Detective fiction, so widely read by so many, has on the whole been theorized in one of two ways. Beginning around 1940, historians of the genre like Howard Haycraft developed narratives designed to explain its major schools (first three, then four in number) and articulate their relations to each other. A generation later, structuralists like Tzvetan Todorov examined the genre as a quintessential example of formulaic structures.
This course aims to establish a climate conducive to critical thinking about the genre that can generate new ways of theorizing detective fiction. Its goal will be to identify as precisely as possible the cultural work the genre in its different forms has done for readers, the ways in which the conventions of the genre as a whole and its individual subgenres do and don’t enter into a broader culture, and the possibilities for charting its history over the past sixty years.
The course uses several means of encouraging new critical approaches to detective fiction. The first part of the course considers the formulas behind the four widely recognized schools of detective fiction: the superhero detective, the British cozy, the hard-boiled American gumshoe, and the police procedural. In the second part of the course, you’ll take over the job of theorizing the genre by doing quite a bit of writing, beginning with parodies, pastiches, or lists of rules in order to theorize alternative modes, contemporary best-sellers, and international publishing phenomena along the lines of parallel or recombinant formulas.
But the course will not be limited to this perspective. Throughout the term, you will take turns leading class discussion for an hour along whatever lines they deem most fruitful. Twice during the term, you’ll prepare drafts of an annotated bibliography of material you think may be useful in writing your final paper. Toward the end of the term, we’ll attempt as a group to devise a map of the varieties of contemporary detective fiction, indicating their borders and explaining as best we can how they came to be and they’re likely to be going. After we end our survey of contemporary detective stories by asking how two notable non-American examples fit into the formulas and the map we’ve constructed, you’ll have a week to complete a final paper on any aspect of the detective story that you think warrants closer investigation.
This seminar depends on the ideas each member contributes to the discussion. With the exception of the usual university-sanctioned excuses (a death in the family, your own serious illness, your participation in intercollegiate athletics), your attendance at our weekly meetings is expected and required. I’ll calculate final grades according to the following formula:
Leadership of class discussion: 25%
First draft of annotated bibliography: 5%
Second draft of annotated bibliography: 10%
Parodies, pastiches, and rules: 25%
Final paper: 35%
If you have questions about readings, assignments, or ideas for paper topics, or if you’d just like to talk about detective stories, please let me know. I rarely happen to be in my office outside my office hours, but I can often arrange to be there at other times if I know you’re coming.
31 Aug. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891-92) (Oxford UP)
7 Sept. Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) (HarperCollins)
23 Nov. No class—Thanksgiving break
30 Nov. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008) (Vintage)
7 Dec. Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2002) (Anchor)
14 Dec. No class—15-page final paper due