Caroline: In 1945, the American critic Edmund Wilson published a series of three essays deploring detective fiction as written by Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and Dorothy L. Sayers as of little value. In the second essay, which was titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” as a direct dig at Christie’s bestselling whodunnit from 1926, he came to the damning conclusion that “with so many fine books to read…there is no need to bore ourselves with this rubbish”.
Needless to say, plenty of people disagreed with Wilson, and the popularity of these writers continued unaffected. But his sneering didn’t come from nowhere. It represented a wider belief in academic and critical circles that detective fiction could not be considered on a par with those “fine books” Wilson suggested people should read instead. In other words, it might be good fun, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that should be taken seriously, or heaven forbid, studied in a university.
But a lot has changed since then.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
For all the time I’ve been reading detective fiction, I’ve thought of it as something enjoyable to read on a train journey or before I fall asleep at night. That is, until I started making this podcast, and it became something that I approach in a more workmanlike manner, fitting my reading to the topics I want to cover on the show. Which is not to say that I don’t still have a stack of whodunnits piled up by my bed at all times, I do — I just also have them on my desk as well.
Crime fiction in general, from the Victorian stuff I talked about in the last episode right up to modern novels being published today, has always been incredibly popular with readers and is usually put in this same recreational category. We read these books because they’re fun and, in the case of those from decades past, because they are enlightening about a different moment in history. Unlike with so called literary fiction, which is often positioned as a commentary on modern society as well as a kind of art, there’s little pressure on detective novels to make big statements about The Way We Live Now as long as the plot twists are well executed and the big reveal at the end is satisfying. Which is not to say that crime fiction of any kind can’t provide commentary on topical matters, it can and does — just that it’s not considered a core tenet of the genre.
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone, therefore, when I say that crime fiction has always been regarded as a lesser kind of literature. I think a big part of this has to do with its popularity and value as entertainment, because things that are fun and widely read often acquire a reputation for being less serious (see also attitudes to romance, fantasy and science fiction). That label “genre fiction” is still used sometimes to distinguish these kinds of stories from literary fiction, although I think there’s less of these divisions than there used to be, which can only be a good thing.
Although plenty of major literary figures have been fans of detective fiction throughout its history, including the likes of TS Eliot and WH Auden, for a long time it didn’t have the serious reputation that would prompt widespread academic study of the form. There have always been good critics of detective fiction reviewing new titles as they were published for newspapers. Eliot was one, Dorothy L. Sayers was another, and later in the twentieth century Julian Symons did a great deal to enhance the critical reputation of the form. But let’s just say that when I went to university to study English Literature in the 2000s, there wasn’t even an optional paper available about crime fiction, and I had to work quite hard to convince the authorities to let me write an elective thesis that even mentioned it.
A lot has changed very quickly in the academic study of detective fiction. As other disciplines that intersect with it have become more established, such as gender studies, critical theory and the study of popular culture in general, new approaches to crime fiction have emerged also. There are now scholars all over the world working on authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and others — indeed, you’ve heard some of them interviewed on this show in past episodes — and more fronts for exploration opening up all the time.
Research is a big part of what academics do, of course, but they also teach students. Since I never got the chance to study my favourite novels as an undergraduate, I’ve always been very curious about what a detective fiction module at a university might be like. So I thought: let’s ask someone who teaches one.
Victoria: My name’s Victoria Stewart. I’m a Reader in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Leicester and I teach and research 20th century writing and detective fiction is quite a big part of that.
Victoria: Well, I’m lucky in that I’m able to actually offer a whole module on detective fiction, which is my module, so I’m solely responsible for the teaching of it. And that’s an optional module. And I usually get about a dozen students — third year students.
Caroline: Third year undergraduates in Britain, just for the avoidance of doubt if you’re used to a different higher education system, will usually be around 20 years old, although there are of course mature students as well. Victoria aims to give them a thorough grounding in detective fiction, beginning in the nineteenth century.
Victoria: Well, it’s a course that goes chronologically, and I just the really the late Victorian period up until the 1930s. So it’s really hard to know where to begin, actually. And the first time I taught it, I started with Conan Doyle. But after that, I decided that I wanted to backtrack a little bit. And now I ask students to read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter to get them started. And then we also look at Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, which I puts on the module partly after I started doing some work on Sayers and realized how interested she was in Collins and how he was a really important figure, actually in the 1920s and 30s. A lot of people used him as a reference point. So I felt that made sense. And we then go through and look at Doyle, we look at some of the short fiction from around the same period. We look at some of the Raffles stories and then go to Christie, Sayers, and I’m particularly interested in how criminals are depicted in detective fiction and how the boundaries of the genre get pushed out really. So I also add in Francis Iles’s novel Malice Aforethought, which follows the criminal rather than the detective and play by Patrick Hamilton called Rope, which was the source for the Alfred Hitchcock film at the film is very different, but the structure is essentially the same. The dynamic between the characters is the same. And again, that’s focusing on the criminals.
