Investigating detectives: contemporary crime fiction

Download 34.63 Kb.
Size34.63 Kb.

Investigating Detectives / Kinsman



Comb Hons English Studies
Margaret Kinsman

London South Bank University, email:

The aim of this unit is to acquaint students with the rich and challenging variety of contemporary crime fiction writing available for pleasure and study. It can be argued that most literature deals with crime, a serious issue in any society. Literature about crime, discovery and punishment depends “on our fascination with the uncovering of hidden guilt or secrets.” (Cawelti, 1976, 134). The appeal then to readers of the crime and mystery fiction genre, to give it its Popular Culture label, is not difficult to account for. Arguments for studying the genre are at once simple and no different from the reasons for studying any other sort of literature which displays a wide readership, a history, various established canons, subgenre divisions, scholarly research and critical acclaim.
Learning Outcomes

At the end of the unit students should be able to:

• articulate the conventions and cultural and historical backgrounds of detective fiction from its pre–19th-century origins through the British Golden Age and American hard-boiled school to a range of contemporary diversifications of the genre;
• analyze the assumptions behind the literary formula, and identify a contemporary range of variations;
• identify a range of critical and theoretical perspectives on the genre, and apply them in both oral and written form;
• appreciate and enjoy the diversity of contemporary crime writing.
Transferable Skills. Students will have the opportunity to further develop:

critical reading skills

• analytical skills

• time management and organizational skills

• the ability to retrieve information from a variety of sources and to use it appropriately for academic purposes.

Overview of Content

The landscapes of crime fiction and critical responses to it have changed significantly over the last 30 years, and it is this period of vigorous growth that provides the main focus. The writers studied come from the crime fiction traditions of the UK and the USA. While major writers and movements are introduced, the unit also examines the work of some lesser-known writers of significance. Students will be introduced to key genre scholarship, theory, and critical debates. The unit explores the ways in which crime fiction manipulates cultural constructions such as race, gender, sexuality, and class to inscribe dominant cultural discourses, and considers the range and significance of contemporary challenges from within the genre.

Students are expected to contribute to the content of the unit in 3 ways:

1. The unit depends on regular attendance and participation in discussion. Students will not be able to undertake the formal assessment for this unit satisfactorily if they have not attended and participated.
2. Students will prepare' and present a short oral critical discussion of a contemporary crime/mystery novel of their choice (different from the ones listed on the syllabus). The presentation is assessed via a supporting paper (see assessment section).
3. Independent Study - on a Level3 unit, students are expected to involve themselves in considerable independent study. This involves, for example, students familiarizing themselves thoroughly with the background reading suggested in the Unit Guide, students undertaking further research on the writers and writing studied, and students leading seminar discussions.

Teaching and Learning Pattern

Combination of lecture, student-led seminars and small-group discussions. Videos, radio cassettes, and guest lecturers are included where appropriate.

Week 1: Introduction and Overview

Lecture: Introduction and overview. Lecture will introduce the texts and issues covered in the unit, with a focus on the detective story as “conscious of the models from which it borrows and from which it knowingly departs” (Porter, 1981, p. 54).

Seminar discussion: G. K. Chesterton's essay “A Defence of Detective Stories” (given in class); and extract from John G. Cawelti’s essay “The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature” (given in class.) Students will read and discuss these 2 pieces in the session.

Week 2: 19th-Century Origins of the Genre

Lecture: Lecture will discuss the pre–19th-century origins of the genre in biblical narratives and revenge tragedy, through the Victorian gothic and sensation novel traditions; and will trace the emergence of the 19th century detective figure in the literary initiatives of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, Anna Katharine Green, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Seminar texts: Arthur Conan Doyle's short story “A Study in Scarlet” (Penguin Classics edition) and Edgar Allan Poe's “The Purloined Letter” (in Norton Anthology of American Literature) Seminar discussion will focus on Poe's and Doyle's early blueprints for the detective figure; the reliance on “ratiocination”; and detective fiction as a mirror of social anxieties.

Week 3: The British Golden Age

Lecture: The lecture discusses the clue/puzzle forms and the detective templates characteristic of British Golden Age detective fiction as exemplified in the novels of Agatha

Christie, Margery Allingham, and others.

Seminar text: Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Student discussion will focus on the nature of the social milieu and the setting constructed in the Christie novel.

Week 4: Independent Study

Prepare reading for next 2 sessions. Students are encouraged to attend Sara Paretsky's author event at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre on Thursday 18 February 2010, at 7:45. She will be reading from her new VI Warshawski novel, Hardball.

