Imagining a Detective Fiction Freshman Seminar

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This past week I was tentatively offered to teach a Freshman Seminar on either the Video Game Canon or Detective Fiction. I’m intrigued by the Video Game Canon class, it’s Zach Whalen’s baby, and it would be fascinating to experiment with this class. On the other hand, back in the Summer of 2002 I taught a class on hard-boiled fiction and film at SUNY Old Westbury that was a really fun class (you can see the full syllabus here). It was my take on an American Studies course titled “Themes in 20th Century Fiction,” and I really enjoyed integrating the rich tradition of noir and detective films with the fiction. So, if I get to teach a Freshman Seminar focusing on Detective Fiction this Fall I was wondering what the syllabus might look like. To that end here is the course description as well as a quick list of texts I taught in 2002.

A comprehensive survey of 20th Century American Fiction is impossible in a full semester, much less in our five short weeks. Over the course of our brief but busy term, we will sample bits and pieces of one specific genre of 20th century American fiction in order to discuss the themes and concerns surrounding American literature in the last century. The particular strain of American Fiction that we will consider over the next five weeks is often termed “Hard-Boiled,” after its dark, violent themes and particularly laconic use of language. This class will trace the roots of this fiction from Hemingway, one of American Modernism’s more recognized literary artists, through more obscure figures such as James M. Caine, John Fante, and Patricia Highsmith (whose recent popularity in relationship to The Talented Mr. Ripley comes posthumously) in order to get a sense of the ways in which Hard-Boiled fiction has transformed over time and reflects the century’s specific cultural moments in a variety of different ways. Some examples that we will trace throughout the semester are as follows: the changing relationship of the artist to society in the 20th century; the increasingly blurred distinction of high and low art in the literary realm; the interdependence between cinema and fiction throughout the last 100 years; the relationship between hard-boiled fiction and the historical moment in which it was written (i.e., the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s, etc.). Course requirements include a mid term exam, in-class participation, and a final paper.

Texts:

Films:

This class was a short 5 week Summer session, and I demanded a lot of the students: five novels and five films in as many weeks, but for a full 15 week class I would be able to expand a bit. I am thinking about brining in James Ellroy’s novel Black Dahlia or his masterpiece White JazzL.A. Confidential might be a third choice. What’s more, I want to include George PelecanosThe Big Blowdown (1996) to provide a look at the underbelly of Washington DC as a way to transition the discussion of the genre in contemporary culture (think The Wire). I am also thinking about Shaft and Columbo as the 1970s vision of the detective—as well as the cultural step backward that was Magnum P.I. during the 1980s 😉

The other author I am interested in brining in is Sue Grafton and her immensely popular alphabet series, perhaps “G” is for Gumshoe or “M” is for Malice might be an interesting on the contemporary pulp market around detective fiction. I am also going to make sure we actually read a Walter Mosely’s novel this time around.

I’m also considering spending some time early on looking at Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland and an assortment of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories as a history of the genre before jumping into the bulk of the class, which will focus almost exclusively on 20th century U.S. stuff, particularly the stylistic burgeoning of the genre with writers like Hemingway and Hammett.

None of these texts or approaches are set in stone, but I am sure that I will be focusing the assignments around a few things: a student created detective radio show, a number of video essay responses to the films, collaborative editing of a few poorly researched Wikipedia articles, as well as a series artistic interpretations of the films and books we will be reading over the course of the semester. I will be mining the ds106 assignment repository throughout the semester as a means to integrate digital storytelling, analysis, and research into the course to demonstrate that the stuff happening in ds106 can easily be applied to courses from any discipline.

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What’s more, the aesthetic of the 1930s and 40s detective comics and serials would make for some inspired art assignments, so I will be exploring this over the Summer as well.

But, most importantly does anyone have recommendations for other genres, authors, films, etc.? I know I am missing a ton of stuff, so any help you could provide would be awesome.

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6 Responses to Imagining a Detective Fiction Freshman Seminar

  1. Sounds like a great course! For hard-boiled detective fiction, I would definitely include (the late) Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels (maybe the Godwulf Manuscript or Playmates or one of the others with college campuses would be fun for a college course). Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder (probably When the Sacred Ginmill Closes) should also go on the list. And for the hardest-boiled (makes the others, someone said, look like runny yolks) I would go for Andrew Vachss. Probably his Flood or Strega.

    If you want only Americans, I guess that rules out Martha Grimes and PD James (and Agatha Christie, but she’s not really got hard-boiled detectives)…but definitely I would include Sara Paretsky.

    If you want to go out of the city a bit, Tony Hillerman would make a good addition.

  2. Reverend says:

    Joe,

    You rock, I really appreciate these recommendations, particularly because I know so few of them and it’s time to do some Summer reading. Any particular recommendations for Sara Paretsky and Tony Hillerman? Thanks again!

  3. I do so love that you said (several times) that you ‘get’ to teach freshmen. If only everyone felt this way.

    • Reverend says:

      @Cindy,
      I teach a fair number of freshman in ds106 regularly, and I find them to be a blast. A dedicated group of 15 would be nice too, just seems like way too few 🙂

      @Joe,
      Thanks for all the recommendations, waiting on final approval of the class, and w=once I get it I am gonna blog this again with a first draft syllabus and some specific assignments. I will owe much of this first draft to you, I can;t thank you enough buddy. Really appreciate it.

  4. I think for Sara Paretsky, I would recommend either Indemnity Only (the first of the VI Warshawski, her private eye, novels) or Bitter Medicine. VI Warshawski is really good as a counterpoint to the traditional male PI.

    Tony Hillerman, I would probably go for one of the novels where you get both of his characters (Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn) working together. Although maybe those are only fun when you’ve come to know the characters separately…hard to say. Maybe Skinwalkers or A Thief of Time.

  5. paul says:

    Why didn’t they have courses like this when I was an undergrad? Thumbs up to White Jazz. That was my intro to Ellroy. As for recommendations, why not make that a student responsibility? They’ll be more invested in the things they choose on their own.

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