July 19, 2008

Mysterious Reading Plans

As I've remarked a few times in recent posts, I'm hoping to shake up the reading list for my class on Mystery and Detective Fiction. I introduced it in 2003, and the major texts have been basically the same each time I've taught it: some Poe and Conan Doyle and various other short fiction, depending on the anthology I've got; Collins's The Moonstone, Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Sue Grafton's 'A' is for Alibi, and Ian Rankin's Knots and Crosses.

I've been having a hard time choosing additions or alternatives, partly because I'm not really an avid reader of mysteries (too often I find them formulaic or gimmicky, or too grim) so the work of filtering out the good or the significant is unappealing. My own taste tends to wordy, British-style character-driven ones, but between P. D. James, Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George, and Ian Rankin, I don't run out of books to read, and when I want something pithier, well, Robert B. Parker and Dick Francis too keep providing me with new ones (just this weekend I whipped through Now and Then, and last weekend it was Spare Change). I've picked up some new authors recently: I like Deborah Crombie well enough, for instance, and for no good reason there are a lot of Reginald Hill titles I haven't read yet, so I've done some catching up. And I keep up with Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, though I have been finding them kind of flat lately. But what I feel I need for my course is not more of the same kinds already represented on my syllabus but more variety, and some indication of new directions the genre might be going, and no matter how many titles I bring home to take a look at, few leap out as significant or interesting enough to put on a syllabus. So I've solicited (and received) suggestions a couple of times here and asked around among my mystery-reading friends and family, and I've also been browsing a lot online, where of course there are many sources of information and recommendations, including the excellent blogs Petrona and Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. I had in mind a more diverse list of writers, perhaps something Canadian, perhaps something from the vast array of 'international' crime writers. Here is a list of the titles or authors I've come up with from which I hope to draw my new material:
I've gathered most of these titles up from the public library and plan a serious course of crime reading over the next couple of weeks (when I'm not reading Adam Bede, of course!). I remain open to suggestions!

The other thought I've had, as I work my way through The Wire (just wrapped Season 3), is that it would be exciting and appropriate to work TV in somehow. I've included Prime Suspect I in my seminar on Women and Detective Fiction, including this summer, and not only do the themes and action of the series work extremely well with the overall interests of the course, but the shift in genre and medium gives us a lot more to think and talk about. Crime shows are certainly a staple of television drama--but how can it be done? Also, of course, as a television (or film) critic I am a rank amateur, so how could I be sure to do it well?


DreamQueen said...

I recommend Ellis Peters. She wrote a bunch of medieval mysteries, the first of which is called, I believe, A Morbid Taste for Bones.

Kerrie said...

How difficult to lecture on mystery/crime if you don't really read them.

Such a smorgasbord that you could choose from.
How about Louise Penny for the Canadian writer, Karin Fossum for Scandinavian, Peter Temple for Australian, Colin Dexter or R. D. Wingfield for your British list.

I think you need to distinguish between those who are actually are British and those like Crombie, George and Robinson who write in the British style. For something entirely different - a couple of spoofs - Colin Watson, M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin series. What about Chelsea Cain for the really grisly? Or R.J. Ellory or Susan Hill for cross genre writers.
More: Tana French for a new author causing a storm, Linwood Barclay, Fred Vargas - send them to my blog for a list of what I've read this year.

Rohan Maitzen said...

DQ: Thanks for the recommendation. Are they just enjoyable, or do you think they do something 'teachable'?

Kerrie: Well, I do read quite a lot of them, and of course I also read about the genre and its historical and other roots and connections. It's just that there are so many and more coming out all the time, and what I'm trying to zero in on are ones that contribute in some striking way to the form. Thanks for your suggestions--I'm familiar with some but not all of the names you mention.

Miriam said...

A Grijpstra & de Gier by the very-recently-late Janwillem van de Wetering? (The very definition of "acquired taste," however.) FWIW, I found the first two Mankells almost completely unreadable, which is probably the fault of the translation.

One interesting Japanese noir is Akimitsu Takagi's post-WWII The Tattoo Murder Case, which looks like it's back in stock after being unavailable earlier this year. I taught it to freshmen in 2001 and the students were quite fascinated. Soho Crime in general reprints a lot of good international work, although the translations can sometimes be...eh.

If you want to teach a Dalziel & Pascoe novel, you probably have to use one of the earlier ones; the later novels rest very heavily on the reader's prior knowledge of the series, and Hill doesn't always play catch-up. I'm not a fan of the Joe Sixsmiths, but of the standalones, The Stranger House isn't bad at all (and is a darker take on the village cosy).

Something by Walter Mosley?

Minette Walters' later stuff just drives me up the wall and out the window--the plots are predictable & the stories have become very preachy--but some of her earlier work is still interesting, especially The Sculptress.

DreamQueen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DreamQueen said...

That deleted comment above is mine - sorry about that!

Anyway, I honestly don't know if Peters is teachable. I haven't read much mystery, and I don't know what you're trying to achieve with this class.

The only authors you mention as being on your syllabus that I've read are Poe and Collins, and I haven't even read that particular Collins. I'm afraid I'm not much help!

Amateur Reader said...

Have you looked at Yasmina Khadra? He has a series of detective novels set in Algeria during the terrible times in the '90s. The first one is "Morituri".

Eminently teachable, my wife insists, from experience. Perhaps too much so - it raises a lot of poltical and historical issues. Just as an example, he picked a female pen name.

Another plus - it's very short.

Rohan Maitzen said...

More great suggestions: thanks, Miriam and AR. Back to the library I go...

DQ, I highly recommend The Moonstone! As to what I am trying to achieve with my class, I really just hope to give a reasonable account of the origins and development of the genre and samples of some major subtypes (cozies, puzzle mysteries, "Great Detectives," hard-boiled, feminist, etc.). Then, because coverage is not an option with a genre that just keeps on expanding, and because the 'canon' is not as well-defined as in some other areas, I emphasize reading strategies that will (I hope) let the students go forth and read more on their own well-equipped to position other examples in appropriate contexts and see what is interesting about them. (I think this is not that different from what we hope for in all of our classes, really--knowledge and reading experience that ultimately proves portable.) In the texts I teach, there's an uneasy but, I hope, fruitful balance between treating them as representative (e.g. using Rankin as a sample of 'police procedural') and seeing how they break away from generic norms, or just considering them as their own books (e.g. Knots and Crosses is not that typical a police procedural, and it is as much a Gothic novel as anything else).

BTW, this weekend I read A Rage in Harlem. One of the cover blurbs on another Himes novel calls him a writer of "mayhem stories," and that gets it about right.