P. D. James examines the genre of detective fiction from top to bottom, beginning with the mystery plots at the hearts of such novels as Great Expectations and Jane Eyre, and bringing us firmly into the present with such writers as Amanda Cross and Henning Mankell. Along the way she writes about Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Josephine Tey, among many others. She traces the facts of their lives into and out of their work; clarifies their individual styles; and gives us indelible portraits of the characters they've created: from Sherlock Holmes, "the unchallenged Great Detective," to Sara Paretsky's spunky, sexually liberated female investigator, V. I. Warshawski.
She compares British and American "Golden Age" mystery writing, including the groundbreaking work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. She discusses detective fiction as social history; the stylistic components of the genre; her own process of writing; how critics have reacted over the years (Edmund Wilson hated it, W.H. Auden was "addicted"); and what she sees as a renewal of detective stories-and of the detective hero-in recent years. Here is the perfect marriage of writer and subject-essential reading for every lover of detective fiction.