One of the problems with crime fiction, in my humble opinion, is that there is so much of it. Crime writers are expected to be fairly omniscient concerning their genre; most of us (with the possible exception of Martin Edwards) aren’t. Before I started writing, I would probably have regarded myself as being reasonably well-read – but there were gaps that, even then, I was dimly aware of. For example (and I’m only telling you this because I know you won’t tell anybody else) I have never knowingly read anything by Ngaio Marsh. And of course the deeper I have delved into the subject, the vaster the chasms in my knowledge that have been revealed.
Talking about Detective Fiction is, if nothing else, at least a marvellous way of mapping your ignorance of the subject and provides a great introduction to writers you may have missed up until now. It is also an excellent overview of themes and sub-genres.
PD James’ book takes us from detective fiction’s murky beginnings, through the Golden Age and the origins of the hard-boiled novel, and up to the present day. It is an easy read – both because it is well-written and because the length (just over 150 pages) leaves no scope for getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. Nor is this just an adulatory homage to the Golden Age – of Christie, for example, James writes “she wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre”. So much for some reputations, then. But I defy you to read the book and not develop a sudden enthusiasm for (say) EC Bentley, Edmund Crispin or GK Chesterton.