Review of TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION by P.D. James

Aside from digging her work, particularly the Commander Adam Dalgliesh books, James has many brilliant insights on both British detective stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers as well as American hard-boiled fiction by Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.  Anytime a master of the genre writes what amounts to a How To Write and/or Interpret Great Detective Fiction book, a mystery novelist would be well-advised to read and take notes. . .which I did. I’ve cobbled together my favorite bits below.

James on using setting, from pages 129-131:

Place, after all, is where the characters play out their tragicomedies, and it is only if the action is firmly rooted in a physical reality that we can fully enter their world…the setting is where these people live, move and have their being, and we need to breathe their air, see with their eyes, walk they paths they tread and inhabit the rooms the writer has furnished for them.

James on Raymond Chandler’s contributions to the detective genre, from page 86:

He showed crime writers that what is important goes beyond an ingenious plot, mystery and suspense. More important are the novelist’s voice, the reality of the world he creates and the strength and originality of the writing…he rejected the editor’s insistence in cutting out all descriptions on the grounds that the readers disliked anything that held up the action.

James on serial detectives, from page 153:

A serial detective has…particular advantages: an established character who does not have to be introduced afresh with each novel, a successful career in crime-solving which can add gravitas, an established family history and background and, above all, reader identification and loyalty.

James on why readers are drawn to mysteries, from page 14:

(Mysteries–my word) provide not only the satisfaction of all popular literature, the mild intellectual challenge of a puzzle, excitement, confirmation of our cherished beliefs in goodness and order, but also entry to a familiar and reassuring world in which we both involved in violent death and yet remain personally inviolate both from responsibility and from its terrors.

 

Bottom line, this book offers a treasure trove of great stuff, and it would be enjoyable for the avid mystery reader and educational for any mystery novelist, whether aspiring or already established. Often when you read a non-fiction book by a fiction writer, you can see why the writer’s novels are so good, and Talking About Detective Fiction is an excellent example of that.

talking-about-detective-fiction

 

Advertisements

Book Review: Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage by Steve Ulfelder

The fourth book in the Conway Sax series, Wolverine Bros. starts off with Sax going to L.A. to track down Kenny Spoon, the has-been TV star son of Eudora Spoon, a wealthy ex-alcoholic and close friend of Sax.  Dying of cancer, Eudora wants to reconnect with her youngest son, and Sax, a part-time mechanic and full-time problem-solver, agrees, no questions asked.  Only this time, he probably should have asked some questions.  Once in Los Angeles, Sax, with the help of an ex-cop friend named McCord, discovers that Kenny Spoon is being held hostage by a tough-as-nails Brazilian gang.  Resourceful as ever, Sax manages to extract Kenny from the situation and fly him back to Massachusetts to see Eudora.  .  .but then the very next day she is shot and killed.  Questions abound as to the motivation for the killing.  Was she murdered by the Brazilian gang as payback for taking Kenny Spoon? Or was it someone after her considerable land holdings, land where a casino could be built someday? Whoever is responsible, Sax makes a solemn vow:

“No gray. . .Not this time. Everybody pays.”

Like the other installments of this series, the plot in Wolverine Bros. is engaging, fast-paced, and action-packed.  I was particularly impressed with the monologue-type feel to Sax’s narration, the way you can actually hear the narrator’s distinct voice as you read, almost as if Conway was sitting in your living room, iced tea in hand, telling you a wild story. Another impressive aspect: the clipped prose and short paragraphs, both of which keep the story move, move, moving, and give the narration a sense of immediacy and urgency.  But what I really think is genius about these books is the well-rounded (and constantly-evolving) protagonist Conway Sax.  As a reader, I can easily identify with Sax, for he is practically everything good fathers attempt to teach their sons: he is tough, honest, reliable, capable, and persistent.  And those qualities are sorely missing in people in general and men in particular these days.  In my book, that makes Conway Sax a bonafide hero, a flawed yet honorable man who knows the difference between legal and moral, between right and wrong, AND has the guts to do more than just talk.  But if you require more evidence that this is a truly dynamic character, here’s a quick quote from page 77 of Wolverine Bros.

“It struck me once while watching the National Geographic Channel. . .that I was a certain kind of pilot fish. . .They’re parasites–they swim alongside sharks, waiting for a kill, surviving on fallen morsels. . .I don’t wait for a kill and snap up morsels.  I ease the need. . . I find need. I attach myself, swim alongside. . .It’s the attaching that bothers me. What would I be, I sometimes wonder, what would I do if I was purely on my own?”

This is but a small sample of what makes Conway Sax the most realistic and most compelling of PIs out there today, what makes him the natural successor to tough-but-moral private eyes like Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. Any serious fan of the PI/hard-boiled genre should be reading Ulfelder’s books. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

http://www.amazon.com/Wolverine-Bros-Freight-Storage-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00GEU763E/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397489412&sr=8-1&keywords=wolverine+bros+freight+and+storage

JH-01027