One of my goals in life is to make book discussion leaders comfortable with the idea of using crime and mystery fiction titles in their book discussions.  I have traveled far and wide to promote this idea but I have never been to England.

That is OK because they have P. D. James.  Now in her ninety-first year, she is the author of twenty books, most of which feature her series detective Adam Dalgliesh.  While many of her fiction books could work for a discussion, that is not why we are here today.

Having not only been an author of but also a lifelong reader of mystery fiction, James has just penned her thoughts on why readers read mystery fiction.  She gives a great overview of the history (with an emphasis on the British efforts) and recommends some great titles from the past to consider for personal enjoyment and an education from the masters. 

But the real strength of this book is her understanding of what the appeal of a mystery is.  One of my favorite observations from her is “our interest is not primarily in the investigation of the murder, but in the tragic fate of those involved.” (pg. 7)

For years I have been telling leaders who report failure at leading a mystery book discussion that they have picked novels that are great for a few hours of reading pleasure but lack the punch to sustain a discussion.  James says, “If the detective story is to be more than an ingenious puzzle, the murderer must be more than a conventional cardboard stereotype to be knocked down in the last chapter, and the writer who can solve the problem of enabling the reader at some point to share the murderer’s compulsions and inner life, so that he becomes more than a necessary character to serve the plot, will have a chance of writing a novel which is more than a lifeless if entertaining conundrum.” 

 She makes many other valid points throughout this book that would be of interest to book discussion leaders and reader’s advisory librarians.  Reading James’s book was like sitting next to my new (and smarter) best friend and nodding a lot.



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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