Week 5: USA Detective Fiction and the Changing Urban Experience

Lecture: The lecture explains the emergence of the hard-boiled, private-eye tradition in the USA with reference to Dashiell Hammett's and Raymond Chandler's constructions of the “tough-guy” persona and the urban setting. Lecture discusses Raymond Chandler's essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (given in class); and draws on John Cawelti's discussion of “The Hard-Boiled Detective Story” in his book Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories, Art and Popular Culture (referenced in background reading).
Seminar. Video screening of profiles of Walter Mosley.

Week 6: The Smell of Fear: Chandler’s Mean City Streets

Lecture: Lecture will discuss Walter Mosley's literary response to Raymond Chandler, with reference to Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely; Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress, and Liam Kennedy's essay “Black Nair: Race and Urban Space in Walter Mosley's Detective Fiction” in Messent, P (ed) Criminal Proceedings, the Contemporary American Crime Novel (referenced in background reading).

Seminar texts: Students will undertake a close reading of the opening chapters of the 2 novels noted above with a focus on Mosley's appropriation of Chandler's established classic hard-boiled text through negotiations of racial and gender “otherness”, and with reference to

Kennedy's essay.

Week 7: Diversifying the Viewpoint

Lecture: Screening of “Women of Mystery”.

Seminar texts: Seminar discussion will focus on theoretical/critical approaches to feminist detection. Students will need to have read in advance the section “An Unsuitable Genre for a Woman?” in Munt, Sally, Murder by the Book (1994) pp. 191-207 (referenced in background reading); Chapter 3 of Walton and Jones, Detective Agency - Women Re-writing the Hardboiled Tradition (referenced in background reading); and Anne Cranny-Francis's chapter on detective fiction in Feminist Fiction (referenced in background reading).

Week 8: Issues of Gender and Genre

Lecture: The lecture discusses feminist appropriations of the detective novel and the meaning of those appropriations for alternative storytelling, with reference to Sara Paretsky's Indemnity Only, Liza Cody's Musclebound, and Michelle Spring's In The Midnight Hour.

Seminar text: student seminar discussion will focus on the 3 novels.

Week 9: On writing a critical review (Assessment A)

You should know by now which novel you have selected for your critical review, and you must attend this session with a page of notes (typed and legible) about the novel. This can be in draft/note form (e.g. info about the author, some notes about the plot, notes about main themes, characters, strengths and weaknesses), but you must bring some material with you for the session.

3-week Easter break

Week 10: Police Procedurals

Lecture: Lecture will discuss the police procedural subgenre in the UK and the USA, with specific reference to 2 contemporary revisions of genre convention: John Harvey's gritty police series set in Nottingham, and Katherine V. Forrest's lesbian police detective series set in San Francisco.

Seminar texts: John Harvey's Cold Light, and Katherine V. Forrest's Murder by Tradition. Discussion will focus on the constructions of the police detective and the social, political and

cultural milieux depicted in the novels.

Week 11: Metaphysical Detective Fiction: Current Directions and Postmodern Recoveries of the Genre

Lecture: Lecture will outline some contemporary reworkings of literary and generic conventions, with reference to devices employed in “historical” crime fiction and the postmodern antidetective novel.

Seminar: Discussion will focus on Barbara Wilson's Gaudi Afternoon, with its rejection of unified subjectivity and its undermining of sexual and gender polarities.

Week 12: Student Presentations of Assessment A—Critical Review, plus Overview and Summary of Unit

Overview and summary with reference to novels presented in critical reviews, con-sidering the ways in which the selected novels relate to continuities and diversities in the genre.

Weeks 13–15: Tutorials, Revision, and Assessment


Two assessments:

1. 30%. Short oral critical discussion, with reference to aspects of formula, of a contemporary crime novel of student's own choice. Supporting paper, 1,500 words, submitted for assessment. Oral presentations scheduled in week 12. Supporting paper due in week 12.
2. 70%. An extended essay of 2,500 words, is due in Week 14.

The pass mark for the unit is 40%. The pass mark for each element is 30%. In order to pass the unit students must attain a mark of over 30% for each element.

Assessment Criteria

These are the areas that we consider in arriving at an assessment of your work:

A. Knowledge of the topic of the essay question or task. Ability to refer to the texts under discussion with accuracy and clarity.

B. Analysis of the issues in relation to the primary and secondary material.

C. Evidence of a critical framework and a coherent and developing argument.

D. Appropriate and accurate use of background material and secondary reading

E. Presentation of work in line with academic conventions of spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, sentence structure, referencing.

With these in mind, the following model can be used as a guide:



Badly misunderstood question. Contains factual errors and a preponderance of irrelevant material. Major incoherence in organization of material. Scant evidence of reading. Extensive use of unacknowledged quotation.


Otherwise pass standard answer spoilt by serious inaccuracies. Inclusion of irrelevant material. Some evidence of relevant and

appropriate reading.



