The Curious Case of the Classroom

As a young reader, I tore through the different series featuring Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, and Hardy Boys.  As a teenager, I favored mysteries by Phyllis Whitney, Agatha Christie, and too many others to count.  Yet I have no memory of reading a mystery for school (other than the mystery of math word problems).  Perhaps some schools did offer that opportunity, but mine did not.  It wasn’t until graduate school that I even heard the words “mystery” and “detective” in a classroom–it was only in connection with Edgar Allan Poe and was more of an aside than a focus of conversation.  Happily, college courses on the mystery have been increasing in number from the 1970s forward, though they often are listed under “special topics.”

However, knowing at least the basic conventions of mystery is crucial for interpreting certain literary texts (for example, there is little chance of fully appreciating Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound or Paul Auster’s City of Glass without them in mind).  When I teach such texts, it’s typically not until we go over some of “the rules” (e.g., Knox’s Decalogue and the Van Dine list) that classes can proceed to lively discussion of the ways in which the authors are playing with those conventions as postmodern technique.

I’m not suggesting that we should read mysteries only for literary analysis purposes.  We should read mysteries because we should read mysteries!  What I am pondering is how the mystery appears to have been labelled Not One Of The Necessary Genres To Be Taught.  I very much question that categorization.

Curious as to whether most people began reading the mystery genre at a young age or later on?  In school or out?


13 thoughts on “The Curious Case of the Classroom”

  1. This hints at a much larger issue — people discounting mysteries or looking down on any genre writing, which drives me crazy. I’ve sat in writing classes with MFA students who blather on about the “objective correlative” and so on, but don’t understand a darn thing about what it takes to make a reader keep reading that first sentence and then not put the book down until the last page.
    I can’t say I remember reading mysteries ever in school. I can’t even recall being assigned any in college where I was a comparative literature minor … like you, I came to Trixie Belden and company on my own.


  2. I do recall my friend’s daughter being introduced to the genre and she is now a teen, and my kids are def. allowed to read mysteries as part of the AR readers for scholastic. Can you imagine how happy we’d have been to read our beloved series for school work?


  3. I also loved Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon, then later Phyllis Whitney, Agatha Christie, Victoria Holt (Eleanor Hibbert), and many others. But these were books I read for peasure–mysteries and romance novels. These books were never taught in school–at least none of the schools I ever attended. We did read a Poe story or two in high school. Later, in college, it was all about the classics–American Lit, British Lit–I don’t remember seeing a course offered in any genre other than what would (I think) be considered literary fiction, actually.


  4. My love of the mystery genre goes back to elementary school, but I think most of my mystery reading was outside the classroom. Fortunately, my mom was always a big mystery fan and the house was filled with books.

    Right now I’m writing a Poe-inspired novella. Venturing back to my thriller/suspense/mystery roots has been a great adventure. I’m wondering which POE tales you connected with when you were a child and which one(s) resonate now?


  5. Kristi: You raise a great point–the difference between theorizing and creating. (It’s something I’ve worried about as a writer, actually…I can confidently write a paper about something but it’s very different to write the something in the first place!)

    FeMOMhist: That’s fantastic. And yes, that would have been so wonderful to be able to feel as though we were working toward a school goal, too. Glad that we persevered without having it “count” for anything… 😉

    Susan, pleasure reading–definitely! Sounds like we read a lot of the same things (too bad we didn’t know each other or we could have had a teenage book club). Were the Poe stories you read in school the mysteries or the gothic ones? We definitely read the gothic ones at my school. Which is interesting since the gothic suffered from some of the same genre issues as the mystery (“popular” vs. “serious literature”) but then gradually was recognized as deserving of critical attention. I think that’s happening to mystery now, but slowly.

    T, that’s very interesting about Holmes. Wonder if some of that has to do with them not being familiar with the genre in the first place? I have been working on a history of the mystery course to propose this fall but not a mystery-writing course (you should do that!).

    Candy, that’s so cool that your mom had them around. The Poe tales I connected most with in high school (not in class but my best friend and I got ahold of a collected stories volume and read it out loud while sunbathing, lol): “The Black Cat,” “Tell-tale Heart,” “The Spectacles.” Also loved “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” poems. Come to think of it, I believe we read the poems in school but not the stories. What were the ones you liked?


  6. One year I taught the Holmes stories and the class couldn’t think of much to say about them except how cool Sherlock was and that kind of thing. I wonder if mysteries just don’t promote much academic discourse. They’re private pleasures? You should teach a class in writing mysteries, my friend!


  7. I had read every single Agatha Christie book by 12. I then upgraded to Chandler & Hammett behind my parents back (they thought it was too violent). My dissertation was on Latin American crime fiction. In fact, in the field of Hispanic studies, crime fiction is becoming more and more an accepted scholarly interest. And not just the use of genre conventions by “real” writers (Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa), but the study of crime fiction writers (which in Latin America tend to be closer to the hard-boiled model) in itself. And next semester, I’m teaching a class on the topic. I am really excited about the opportunity.


  8. Thanks so much for your comment, Spanish Prof! Excellent point about considering the attention to genre conventions in literary fiction as well as in crime fiction proper. Wonderful to hear about the scholarly acceptance, your dissertation, and the class! Would love to see/hear more about the class, in particular. I’ve been working on a mystery course, too, and it seems like so much to fit into one semester that I’m having trouble whittling it down…


  9. I would have the same problem if the course was in Spanish. Since it’s in English, I depend on whatever has been translated. If you go to my blog an click on the tag “crime fiction”, you’ll have more details. I haven’t finished the syllabus yet, so I’ll update shortly.


  10. Oh wow, thanks for that–what a number of interesting posts come up under that tag! Going to read them carefully now. Appreciate the info.


  11. If you hadn’t noticed, academia is full of codified snobbery that ignores lots of great work and exalts others out of proportion. I’ll pass on identifying the latter in too much detail! “The Inklings” group loved to discuss pulp authors Lovecraft and Howard and Carr even though most academics sneered at them. Sherlock Holmes has inspired more writers than you can shake the proverbial stick at, and continues to be BOTH just as hackneyed and inspired today as he was a hundred years ago — just look at the Robert Downey Jr movies (urg) vs. the BBC Sherlock! (astonishing!).


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