Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Motive, Means and Opportunity: Teaching Crime Fiction

This paper was written as a plenary for a crime fiction conference held at the University of Reading in 1998; at that time I had been teaching for three years at the University of Wales, Cardiff (as it was then known), a twelve-week module on crime fiction. I had also taught a course of that kind at De Montfort University 1992-4. Strange to say, none of the departments in which I had worked in allegedly egalitarian Australia had been willing to take on this louche subject, but I and my friends had negotiated this by consistently teaching crime fiction in the adult education system which flourished in the large cities there.

I have been teaching crime fiction in some context of other for over thirty years now. But experience is not much use because crime fiction keeps changing. As if Chaucer popped up now and then with half a dozen new Canterbury Tales. Since I started teaching the genre in the 1960s a range of new sub-genres have appeared. Procedural policing has more or less come and gone (or hidden in television); the psychothriller has branched out and crossed over into the `respectable’ novel found on the earlier pages of the review sections; feminist thrillers have appeared on great numbers and many forms: not so many, interestingly, in the male gay versions; highly innovative have been Afro-American thrillers, postmodernist thrillers and, more regrettably from my viewpoint, the so called `cozy’ mystery, replete with cats and chefs. National variants have flourished in Germany, France, Italy, Catalonia, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Scotland and, almost, Wales, and no doubt in many other locations unknown to me. If that all sounds like democratic multiplicity (if grudgingly, re the `cozy’) it is worth noting that on the probable downside there may well be now a new sub-genre, one of tone rather than theme, the thriller of violence, where the focus is blood, flesh and torment in plenty: and it may well have links with that other thriving shelf in the library and bookshop, true crime – or alleged true crime. Whether these last two link with another innovation is a matter for researchers more than teachers: those substantial shelf-fulls of white paperbacks with sensitive lettering and design which go under the sub-generic title of `misery’ fiction, relating the agonies done to and now lucratively recounted by, the young who have suffered at the heart, or rather the teeth and claws, of Western culture.

Teaching crime fiction is stalking a moving object, unless we are content to put it all on the slab as in the old Oxford postgraduate study system where you were not permitted to research on a living author. There’s an idea for a mystery plot in that.

The other big improver in crime fiction these days is creative instruction books and courses about how to write the genre anyway – often, if a little threateningly – held at country house retreats. Does everyone survive ? I have no experience of that area being firmly uncreative (or you could say critical) in my writing. The Stephen Knight who writes those fine bold poems and perceptive reviews in the British weeklies is someone else, though also from Wales and from the same college at Oxford, perhaps even a distant cousin. We do get mixed up: I got a cheque for him from the BBC one day, but it was not huge, and I sent it on. I also, when he won the Wales novel of the year prize got invited by phone to a literary conference in Copenhagen by a cool-sounding and very insistent lady who would not take no you have the wrong Knight for an answer. I was tempted to go and deliver a paper on the full stop in Piers Plowman, but for once sense prevailed. Once though, getting closer to putative cousin Stephen, I was commissioned to write a piece on genre and sub-genre for  how to write handbook, at a fair fee. I banged out something from my lecture notes and sent it off. The editor returned t saying it was too difficult for intending authors. But the lumpen students could cope with it OK. There must be a message in there somewhere. Perhaps those touchy-feely Creative Writing courses should be called Uncritical Writing courses.

Anyway, after what the Creative Writing tutors would call my scene-setting so far, what of the case in hand ? What indeed might be the Why, What and How of teaching crime fiction ?

The existence of a Why depends on a whole set of attitudes to literary canons, institutional, political and just psychotic. There remain people who feel the subjects taught in departments of English should only be respectable, tasteful, and morally uplifting. Like Titus Andronicus, perhaps. There are not so many of those people around now in the glass cases in English departments, but there certainly were when I was an academic lad. I was once advised by a senior staff member that my career would be severely handicapped if I continued to teach and even write about `things’ like crime fiction. Well, perhaps my career has been severely handicapped by the many citations of the still in print 1980 Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction. What else might I have achieved ?

