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A blog for my academic ideas, more or less.

Detective Fiction

So for the last couple of weeks we’ve been doing detective stories. Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and Doyle’s ‘The Speckled Band’ and ‘The Copper Beeches’. The classes on Poe were more intimate than usual because more than half the students in one class hadn’t done the reading. I told them to leave. I cited the current protests against the government’s education cuts as justification for enforcing/encouraging a more engaged form of participation. I felt bad asking them to leave. I still believe it was the right thing to do. There are various reasons why they might not have done the reading but they had essays due and were supposed to read three short stories and had not even read one. This annoyed me. I don’t want to teach students who make no effort to engage with the course. “Education is a contract.”

So. For the first class we talked about the detective/critic analogue. The process of analysis/interpretation. We discussed the ‘unity of effect’ theory of short stories as set forth by Poe. We dismissed this is a reliable guide to interpretation but then used it as a way to think about Poe’s intentions anyway. The Dupin/Poe analogue was popular. We discussed Poe’s supreme (as represented in literary-biographical circles) egotism and this as an analogue for Dupin’s intelligence. The display of Dupin as a display of Poe. The weird negative qualities of Dupin (cold, a bit serial killer) being also therefore analogues of Poe’s qualities. Whether Poe intended this. If this is ‘unity of effect’ valid.

For Sherlock Holmes stories I intended to do the same thing again (because most of the students hadn’t seen this class) but we started talking about titles and that led me in a different direction. When I do a class that I haven’t planned it gets a bit confusing and I worry that the students might not keep up but I enjoy the ‘spontaneous’ quality of this and feel it might provide a more instructive model for how they should approach their essays. First year essays are too often formulaic that maybe some examples of chaotic literary criticism might help.

The titles of Doyle’s stories, when unpacked, can lead to clues and hints towards meaning. ‘The Speckled Band’ is relatively straightforward but its euphemism for ‘snake’ alerts the reader to various forms of misdirection practised by Doyle within the story, for the sake of the ‘mystery’ being achieved. ‘The Copper Beeches’ is more interesting. At first it seems irrelevant to the mystery but it has two meanings within the text — the title of the country estate and the trees in front of it. The disparity between these two raises the ambiguity that is at the heart of this story. The ambiguity extends to Holmes’s role, which amounts to little more than a male presence allowing the vocalisation of the solution by female presences.

I turned into a feminist critic for the day. I tried to make a joke about ‘She-lock Holmes’ but it sounded forced. I am not sure if this is endearing/embarrassing/ultimately irrelevant to my status as tutor.

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Filed under: teaching

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