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Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
December 27, 2009

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TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION
By P. D. James
Approaching 90, P. D. James is the undisputed grande dame of the modern murder mystery. As it turns out, she is a scholar of the murder mystery as well. Fans of her poet-protagonist Inspector Adam Dalgliesh should feel no disappointment that her latest book is not a detective novel but a literary-critical essay. In “Talking about Detective Fiction,” James presents an energetic, insightful, and often witty history of the genre.

Acknowledging mystery fiction’s roots in Dickens, Poe, and even Jane Austen, James embarks on a brisk country walk through the era of the patriarchs, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle, to the Golden Age of British detective fiction, whose authors - particularly women such as Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the incomparable but artless Agatha Christie -committed their mayhem in incongruous, quaintly nostalgic settings, from manor houses to village vicarages and Oxford cloisters. While she focuses primarily on the literate English murder mystery, the more cinematic American style of Chandler, Hammett, and their hard-boiled progeny receives an incisive reading.

James discusses her own methods and, intriguingly, the morality of mystery writing, offering a wry benediction to aspiring authors: May you live in anxious times, for that is when mystery fiction thrives.

SEXY ORCHIDS MAKE LOUSY LOVERS: And Other Unusual Relationships
By Marty Crump
Behavioral ecologist Marty Crump writes about the weirder interactions among animals and between animals and plants as if she were chatting about the antics of some exceptionally eccentric personal acquaintances, and in a sense she is. As a tropical field biologist she has traipsed through the jungles of Central and South America, studying not only the orchids and hummingbirds that thrive there but also lesser-known critters such as the nectar-sipping mites that hitch a ride inside the hummingbird’s nostrils and leap off at top speed as the bird dips into a tasty blossom.

Charmingly written - and charmingly illustrated by the author’s brother Alan - the book is a believe-it-or-not treasury of glue-spitting soldier ants, divorced birds, monkeys that dose themselves with herbal cures, and underwater day spas where big fish suspend their practice of eating little fish in exchange for getting their scales groomed and their teeth cleaned. Less easily anthropomorphized species, fungi and bacteria, come in for their own share of behavioral observation.

Crump’s entertaining anecdotes build to a heartfelt moral: The world is a wondrous place, and it is our obligation to keep it that way.

VILLAGE OF THE GHOST BEARS
By Stan Jones
In this installment of Stan Jones’s series featuring Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active, Nathan’s backcountry camping trip with his girlfriend is disrupted by two grim incidents. First they find the decomposing corpse of a hunter. Then Nathan gets word that he is needed back in Chukchi, where a suspicious fire has killed over half a dozen people, including the police chief, a terrible toll in this small Inuit community. Nathan soon realizes that the two incidents are somehow connected with the illicit trade in polar bear gallbladders, a desirable commodity in Asian markets.

Jones constructs a satisfyingly complex plot, leaving it to the location to provide the atmosphere. This is Alaska’s Far North, a forbidding landscape of gray and brown and icy white, of craggy mountain ranges and Arctic coastal villages where ramshackle buildings ride the permafrost on stilts, grannies butcher caribou on the kitchen floor, and lawmen tracking a killer rely on daredevil bush pilots to fly them from one location to another.

In his knowledgeable and nuanced evocation of Native America, Jones bears a gratifying resemblance to Tony Hillerman, the late grand master.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION
By P. D. James
Knopf, 208 pp., $22

SEXY ORCHIDS MAKE LOUSY LOVERS: And Other Unusual Relationships
By Marty Crump
University of Chicago, 232 pp., illustrated, $25

VILLAGE OF THE GHOST BEARS
By Stan Jones
Soho, 352 pp., $24

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