The narrowness of the traditional canon was certainly the reason I started teaching crime fiction courses in what was then called  Adult Education or, worse from a modern mercantilist viewpoint, Workers’ Education. I cannot say I notice any difference between those external sixties course and what I have more recently done internally in universities, except that people had then read far more than modern internal students have done or will do. There were, though, always the mature-age students of both genders in woolly jumpers who appeared to have memorised the entire works of Dorothy L. Sayers.

One proper response to Why teach crime fiction is essentially, Why Not ? It is only humanities departments that have, especially in the past, felt the right to exclude substantial elements of human experience from their purview, as if medicine faculties only studied the illnesses caught by posh people. To those of us who think a canon is anything bigger that a .32, the issue of Why does not seem a real one.

But it would still be true  to acknowledge, and perhaps for us to take some largely unearned credit for, the fact that almost everyone who teaches crime fiction is in some way aware of their action as counter-canonical. Even if the course is entirely devoted to musical references in Edmund Crispin, it still will have some implication of resistance to the traditional literary canon, even if only a playful one. I notice among my colleagues who teach crime fiction in Britain, and in North America as well (there are so many of them over there), a clear sense of enjoying a marginal position and using it as a location from which to tweak the tail, at least, of those who feel, or like to feel, or would like to feel, more centralised in the culture industry, better invested in cultural capital. There are, as we used to say at theorycentric Cardiff, some discursive politics in the decision to teach crime fiction at all.

But that identifiable coherence about Why does not imply any other kind of solidarity among the criminopedgagogues. Moving along to consider What, when I look at the course plans so helpfully collected a while ago by B. J. Rahn,[1] I am constantly struck by their variety. It is not total. There is a residual core of writers on most lists. The old lags are Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and, somewhat to my surprise, Raymond Chandler – I would have thought more purists might have used Hammett as the archetype of the `tough guy’ story. Poe does not appear on all the courses, presumably because not all of them go back that far –more on the topic of scope shortly. Something that did surprise me was that Dorothy Sayers appeared on so many. Equally disconcerting was that many did not include Sara Paretsky, or indeed any representative of the feminist thriller school, and only a few came bang (or scream) up to date, with 1990s Gothic texts like Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs or Val McDermid’s The Mermaids Singing or their successors Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson..

That authorial variety and vacancy was supplemented by sub-generic inconsistency. While clue-puzzle and private eye were always there, quite rare were the police procedural, the psychothriller (whether of the victim- or criminal-focused kind) and – a sign of the time no doubt – the spy story. It wouldn’t have happened twenty years ago when Le Carré was  the Chandler du jour and perhaps the Dorothy Sayers as well. Another sub-genre rarely represented in the syllabi was the sensationalist thriller – The Moonstone sometimes appeared, but as a detective story; The Woman in White, to me a good deal more interesting, rarely showed up.

In the presence of this data, what patterns can be induced (to use the correct term for this method, not deduced, as Conan Doyle fallaciously had it). The core authors, Doyle, Christie and Chandler, are very notable, and not only for being from the same part of the alphabet (a very prolific one if you think of Chesterton, Cheyney, Crofts, Dickson Carr and surely other literal congeners), but also for being mainstream literary person’s authors. Chandler, ever the stylist; Doyle the master of plot and not a little wit; Christie, though never  a fancy stylist always using close attention to verbal detail as a key to her mechanism and readerly apprehension of them. The literariness of academic treatment of crime fiction and its audience is re-inscribed in the central authorial choices. And that mechanism also explains the popularity of writers whom I would see as marginal to the development of the form, both generically and ideologically, but whose literary intellectuality leads them to turn up very frequently on the syllabus, notably Chesterton and Sayers.

The underlying tendency of quite a lot of syllabi towards a sort of idealist aestheticism – let’s have literary fun – is something to note and, I would humourlessly suggest, to try to avoid as a waste of effort. I see that approach as being itself a part of a process of education as cultural capital, as an echo of the canon. In the literary-oriented crime fiction course the student is being invited to share the teacher’s seven per cent bookish solution, rather than learn the skills of decent induction.

