Sunday, February 28, 2010

P.D. James on Detective Fiction, More Pelecanos

I'm squeezing in a quick post before the end of the month.

I read P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction. This is a breezy, brief piece of criticism that does not offer a lot of new insight into detective fiction (e.g., the detective restores order to society in traditional mysteries). Two components stand out: first, in passing, James provides a good overview of Golden Age writers and singles out a few titles. Thus, if you want to read a good, representative Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh, you can find some titles here. The second bit that caught my attention was James' discussion of setting. She writes that setting propels her imagination, the spark comes from a location.

Just finished reading George P. Pelecanos' The Big Blowdown. Set mostly in the 1940s, it is the first of his D.C. Quartet. I've owned it for a while, and in part hadn't brought myself to read it because of the cover (see image); the image should be cool and B movie-ish, but somehow, the guy looks too lost. So, I judged the book by its cover. The book also has an introductory appreciation by James Sallis, another writer I like, but this piece seems out of place, comparing Pelecanos to Balzac and referring to Flaubert -- an attempt, it feels, to sell a "literary" audience on a writer shelved in the mystery/crime section. I liked this book quite a bit, once I got past the cover. The book has two early sections -- a boyhood scene and a WWII combat scene -- that set up the rest of the action, and they seem a little mechanical (especially the Pacific Theater war scene), devices for the action that follows. Once the book reaches its main postwar time period, it's pretty great stuff. Pete Karras steps back from working with some mobsters, pays a cruel price, and then years later aims to redeem himself. As always, Pelecanos draws complex, sympathetic characters, captures the atmosphere of Washington, D.C. (but specifically not the transient world of politics), and shows a vibrant workplace (here, a diner).

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