“Summer Reading: Intro to Shakespeare and Agatha Christie” (by Roger Vaccaro)

Roger Vaccaro’s professional fiction debut, the story “Satan’s Circle,” appears in EQMM’s current issue (May/June 2021). The author is a professor of English at St. Johns River State College in St. Augustine, Florida, where, as he mentions in the following post, his teaching includes courses on Shakespeare and nineteenth-century American literature. But it isn’t all about the classics for this teacher and writer; he’s been a fan of mystery fiction since childhood, and his novel-in-progress is a mystery. We think you’ll be interested in what he has to say about the intersections of literature and popular fiction.—Janet Hutchings

“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

—Mark Twain

One advantage of never leaving school is that I’ve always been able to associate summer with freedom, relaxing, and taking a good book to the beach. My reading list this summer is dominated by the two all-time best-selling authors in the English language—one I’ll be teaching for the next seven weeks and the other I will be studying.

I sympathize with my students who, similar to Twain, dread the “classics,” and I long secretly shared their resistance to assigned reading. My usual answer as to why we never read “fun” books is that popular fiction doesn’t need to be studied. I profess my love of mystery novels but concede that once I find out whodunit I feel little need to read them again. (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was a definite exception!)

One of the happiest moments in my life occurred in ninth-grade English when I realized how much I enjoyed reading Romeo and Juliet, but it still took me a long time to consciously link reading for pleasure and the classroom.

I eventually found that I could actually make a living (including health insurance and a pension!) talking about make-believe stories, plays, poetry, and even movies. Until recently, however, I always kept a wall between school and my lifetime love.

I discovered my passion for mysteries lying on the living room floor Saturday mornings watching Scooby-Doo and the gang conquer their and my fears as they revealed a logical explanation for even the most bizarre crimes.

I moved from the Mystery Machine to the Hardy Boys, my older sisters’ Nancy Drew books, and especially Jupiter Jones. The wonderful introductions by “Alfred Hitchcock” soon had me staying up late watching reruns of his TV show on Channel 5.  

In high school my mom bought me subscriptions to EQMM, AHMM, and eventually a mystery book club that introduced me to so many of the classic detective series. In eleventh grade, I wrote a paper about Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” I remember the teacher being impressed that I combined two Aristotle quotes, defining humans as “rational animals with a desire to know.” (There was no Google back then, so my best guess is that I had recently been reading Dorothy Sayers!) My thesis was about how Poe’s tale of ratiocination both invented and mocked the locked room mystery. The brilliant Dupin had matched wits not with a Professor Moriarty but rather an angry “Ourang-Outang.”   

My voracious appetite for reading impressed my family and friends and no doubt enhanced my scores on the verbal section of the SAT, but when I became an English major I quickly discovered that I had massive black holes of ignorance when it came to serious literature. Other than a few Reader’s Digest Condensed Classics on my dad’s bookshelves, I had read little but mysteries, Shakespeare (luckily!), and The Lord of the Rings. 

I sat nervously day after day as professors and classmates name-dropped classics that I silently added to my ever-lengthening must-read list. For many summers I stopped bringing as many mysteries with me to the beach.

Graduate school was better for me because the University of Florida English Department was obsessed with Theory at the time, and everyone seemed to share my confusion. I did get to write about Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” but my paper was based on a critical dispute between Derrida and Lacan. I had fun playing with deconstruction and psychoanalysis, but that was definitely not how and why I wanted to read detective stories. 

One reason I enjoy teaching nineteenth-century literature is that I now truly appreciate many of the “classics” I had once neglected, and I like the challenge of trying to inspire a similar pleasure in initially reluctant readers. I prefer Hawthorne and Melville, but Poe is the clear favorite among my students, who, unfortunately, are drawn to offering psychological assessments of the famous author based on his popular tales of madness.

I continually stress not confusing fiction writers with their narrators and selfishly try to steer students toward Poe’s detective stories, but I inevitably receive papers that diagnose Poe as “insane” based on “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat.”  

