Detective Fiction explores the origins and evolution of the detective fiction genre primarily in the British and American tradition from the nineteenth century to the present. The course begins with the detective tales of Edgar Allan Poe and the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and works from the British Golden Age, moves on to the American hard-boiled tradition, and then concludes with contemporary detective stories. Among the themes the course examines — through narrative conventions and devices — are the ways detective fiction reflects and challenges cultural values about gender, race, sexuality and class. The course will also provide students with the opportunity to examine the adaptations of and experiments with the form over time.
2. Topics and Themes Emphasized
Throughout the course of the semester students will:
- Demonstrate knowledge of nineteenth- and twentieth-century foundational works from the British and American tradition of the detective fiction genre including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.
- Read closely to determine the use of detective fiction elements in a text and the narrative structure of the text.
- Identify the cultural narrative of a text and analyze the way issues of class, race, gender, and sexuality are presented.
- Analyze a work of detective fiction using a variety of critical lenses (e.g., formal, psychological, historical, sociological, feminist).
- Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
- Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics (for instance, the role of guilt, the concept of justice, gender tropes, issues of race and class) in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
- Analyze how the cultural narrative of a text contributes to the overall purpose of the detective fiction genre.
- Analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in his or her exposition or argument, including whether the structure makes points clear, convincing, and engaging
- Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text by analyzing how structure, exposition or argument, and rhetorical devices contribute to purpose and effect.
- Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.
3. Methods and Sample Assignments
Students will explore the topics and themes noted above through personal, expository, analytical, and creative writing assignments throughout the semester.
Some sample assignments:
• Write a short story in the spirit of Agatha Christie, with an emphasis on the puzzle plot. Please refer to “The 10 Commandments for Detective Novelists” as well as W.H. Auden’s “The Guilty Vicarage” to ensure that your story conforms to the Golden Age story conventions.
• There is an uneasy sense of justice at the end of the hard-boiled detective stories that we have read. In our traditional understanding of the detective fiction genre, a criminal violates the laws/rules/codes of a particular culture and is brought to justice by the detective. In these works, however, it doesn’t quite work out in such a clear-cut way. What does that say about the purpose of hard-boiled detective fiction? What message are are these writers trying to convey?
4. Reading List
Mosley, “True Crime: The Roots of an American Obsession”
Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Christie, Three Blind Mice and Other Stories
Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage”
Fisher, The Conjure-Man Dies
Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”
Chandler, The Big Sleep
Hammett, The Continental Op
Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Grafton, A is for Alibi