Hollis Seamon‘s first short story for EQMM appears in our current issue (May/June 2018). She is the author of two novels and two critically acclaimed short-story collections, and the 2009 winner of the Al Blanchard Award for best crime story. She has a second career as a college instructor and in this post she talks about the benefits of studying crime fiction.—Janet Hutchings
“An English literature course called ‘Detective Fiction’? Ha! What is that crap going to teach them?”
This remark was made by a particularly pompous professorial personage, in reaction to a new course that I had just invented and listed as an elective. I was stunned into silence. And so, of course, I’ve spent the last decade or so working on the snappy comebacks I should have delivered, speaking sharply into his smug mug.
Many years late, here is my comeback.
But first, some background. Some time ago, I introduced this new course, ENG 217 Detective Fiction, to the English department offerings at the College of Saint Rose where I taught literature and writing. My department colleagues—an enlightened bunch of fine professors—were all for it. Some even said they’d love to take the course, that they’d read detective fiction for years but never had a chance to study it. But some of the more dyed-in-the-wool, snooty academic types in other departments were less pleased and one was more than willing to tell me so.
Perhaps if that guy had read more detective fiction, he too would have been enlightened. Or at least aware of the longstanding love-hate relationship between academia and crime writers. If only he’d spent some time following Morse into the stuffy and often deadly lairs of Oxford dons. Listened to literary scholar Carolyn Heilbrun explain why she had to write her mystery novels under the pseudonym Amanda Cross and hide those works away until she’d achieved the haven of tenure, becoming the first female tenured English professor at Columbia University. If he’d read Dorothy Sayers’s masterpiece, Gaudy Night, where love of scholarly life vies with the deadly effects of living tooth-to-jowl with other academics. If he’d actually read the works, instead of dismissing them as crap, perhaps he might understand. Perhaps be better educated, all around? If he happens to be still teaching, I hope he’s discovered that, these days, the scholarly investigation of crime literature is a valid and valued field of study.
In any case, I hadn’t designed ENG 217 for professors. I wanted it to be a course that students from all majors could enjoy and in which, yes indeed, they might actually learn something. But, really, I invented it so I could teach some my favorite books and stories. Now, let’s say from the outset that teaching the works you love to students who don’t much give a hoot is not always a winning proposition. Usually, it’s hugely disappointing: They just don’t get excited about stories that have left you ablaze with admiration and totally smitten with their writers.
Imagine: You are excited to introduce your class to a book that always takes your breath away with its brilliance. You assign the reading; you bounce joyfully into the classroom and ask them what they thought. Total silence. No eye contact. Finally, a few hesitant hands go up. A few reluctant mouths utter opinions. “I didn’t understand it.” “The sentences are too long.” Then, eagerly, the real malcontents chime in. “Booooooring.” “It sucked.” And that can, quite simply, break your heart.
So I was aware of the dangers of setting out to teach my favorite crime writers. But, really, I figured, who wouldn’t love this stuff? Mystery fiction is the highest-selling genre of all time. It’s meant to entertain, to be accessible. To be (gasp) fun. I was sure students were going to love it. I designed my syllabus to give them what I hoped would be a good overview of the genre, beginning with Poe and winding up, four months and a century or so later, with Mark Haddon. The hundreds of wonderful books I had to leave off the list? Those choices were excruciating. But eventually I came up with a scheme that I thought might work. We would circle loosely around Sherlock Holmes, a figure many of the students already knew—or thought they knew—from films and television. We would read other works too, of course, but at the end of the semester, we’d come back to two wonderful Holmes pastiche novels: Haddon’s amazing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Michael Chabon’s heartbreaking and hilarious The Final Solution. There were many iterations of the course, which I taught up until my retirement in 2016, and I always varied the reading menu a bit while still staying within that overall plan.
And now, at last, I believe I can tell you—and the ghost of that sceptical professor—what the students learned, from some of the works they read.
From Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”: They learned about the origins of detective fiction, about the trope of the brilliant detective whose triumphs are told by an admiring but always baffled sidekick. They learned, if nothing else, the meanings of the words “ingress” and “egress,” terms which not one student had ever heard before and which are, of course, the bedrock concepts behind every locked-room mystery. And, really, in life and literature, isn’t it always important to see a way in, as well as anticipate a way out?
From Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone: The longest and most complicated book most of these students had ever read, this taught them to admire audacious design and brilliant storytelling. They followed the story through its multiplicity of voices, learning to be patient, to enjoy putting the puzzle together from bits and pieces, to settle in for the long haul. They learned, too, I hope, something about the wrongs of British colonialism in India. They learned that one tiny lie, told by one very stubborn young woman, can set off a storm of events. And that, in the end, some wrongs can be made right.
From the Holmes canon: They learned how unexpectedly funny these stories are. And how frightening. How a band of ragged street boys can change the course of an investigation. How a gift for disguise and deception can serve justice. How to feel sympathy for anyone who is, like Watson, always ten steps behind. How a friendship between two such oddly matched partners might endure, based on unspoken but steadfast affection. And to admire The Woman who beats a genius at his own game.
From Penelope Evans, Freezing: They learned that a guy who seems like a total loser, a lowly mortuary photographer with a paralyzing stammer, may take the photo that changes everything. That, despite the capital L this guy seems to have emblazoned on his forehead, he can become a hero.
From Michael Chabon, The Final Solution: They learned some terrible truths about the Holocaust. And some uplifting truths about the quiet, anonymous code-breakers who played such a vital role in defeating Hitler. About the Enigma Machine (and the meaning of the word “enigma,” which, really, sums up mystery fiction.) About a retired detective who keeps bees and who, at the age of ninety, is still fierce, irascible and fascinated by the odd detail. About how a chance to solve one more crime can rejuvenate that very old man. About a mute boy and his parrot and how both learn to speak. And that clues may be woven into illustrations.
From Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: They learned respect and admiration for a severely autistic boy who sets out to navigate the world on his own, with only his pet rat in his pocket. They learned how badly even well-meaning adults can screw up. And, eventually, they learned not only who skewered the poodle Wellington but how to forgive the killer.
From all of the books, put together: The students in ENG 217 learned the art of reading very closely. They learned that they could not skim. That the key clue could easily be missed, if they hurried over page 231 or 198 or 532, where a skillful writer had placed it so carefully. They learned not to be fooled by red herrings. Learned the joy of working something out; of following where sound, painstaking research leads; of separating facts from lies. Learned to recognize deceit and, despite all the deceptions put before them, discover, in the end, some kind of hard-won truth. They learned to pay attention. Learned to practice ratiocination: to think hard and critically and to make judgments based on evidence, not opinion or theory or someone spouting off on Twitter.
Aren’t those skills important in this world? Crucial, even?
That’s what I wish I had said to my pompous professorial challenger, all those years ago. But, of course, I couldn’t have said it then. Only now have I begun to understand what ENG 217 Detective Fiction taught me, after all. And how much I have yet to learn from and about this literature that I love so much.
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