The relatively frequent absence of Poe, and indeed of Harris and McDermid, points to another pattern that I find troubling. Not many of the courses I have seen operate on a historical principle. Now I am sure the dismissive phrase `grand narrative’ will be poised on many sensitive lips: I know there are dangers in thinking – and so creating – history. But I also believe there are many advantages in encouraging people to understand how, over times and places, cultural forms have changed and developed, and so to be able to see our own culture against a matrix of possible alternative meaning.

However, this historicocriminography is hard to operate, and for several reasons. One is that some forms crucial in the development of the crime fiction genre seem to have exhausted their appeal except in the most museum-like manner. I used to set Ed McBain’s Cop Hater out of a perhaps misplaced historicity-questing purism, and talk about the growing development in the late 1950s of a focus on types of proceduralism in novel and television. I noticed that very few students were interested in writing on McBain, but I soldiered on until the year Cop Hater went out of print, I think 1997 – but it may well be that the work of McBain and his avatars was so forcefully done that proceduralism is now always a given, at least in film and television. This subliminal excision of material seems also true of the psychothriller – the classic texts by Margaret Millar and Patricia Highsmith seem to be of very little interest to modern students, and when in 1995 I tried to teach King Solomon’s Carpet by `Barbara Vine’, feeling it would speak to students from the Thatcher years, only two students out of 85 could be bothered to write on it and I believe both were mature age. Maybe it was too veridical, says the historian. It is also true, I self-convincingly think, that modern crime fiction has internalised many psychothriller elements, from The Silence of the Lambs onwards.

A commitment to history itself brings questions. The constraints of space in a course and in student attention means there will be historical gaps, and there is also the question of which history do you follow ? The history of crime fiction we usually have tends to be simplistic. It goes Poe, Doyle, Christie, Chandler, with sometimes Collins, Gaboriau. Freeman, Crofts, Hammett, Gardner and others intercalating, but not actually disrupting the idea of a canonical flow. It didn’t happen that way of course. When Hammett started writing Doyle was still at work and Christie had hardly begun. There are loops (Crofts), gaps (Poe to Gaboriau), and overlaps (the thirties), not a steady flow. But my main worry is the forgotten authors and influences, who are often in the periodicals – to be mentioned shortly. A historical method must constantly counter its own tendencies to conceal the evidence that contradicts it.

I resolved the history question to my satisfaction after a few years at Cardiff by teaching two modules, one at second one at third year. At second, we had twentieth century, starting with Doyle and fairly dense at the more recent end (Harris and McDermid indeed), though eschewing by now the psychothriller. Then third year reversed history for the nineteenth century from Godwin on, including a prepared reader of periodical stories from very early through to the 1860s, including real exotics like the American John B. Williams (the Jem Brampton stories, early cool toughish guy) and the great Australian Mary Fortune (goldfield mysteries with the excellent mounted trooper Mark Sinclair). Second year tended to be a large survey-type course taken by  around a hundred people. Third year, being a double module, was more detailed and demanding, the novels mostly longer (The Woman in White being the star) and would have about 40 good students, quite a few of whom did dissertations on the field. So you either had recent history or full history, and I believe history rehistoricised worked well.

But even if a syllabus does aspire to a traditional flow, there will still be evident insertions: I hold that you can judge any crime fiction course pretty accurately by focusing on the one oddball that each course will contain. This is the real clue to the whole, this is the shifted armchair or the unwatered potplant that speaks all to the specialist. A learned, witty feminist might include Gladys Mitchell; someone of anorakish sentimentality could select Freeman Wills Crofts; for a recidivist soizante-huitard, the scrap of torn apron will be Sjöwall and Wahlöö. For me, the revealing presence was the collection of almost unknown nineteenth-century periodical stories, Enter the Detective as I called it – I’ve never even bothered to find a publisher, it was made in the office and costed for photocopying, about two pounds. It showed that even Poe, the great originator, had predecessors in his combination of Gothic frisson and Enlightenment elucidation, including in the American Gentleman’s Magazine that he would edit. It suggests, or I tried to make it suggest, that what Poe, Collins, Doyle, etc did was to appropriate and institutionalise forms and forces and work in the depths of popular culture and, not unlike my own career, across the globe.

