Judy Clemens makes her first appearance in EQMM with the story “Safe,” in our May/June 2020 issue, which goes on sale in less than two weeks. She is already well known to many in the mystery world, however, as the author of the Agatha- and Anthony-nominated Stella Crown series, the Grim Reaper mysteries, the Agatha- and Anthony-nominated YA thriller Tag, You’re Dead (published as JC Lane), and the standalone novel Lost Sons. In addition to writing fiction, the Ohio author has recently begun teaching courses on crime fiction and creative writing, a job that inspired this post. Her most recent book project is a nonfiction work about peacemakers written for middle-school readers (see Making Waves: Fifty Stories about Sharing Love and Changing the World, October 2020). —Janet Hutchings
I’m doing something new this year, and as part of everything else good about it, I have been given an opportunity to share with young people what an important place crime fiction holds in our society and our collective world of popular culture.
Let me explain.
My change in life came about because of several factors:
I turned 50.
My son went to college.
My daughter will go to college this fall.
I hit what I suppose you would call a midlife crisis, but instead of buying a fancy car or getting plastic surgery I decided to do something completely different—I went back to school.
When I first began researching graduate programs, I looked at English departments because, well, I’m a writer. The problem was, the programs I researched all focused on literary fiction or poetry, and that’s really not my thing, being a mystery author. (The applications for such programs pointedly said genre fiction will not be accepted as a writing sample.) So I kept looking, because why pursue something which didn’t fit—or even allow—my particular interests?
And then I struck gold.
I am fortunate to live within commuting distance of Bowling Green State University (Ohio, not Kentucky), which was the first US graduate school to have a popular culture department, where students can earn an undergraduate or master’s degree in that field. Looking at this program’s academics and scholarship, I was pleased to see all kinds of interdisciplinary study, from genre fiction to movies to heavy metal to television to folklore. The point is to analyze these things and see what they say about our society, about us as people. Why do we read mystery fiction? Who are we if reality TV speaks to our souls? What does it mean that the same basic story shows up in historical cultures which had no opportunity for connection?
I wanted to know.
I applied and was accepted into the master’s program as a graduate teaching assistant. I began attending classes in fall of 2019, and experienced many almost out-of-body moments where I couldn’t believe my good fortune—day after day I was sitting around with other people talking about things that interested me and fed my soul. It was the best.*
Besides taking my own classes, my role as a TA makes me responsible for a section of an undergraduate class called Introduction to Popular Culture. As part of the course I have room to teach specifically about three different genres. I’m sure you will not be at all surprised to hear that one of my chosen genres is mystery. I’ve taught a lot of things in that class, but never have I felt so comfortable as when I stood in front of my students and told them about the history of crime fiction, its subgenres, the elements of what makes something a mystery, and what mysteries say about our society. We talked about Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Jessica Fletcher, British detectives and American cop shows. We watched the trailer for Knives Out and discussed the meaning of red herrings and what it means if something is suspenseful. We talked about Charles Felix, who wrote what is most likely the first detective novel (Poe was first detective story), and all of the mystery subgenres we could come up with. The students dug into crime fiction, and it was fun to see the spark of interest in their eyes.
As part of the lesson, my friend Barb Goffman, another EQMM author, allowed me to have the class read one of her stories. She worked with me to find which of her arsenal would best show off the traditional mystery. We decided on “Till Murder Do Us Part” (originally published in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feather, and Felonies), which has the traditional elements of victim, detective, suspects, and plot. The students read the story before coming to class, and on that Thursday, we divided into groups to outline the characters, setting, conflicts, plot, clues, suspense, and solution. The students were impressed I was friends with the author (it wasn’t until that day I revealed that I myself write mysteries!), and Barb texted with me in real time to give the students advice: “Writing can be fun. You won’t get to learn about exploding cows in a lot of other careers.” And “My favorite crime stories don’t just involve figuring out whodunit, but they involve getting a better understanding about life and what motivates people, what upsets them, invigorates them. Good crime stories can help you get a better understanding of the world around you.” Her words fit perfectly with the concept of why it is important to study popular culture, and thus, mysteries.
In their weekly responses, my students wrote about their conclusions from Barb’s story and our mystery lesson. It was fun and satisfying to see them learning new things and connecting the story to societal issues, as well as their own experiences. Here are some of the larger lessons they either took from the story or the mystery genre as a whole, when they realized this kind of fiction is not “just” a mystery:
- The story had objectives or meanings beyond the narrative itself, such as discussions about sexism, family conflict, and the power of love.
- Reading is not something they usually do for pleasure (nothing like a knife to the heart!) but they did enjoy this one, as well as the escape from scholarly articles.
- It is enjoyable to discuss mysteries with other people who have also read them, and to analyze clues and meanings.
- It is refreshing to have a female sheriff as the protagonist, although it took some by surprise. After many discussions in class about the role women play in popular culture, they noticed how women were forefront in this story.
- Readers like knowing that at the end of a mystery there will be closure; there is a sense of control perhaps not always a part of real life.
Aren’t they smart?
This school year (now all online, of course!) has been a joyful re-evaluation of my goals and interests in my own studies, but one of the most educational aspects has been learning from my students. Their willingness and ability to look at aspects of popular culture—like crime fiction—and how they relate to our world have been eye-opening and heartening. I believe our world will be in good hands in the near future, when they are the ones in charge.
And you know what? That’s not a mystery.