An essentially descriptive answer to pass standard. Some significant omissions and/or mistakes. Lack of clarity or coherence in organization. Evidence of appropriate reading, but inadequately used. Attempts at evaluation with limited success.



A comprehensive answer showing a reasonable appreciation of the relative importance of the material and discussion presented. Appropriate use of reading. Reasonable attempt to evaluate material and structure an argument.



Good comprehensive answer, presented in a clear style and organization, showing grasp of relevant material with an appreciation the relative examples. Evidence of originality and analytical abilities, critical appraisal with application of appropriate reading.



Relevant material (discussion, analysis, response) presented in a clear and coherent discussion and subjected to a logically argued critical appraisal. Evidence of original thought and analytical ability. Imaginative use of relevant reading, fully and accurately acknowledged.


Adds a deeper understanding and evaluation of the issues.

Reminder re plagiarism - the act of plagiarism is to pass off as your own work, the ideas or thoughts of someone else, without giving credit to that other person by quoting the reference to the original. Your work will be penalized if you do this. Your attention is drawn to the LIS Help Sheet 04, available on the LISA Web site - this is a very helpful introductory guide for students on the subject of plagiarism, and it is your responsibility to familiarize yourself with it.

Core Reading

Christie, Agatha 1920. The Mysterious Affair at Styles (any paperback edition)

Chandler, Raymond 1940. Farewell, My Lovely. New York, Vintage Crime Series, 1992.

Cody, Liza 1997. Musclebound. London, Bloomsbury Press.

Doyle, Arthur Conan, 1888. “A Study in Scarlet” (any paperback edition)

Forrest, Katherine 1997. Murder by Tradition. New York, Berkley Publishing Group,

Harvey, John 1994. Cold Light. London, Arrow Books, 1997.

Mosley, Walter 1990. Devil in a Blue Dress. London, Pan, 1992.

Paretsky, Sara 1982. Indemnity Only, pb.

Poe, Edgar Allan, 1844. “The Purloined Letter” (in Norton Anthology)

Spring, Michelle 2001. In The Midnight Hour, pb.

Wilson, Barbara, 1990. Gaudi Afternoon, Seattle, WA, Seal Press, 2001.

Core Background Reading

Cawelti, John. 1976. Adventure, Mystery and Romance; Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press.

Cranny-Francis, Anne. 1990. Feminist Fiction. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Messent, Peter, ed., 1997. Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel, London, Pluto Press.

Munt, Sally R. 1994. Murder by the Book? Feminism and the Crime Novel. London, Routledge.

Priestman, Martin. 1998. Crime Fiction from Poe to the Present. Plymouth, Northcote House in association with The British Council.

Scaggs, John, 2005. Crime Fiction. London, Routledge.

Walton, Priscilla, and Manina Jones. 1999. Detective Agency - Women Re-Writing the Hardboiled Tradition, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Willett, Ralph, 1996. The Naked City: Urban Crime Fiction in the USA. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Optional Background Reading

Benstock, B., ed. 1983. Essays on Detective Fiction. London: Macmillan.

Cobley, Paul. 2000. The American Thriller: Generic Innovation and Social Change in the 1970s, Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Haycraft, Howard, ed. 1946. The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York, Carroll & Graf, 1992 edition.

Heilbrun, Carolyn 1988. Writing a Woman's Life, New York, Ballantine Books, 1989.

Klein, Kathleen Gregory 1988. The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre. Bloomington, University of Illinois Press, rev.ed. 1995.

———, ed. 1995. Women Times Three: Writers, Detectives, Readers, Bowling Green. Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Knight, Stephen 1980. Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction, Basingstoke, Macmillan.

———, 2004. Crime Fiction, 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. New York, Palgrave.

Mandel, Ernst 1984. Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story, London, Pluto Press.

McLaughlin, Joseph 2000. Writing the Urban Jungle, Reading Empire in London from Doyle to Eliot, Charlottesville and London, University Press of Virginia.

Murphet, Julian 2001. Literature and Race in Los Angeles. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Plain, Gill 2001. Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, Gender, Sexuality and the Body. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Porter, Dennis 1981. The Pursuit of Crime; Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.

Reddy, Maureen 1988. Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel. New York, Continuum.

———, 2003. Traces, Codes & Clues, Reading Race in Crime Fiction.

Rowland, Susan 2001. From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Shaw, Marion, and Sabine Vanacker 1991. Reflecting on Miss Marple. New York, Routledge.

Symons, Julian 1972. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York, Viking, 1985; London, Pan, 1994.

Soitos, Stephen S. 1996. The Blues Detective, A Study of African-American Detective Fiction Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press.

Winks, Robin, ed. 1980. Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. Woodstock, VT, Countryman Press.

Worpole, Ken 1983. Dockers and Detectives. London, Pluto Press.
Download 34.63 Kb.

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page