Like many of my peers, I just recently received my copy of Talking About Detective Fiction so I have sadly not gotten as far as the “Reading and Writing Schedule” suggests I should be in the book. As I was reading the first chapter, I came across a very interesting quote. James says about criticism of the structure of the detective novel, “To say that one cannot produce a good novel within the discipline of a formal structure is as foolish as to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to fourteen lines—an octave and a sestet—and a strict rhyming sequence” (10).
I have not read a lot of detective fiction so reading about their supposed uniformity in structure was a foreign subject to me. Once James used the sonnet comparison, I was able to understand what she was talking about since I am more familiar with poetry. James goes on to talk about how Jane Austen uses the same structure in all of her novels (“an attractive and virtuous young woman surmounts difficulties to achieve marriage to the man of her choice”) yet each one is unique and wonderful in their own way. I love that James gets sassy in this paragraph in the first chapter. I find it amusing when writers call out critics and raise good points against their criticism. This is exactly what James does here. As a detective novelist, she knows better than anyone how the structure works, but here is a critic saying that the structure of a detective novel “binds the novelist in a straightjacket” (10). To that James says, “What I find fascinating is the extraordinary variety of books and writers which this so-called formula has been able to accommodate, and how many authors have found the constraints and conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of their creative imagination” (10). I am excited to get further into our summer reading list so that I can compare the structures of the stories and see if what James claims here can be seen.
It is interesting to note that this kind of criticized structure often occurs within a lot of genres. For instance, the young adult genre has recently become saturated with popular novels about dystopian and post-apocalyptic societies. The Divergent trilogy and The Hunger Games trilogy both feature young adults trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Each writer presents a test –the aptitude test in Divergent and the Reaping in The Hunger Games—that the characters must participate in. These tests set the stage for what the rest of the book (and series) will focus on. Like detective novels center around a crime, these books center on the results of the tests, but each book tells a story that is completely different and separate from the other. Putting it into these terms helps me to understand exactly what James is saying and hopefully, it may help you as well, unless you’ve never read The Hunger Games or Divergent in which case, this will be of no help.