I'm still struggling with the question of what, if anything, to add to the reading list for my winter term course on 'mystery and detective fiction.' Just to reiterate, it's not that there aren't lots of good mystery novels out there, but I'm trying to see what type of novel I might assign that isn't already represented on my list, what author or book models some kind of significant recent development rather than a modern twist on a familiar genre (such as the hard-boiled private eye, or the British police procedural).
Here's my most recent thought. I've just finished watching the last season of The Wire. I'd love to incorporate television crime drama into the course--but I lack the expertise to do so responsibly, and even if I thought I could study up, there seem to be a lot of logistical problems. I was thinking about what I admire about The Wire, though, and part of it is the way it uses its 'cop show' framework for broad (or do I mean deep?) social criticism: many critics have used the adjective "Dickensian" for it, and I think they are right in that it resembles a novel like Bleak House in the range of its interests and in its strategy of showing not just connections between, but also variations on common themes across, a wide social spectrum. In other words, among other things it is an updated take on the 'condition of England' novel--though of course it's the 'condition of America' that's at stake in The Wire. I don't have anything on my syllabus that is so overtly ambitious as social criticism, though of course many (perhaps all) of our readings are at least implicitly critical of key aspects of modern life (The Moonstone and The Maltese Falcon being the best examples). Ian Rankin uses his detective fiction for something like this purpose: Fleshmarket Close is one that comes to mind. But I like Knots and Crosses, already on my syllabus, for its twist on Gothic fiction. Still, I could replace it with one of Rankin's more socially and thematically capacious novels. Or, it occurs to me, I could look at the books written by the guys who wrote for The Wire: what about Richard Price's Clockers, for instance, or his more recent Lush Life? The problem is, I haven't read these yet--and also Clockers appears to be 600+ pages. What about David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets? It's non-fiction, so perhaps that's out of line. I'm reading Denis Lehane's Mystic River right now. It's certainly compelling, but it's as much a thriller as a detective novel, and it's an inward-looking psychological drama too, not unlike Knots and Crosses (both remind me of the line from Gaskell's "Old Nurse's Story": "What is done in youth can never be undone in age!"). Lehane (and Price, and George Pelecanos) have a lot of other books between them, but Clockers seems to be among the most critically praised. If it is the kind of book it sounds like, it would bring the course around in an interesting way to Victorian ideas about crime and society and about fiction's role in addressing these issues--but in a 'gritty' contemporary way. But then maybe I'd need to cut something.
I have about three weeks now before final book orders are due. Sure, I can read another 600-pager. No problem.