In the same speculatively historicist way I have consistently tried to make students look at what is going on now in fiction (and by extension in film), by asking them to consider whether there is a new sub-genre, the thriller of violence, where the key element is to have gouts of blood and gobbets of flesh swilling about –a motif based sub-genre, rather than a character- or plot-based sub-generic definition, as has been more usual in the genre. Such discussions of what is contemporarily innovative in itself must bring up by contrast what survives of the traditional genres in the ultramodern. And so historicism marches on.

This discussion has as you will notice moved into the area of How – methodology – and that is in basis where there exist the widest disparities in teaching crime fiction. I think, as I have already implied, that quit a few of the courses I have encountered are essentially exercises in connoisseurism in which a teacher simply shares (and so validates) no more than interest in and enthusiasm for the form. I have no objection to connoisseurism in itself, it can produce elegant books and tasteful book collections: it is just that without some other methodology in support it can be quite without any analytic force, it generates no intellectual agency in the reader – or the student.

Connoisseurism aside, there are other patterns that run through approaches to crime fiction both in writing it or in the construction of courses about it. One that is surprisingly current is a religious approach. It is not hard to set up a course which stresses the quasi-divine role of the detective and sees the sub-genres as sadly headshaking parabiblical read-out of our world. There are examples of such courses around the world. Auden is the big critic here, asserting the prevalence of guilt through the whole genre, and also the whole creation;[2] the card-carrying Christians Chesterton and Sayers figure largely of course. The singleton giveaway tends to be not Harry Kemelman’s rather mundial Rabbi, but one of the fruiter Oxbridge pseudonyms such as Edmund Crispin or Michael Innes, trailing clouds of secular glory which appear to mime religious certainties.

There is another dubious methodology I have discerned, which is best called masculinism. Here the singleton clue will be either John Buchan or `Sapper’ (H.C.McNeile) with Bulldog Drummond – sometimes both. Public school nostalgia and imperialist moonshine, plus some derring-do with a large revolver, illuminate this methodology and there will almost certainly be Ian Fleming to come or least another public school chap in Le Carré -- and conceivably, if we are in the brainy end of this section, Graham Greene. There are American versions of masculinism that will include Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson and George V. Higgins, and will canonise figures like Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiassen, who seem to me both fluent and thin.

Masculinist as Paretsky may be in the view of some readers (V.I. is a bit tough at times), she did not appear in either of these programmes. She does of course on a feminist-oriented course, which may well also use some past classics by women such as the American doyenne Anna Katharine Green or the much under-noticed Londoner Celia Fremlin, perhaps even the elusive Americans who in reality were a stimulus to Agatha Christie like Carolyn Wells and Mary Roberts Rinehart. There should also be the modern heavyweights Barbara Wilson and Katharine V. Forrest, perhaps even the US-published Claire McNab with her glamorous lesbian detective to match Sydney Harbour.

Away from all this gender and politics – as they would hopefully like to think – there are forms of formalism. One kind was produced by Jacques Barzun, pinning stories to the velvet of his discriminations.[3] More productive, I think, are the types of formalism that plunge more deeply into, and through, the texts. Structuralism in Tzetvan Todorov’s work had interesting things to say about crime fiction, especially the double structure by which the author patiently reversed the obfuscating narrative which the murderer had tried to construct, and John G. Cawelti’s influential book was a primer of structuralist formations in the genre. Umberto Eco’s own interest was a semiotic version of the same thrust before he turned creative, and Martin Priestman’s more measured account, the only British formalism to speak of, operated basically on that mode. A lucid account has been given by the American scholar Tony Hilfer.[4] At a less immediately accessible level a number of critical theorists have used crime fiction to focus some elusive thought or other. For Lacan it’s Poe; for Belsey, Doyle; for Žizek, Doyle and Chandler; for Jameson, Chandler.[5] I have no in principle problems with this formalist high road, though I do feel it can run the risk of veering away from social and historical formations into a fancy form of connoisseurism. (You, M. Lacan, are ze guilty one.)

