Almost exactly a year ago, I reported to you that I had enrolled in an evening course on Scandinavian crime fiction at Stanford University. If you follow my exploits with any regularity, you all know how that turned out!
(above) The mood evoked when reading a Scandinavian crime novel.
My professor was an extremely affable woman who was more than patient with my ambivalence over the tortured Swedish Nazi pedophiles we read about each week. She listened to my plaintive request (on more than one occasion, both in print and in person) to have the university offer a course on the Golden Age of detective fiction. The most encouragement she could offer was to say, in tones neither arch nor condescending: “Why don’t you teach one yourself?”
I don’t know if that will ever happen, but the other day, my Stanford catalogue arrived, and to my amazement, a new course was being offered. No, it wasn’t called Agatha and Company: How GAD Fiction Rocked the World Between the Wars and Why Only the Most Insightful People on Earth Still Read – and Blog – About It. But Stanford – you’re getting warmer . . .
I’ve enrolled in a ten-week course, beginning in April, called Classic American Detective Novels and Films. Here’s the blurb:
“The fast-talking, sometimes duplicitous, but ultimately honorable American detective has become an essential figure in American novels, plays, TV series, and award-winning films, and their creators are now comfortably ensconced in the Library of America along with William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and other icons of American writing. This course will offer students an introduction to the classic novels and films that brought American detective fiction to new artistic heights.
“Our exploration will begin with Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin, the basis for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. It will then lead us to Mark Twain, who uniquely combines detection, slavery, and race in his short novel Pudd’nhead Wilson;
“Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe;
“. . . and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, an African American detective reluctantly following Marlowe down the mean streets of a newer but equally dark Los Angeles.
“We will also engage with Chandler’s great essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in which he explains why he loathes and detests both Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. As we read these classic works, we will watch and take apart some masterpieces of cinema, including Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Laura, L.A. Confidential, and Rear Window. By the end of the course, students will have explored the best that the American detective tradition has to offer.”
The GAD blogger’s version of picking at a scab is to bring up the topic of all those “learned scholars” who seemed to like nothing better than to deride the classic British mystery. We all made a wonderful ruckus about it over at JJ’s place when he discussed two essays by Edmund Wilson. I’m really looking forward to sinking my fangs into – getting my fists on – er, reading Chandler’s essay where that traitor learned scholar tries to make mincemeat of Agatha Christie and her ilk and show absolutely no class toward a fellow mystery writer whose success overrides his own by billions of copies of books sold.
I have no real opinion on the matter . . .
successful mystery author vs. jealous twit
As always, an extended learning course tends to focus on a topic in broad strokes and hit only the big names. I did my senior dissertation at university on Mark Twain, (I wanted Dickens but he wasn’t offered, and there was no way in hell that I was going to choose Melville!) but my furshlugginer professor decided to skip Pudd’nhead Wilson! So I’m looking forward to reading that for the first time. But it’s clear that this course is focusing only on the “hard-boiled” school, as if that was all that American crime fiction had to offer. Still, I do love Hammett, and I’m excited to watch the films again. Maybe somebody will be able to explain The Big Sleep to me at last! Still, at the very least, mention should be made of those Americans who bridged the classic style with a New World feel . . . (and sometimes forgot the Pilgrims ever left for Jamestown.) This class would have been really special if the booklist had included S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr and Rex Stout!
I want to assure you all that you will have a backseat view of the course as I take it and that I hereby vow to be a voice of reason as comparison arises between the authors we love so well and their younger, cruder brothers. If there are any questions you want me to ask, write them in the comments section below.
Thus, the dream still eludes me. But this time it looks like I’m in for a wonderful catnap!