. I know that she will love me no matter what.

      Well, you know, I have been reading the end since I was eight, and I have never really done a sustained experiment of reading the “normal” way. In the interests of Science I think it might be worthwhile to try a month of no end-reading, with a wide variety of fiction books to read.

  15. Pingback: Review: The Secret History, Donna Tartt « Jenny's Books

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