A more demotic and less elevated version of that mode of thought is the increasingly common cultural studies approach to crime fiction. This tends to take a series of texts selected for their relation to major issues in cultural studies and read them through appropriate secondary sources. A general version of this was my own 1980 Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction, but later accounts have been more single issue in focus. The stations of the hermeneutic cross early on included feminism: Munt’s British study had a brisk approach, but  Walton and  Jones is surely the best; post-colonialism has yet produced little of much weight, but Ed Christian made a start and two German scholars, Christine Matzke and Susanne Mühleisen, went further; gay studies has thrived in fiction, especially extending the feminist response --Walton and Jones are good on this too – but as Drewey Gunn shows, dealing much less with male figures, so presumably showing differing approaches to the macho detective; the body and violence is another strong development in the fiction but little noted or cared about by the critics, though I have tried to identity the thriller of violence as a new sub-genre in the second edition of my recent survey.[6] Recently there has been a tendency to see more material on the non-Anglophone mystery, which is a welcome event, notably Marieke Krajenbrink and Kate Quinn’s Investigating Identities. There has also appeared a series of somewhat plodding studies on the nineteenth century, the best on both detail and analysis being Ronald Thomas on science and Heather Worthington on the early years.[7]

I have not yet said anything about assessment. Perhaps this is because I first drafted this talk while having very recently withdrawn from the piles of  scarcely decipherable exam scripts which the half-baked Cardiff rules at that time imposed on me: half-baked because third year had essays, second year exams. After a bit we just ignored this piece of meaningless meta-management. I was also at that time also serving a whole set of terms as an external examiner or, as my revealingly erroneous typing would have it, eternal examiner. Having in second year won my way from the dawn shoot-out with pen and paper to the literate liberty of the essay, I have used an assessment system that I believe has worked pretty well for all involved. I require students to undertake comparative work, not write on one text – and remain astonished that such a narrow  range remains possible in university assessment at all. I will however let them write on one text if, making it harder than mere comparatism, they match the text with a theoretical method that enlightens it, or present an illuminating historical context or, very rarely selected, a text not on the course but which would be an interesting interpretative partner if it were.

This alternative to two-book study seems to work rather well and produces some interesting and original essays, especially from joint honours students or those specialising in critical theory. There is an opposite end: all courses in popular culture will always have a few students who think this is going to be really easy stuff and produce poor, even incomplete essays. And there are always a few who complain because there is too much reading, definitely not expected at the popular end of things. I expect to cover at least a book a week, while my canonical colleagues proceed with a much more measured tread. But year on year the patterns of student choice have varied radically – in 1997-8 for example Paretsky was much more in than Doyle, and the reverse had been previously true. The Woman in White stays well cliented – though one year they had to be warned to write on the book, not the recent television series. Strange to say, among the self-selected texts I have not yet found Chesterton or Sayers.

In the third year nineteenth-century course assessment has been stiffer, being a `double module’ with an accordingly longer essay. I have still made two texts the basis, though students quite often here embrace more, especially if they use some of the anthologised short stories. These more mature and confident students are more likely to take the contextual or theoretical approach, though often dealing with more than one text in that mode – and other texts, sometimes Gothic, sometimes other novels especially by Collins or Braddon, appear rather more regularly.

Others may well assess in different ways – university practices vary enormously and the transatlantic quiz is something to the bottom of which I have never got. While I have probably made my own comparatist and contextualist concerns clear enough, I would always also want to be open to formalist and especially theoretical approaches and have seen excellent work in those modes, sometimes leading on to postgraduate study. Selection among the assessment approaches I have described, and no doubt some I have not even considered, will necessarily depend on who is teaching a course, what kinds of students attend, what the department breeds, or will tolerate,  as attitudes and especially what kind of secondary materials are available. While there have been more books on crime fiction in recent years, they tend either to be surveys or collections of disparate and often jejeune essays, not in general solid examples of an approach across a range of texts (I think both the scholars and the publishers are naïve in this respect). Particularly a problem, at least for senior students, is the shortage and limitation of material in journals. Clues, now started up again, and basically the only focused medium, tends to be special-interest oriented and to offer very little on the mainstream authors.