Despite the above complaints, I often learn a great deal from my students. One of the many papers that impressed me last month involved an analysis of Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark,” a wonderful allegory about a famous scientist who becomes obsessed with removing the one flaw in his otherwise ideal wife. Unlike many readers, I think Aylmer deeply loves Georgiana but is terrified by her mortality. I teach the story as a warning about hubris and a reminder to humbly appreciate and cherish what we love, even more so because time is inevitably too short. One student surprised me by seeing it as a murder story and suggesting that Aylmer was going to have a difficult time explaining to homicide detectives why he had poisoned his perfectly healthy wife.

Last week as I planned my Shakespeare course for Summer A, I also worked on writing my first novel. I have an abundance of notes, scenes, and ideas but want to make sure I have a strong plot.  I decided to reread Agatha Christie for the first time in years, not to find out what happens but to focus on how she tells her stories. Since I was still commuting to work, I cheated by checking out an audiobook on Hoopla.

I started with Death on the Nile because I heard Branagh was adapting it for a movie, and although I was a bit disappointed by his previous portrayal of Poirot, I am a big fan of his work in general. I loved him as Hamlet, Benedick, and Professor Gilderoy Lockhart.

Years ago, I read an article where the author suggested that one of the few benefits of growing old was that he could again enjoy the great mystery classics because he had forgotten the solutions. I thought he was joking at the time. However, I became so immersed in my return to Death, I totally neglected to “take notes” concerning structure.

Christie is sometimes dismissed as a clever writer with tricky plots, but I found myself repeatedly impressed by telling details and profound insights. As I drove down I-95 each day, I started mentally dog-earing pages and underlining quotations:

POIROT: “Do not open your heart to evil . . . because if you do—if you do—evil will come. . . Yes, very surely evil will come. It will enter in and make its home within you, and after a little while it will no longer be possible to drive it out.”                                                                                            

POIROT, warning against pursuing revenge: “I speak as a friend. Bury your dead! . . . Give up the past! . . . What is done is done. Bitterness will not undo it . . . I am not thinking of her at the moment. I am thinking of you. You have suffered—yes—but what you are doing will only prolong the suffering.”

The KILLER, understanding why Poirot insists on exacting justice despite feeling tempted to show mercy: “It’s so dreadfully easy—killing people . . . and you begin to feel that it doesn’t matter . . . that it’s only you that matters! It’s dangerous—that.” 

Christie’s take on murder and retribution seems influenced by Shakespeare and definitely enriches my understanding of his plays. Poirot is typically more concerned with clearing the innocent than punishing the guilty; he says in Death that people often forget that “life and death are the affair of the good God.”  

Based partly on my recent return visit with Poirot, I revised one of my prompts for the final essay in Introduction to Shakespeare:

“Life isn’t fair” is a lesson every child must learn. Revenge stories have long been popular at least partly because they address a common human hunger for justice. Shakespeare deepens the complexity of this familiar plot by making his avenging hero in Hamlet both a Christian and a deep thinker who rigorously scrutinizes his own reluctance to act. In one of Hamlet’s many great quotations, he offers sound advice that unfortunately he doesn’t follow himself: “Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit in your bounty.” Prospero, in The Tempest, battles against his fury aimed at his evil brother and seems content with his realization: “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.”  Compare / contrast Hamlet and Prospero in regards to their coming to terms with their righteous anger. 

The next book (I have an actual paperback this time) on my summer reading list is And Then There Were None. I can remember where I was when I first read it (on the black and white checkered couch in the basement of my childhood home in Maryland), but I forget how the story goes. I seem to recall that, similar to The Tempest, the setting is an island where a powerful man has lured several guilty people in need of judgment. Even if reading it doesn’t directly help me write my book, I feel confident it will bring me pleasure this summer and improve the way I read and teach Shakespeare in the future.

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4 Responses to “Summer Reading: Intro to Shakespeare and Agatha Christie” (by Roger Vaccaro)

  1. Thank you! This was great. Your students are very lucky. (I’ve been rereading Christie this year as comfort reads.)

  2. Roger Vaccaro says:

    Thanks so much for your kind, generous comment! I hope my students agree with you.

  3. Eileen Malinowski says:

    Excellent article. Well-written and relatable. Look forward to reading more from this author.

  4. Roger N Vaccaro says:

    Thank you!

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