A final point – and a serous one, though not one I seem to be able to get anyone to consider much – is that we are not well served by the potential titles of our courses. `Teaching Crime Fiction’ is  deeply banal, underselling both the form and the activity, and that doesn’t improve at all with synonymic variation like the detective novel, the thriller and so on. These title all, for many students, and indeed colleagues, seem inherently belittling and make it harder to get going properly. Maybe something generic like `The Tradition of Poe’ might be less troublesome, or to take the conceptual high road, `Fiction of Aberrance’ -- less grandly, Murder and Melodrama’. Or just a simple map,  `From Godwin to Doyle’, `From Christie to Cornwell’.

Or even something historical: I feel `Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction’ has a bracingly demanding challenge to it. And it has another advantage. While I realise that for most students these days (i.e. in our own history), history is a nightmare which they hope to sleep through and never remember, I would still urge always historicise as the master method. The genre is so omnipresent and omnipopular that it seems to resist historicisation in a constant flow of the vertiginously present, but in fact the variations are very detailed because they are so specifically tied to their contexts. The genre can be an ideal place to start to fulfil the motive to learn about such changes; we are steadily building up a set of means for fulfilling that process and with so much material, you could hardly deny there is a rich, indeed almost overwhelming opportunity to make a good, developmental and reproducible process of learning about the social meanings, the communal communications, of crime fiction.




[1] In Murder is Academic: A Collection of Crime Fiction Course Syllabi, New York, English Department, Hunter College, 1993 and Murder is Academic: A Second Collection of Crime Fiction Course Syllabi, New York, English Department, Hunter College, 1998.
[2]  W. H. Auden, `The Guilty Vicarage’, in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, London, Faber, 1948.
[3] The Delights of Detection, New York, Criterion, 1961.
[4] Tzetvan Todorov, `The Typology of Crime Fiction’, in The Poetics of Prose, trans, R. Howard, Oxford, Blackwell, 1977; John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture, University of Chicago Press, 1976; Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader, London, Hutchinson, 1976; Martin Priestman, Crime Fiction: from Poe to the Present, Plymouth, Northcote House, 1997; Tony Hilfer, The Crime Novel: A Deviant Genre, Austin,  University of Texas Press, 1990.
[5] Jacques Lacan, `The Seminar on the Purloined letter’, Yale French Studies, 48 (1972), 39-72; Catherine Belsey,  Critical Practice, London, Routledge, 1982, pp. 109-17; Slavoj Žizek, `Two Ways to Avoid the Real of Desire’, Chap. 3 of Looking Awry, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1992, pp. 48-66; Fredric Jameson, `On Raymond Chandler’, Southern Review, 6 (1970), 624-50.
[6] Sally R. Munt, Murder by the Book ?  Feminism and the Crime Novel, London, Routledge, 1994;  Priscilla L. Walton and Manina Jones, Detective Agency: Women Rewriting the Hard-Boiled Tradition, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999; Ed Christian, ed., The Post-Colonial Detective, London, Palgrave, 2001; Christine Matzke and Susanne Mühleisen, eds, Postcolonial Postmortems: Crime Fiction from a Transcultural Perspective, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2006; Drewey Wayne Gunn, The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film, Lanham MD, Scarecrow, 2005;  Stephen Knight, Crime Fiction Since 1800: Detection, Death, Diversity, second edition, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 208-09.
[7]  Marieke Krajenbrink and Kate M. Quinn, eds., Investigating Identities: Questions of Identity and Contemporary International Crime Fiction, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2009;  Ronald  R. Thomas, Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science, Cambridge University Press, 1999;  Heather Worthington, The Rise of the Detective in Early Nineteenth-Century Popular Fiction, London, Palgrave, 2005.

1 comment:

  1. Teaching crime fiction is the great step where the awareness regaring crimes also discuss. help me with my homework So many books are also written in this topic by great authors. Really good job by writer.

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