Caroline: They also focus in on certain novels from the golden age of detective fiction between the world wars.
Victoria: Well, I’ve had to change her a little bit the share births in previous years. I’ve asked them to look at The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and also The Body in the Library. So we did a Poirot and also Marple for various reasons. I’ve had to put the Marple to one side for this year. So we’re just going to be looking at The Murder of Roger Ackroyd from Christie. And I might also bring in a short story, perhaps the first year that I thought the course we looked at. Sorry, I tend to remember now. Yes. The first year that I taught the course, I looked at The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. But then I decided to change and do Strong Poison so looking at the Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey origin story, if you like, and there’s some such fantastic depictions of women in that novel, that seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity not to look at that one. And that’s always good fun to teach.
Caroline: While Victoria was telling me about the curriculum, I started to wonder how this all strikes the young people who sign up for her class. I mean, I know that I had devoured most of Agatha Christie by the time I was their age, and I suspect lots of you listening might have done the same, but is that how today’s teenager spends their time?
Victoria: But it’s been interesting to me over the years that I’ve taught the module, I must be teaching it for eight or nine years by now, I think and quite often students haven’t actually read a lot of detective fiction, but they’re interested in it. And very often their reference points are TV adaptations. So Sherlock — the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock is a reference point that a lot of people have. More recently, the Agatha Christie adaptations that have been going out around Christmas time. A lot of people have watched those. And also and I find this quite an interesting phenomenon that many people talk about having watched things like Murder She Wrote or the Poirot adaptations with David Suchet when they were being looked after by their grandparents. So they have quite interesting associations with detective narratives and they often admit this in a slightly shamefaced way that they’ve been watching these adaptations on television. But my take on that is that that’s one of the ways in which we almost inhale the generic conventions. I think a lot of people would be able to tell you what their expectations are of detective fiction and they pick those expectations up almost without realising it by watching adaptations or by the odd thing that they read. So even if students haven’t read a lot of detective fiction before, they still have some reference points for it
Caroline: That makes me feel quite old, but it’s also interesting how big a part TV plays in the way the formal structures of detective fiction are disseminated today. Once the students are more familiar with these stories in their original forms, though, they are also a useful tool for Victoria to give greater historical context for the time they were written.
Victoria: There are themes that emerge across the course I’m very interested in the historical context and particularly in how we can pick up things like shifts in attitude to the police and how they’re depicted. It’s also broad themes like masculinity, for instance, and shifts in perceptions of masculinity. And the First World War is a bit of a hinge point in that regard. And the other issue that we do talk about quite a bit are issues to do with domesticity and the home. And in the earliest stories, something like the moon stone. How do servants figure in that narrative? Servants are such interesting figures, always in detective fiction. They’re in this unusual position that they have access to people’s private lives. They literally can go through people’s underwear drawers, but they’ve got very low status socially. People often are in almost fear of their servants in case they reveal something that they shouldn’t. And so figures like that are quite interesting to trace across that historical span as well.
Caroline: But the popularity of the genre itself also forms a major part of the discussion.
Victoria: One thing that we do talk about quite a bit on the module is how detective fiction was staking a claim for itself as a form. So for instance, the work of someone like Sayers in saying, look, this is a form that is interesting. It’s worth thinking about is worth paying attention to. And I suppose we do engage with some of those debates. I mean, one question that I always ask students at the start is were you surprised to see that you could do a module on detective fiction? And they almost always say yes. And they often say, well, we’re used to studying things like Shakespeare and the so-called great authors, because even these days, as people are expanding the material that they teach on English degrees, there is still a sense of there being the canonical authors, if you like. And so I think students actually find it quite refreshing to look at stuff that is important, not necessarily because it’s always had a lot of status and a lot of critical interest, but because people read it and it’s been popular. So it is a slight shift in that way, I suppose, a slight shift in perspective. But I think in other ways, it’s just another kind of material, the tools that they’ve developed for analysing literature. They can still use to look at this material as well.
Caroline: Just because there is now a greater recognition that these kinds of books are worth studying, doesn’t mean that there’s much consensus on anything else to do with them. Some listeners might remember that the London Review of Books published a very long essay by the novelist John Lanchester in December 2018 titled “The Case of Agatha Christie”, in which he looks at Christie as a prose writer as well as a mystery writer, and finds her wanting on the former front. This kind of analysis is still common in detective studies, Victoria says.
Victoria: I was reading I think it was a blog post actually by an academic who had been teaching detective fiction. And they made a comment that I thought was interesting. They said that you couldn’t really do close reading on Agatha Christie and close reading the detailed analysis of a piece of text, looking at the imagery, the use of language unpicking it. That’s often a staple still of the study of English literature in an academic context. Zero in on a particular passage and unpicking it. And I think before I actually started teaching this course, I might have seen where that person was coming from, that maybe it would be more challenging because of Christie’s style really to do that kind of analysis. But now I actually take a slightly different view, which is that often it can be really worthwhile to do that kind of analysis. So to think about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This person had said that they couldn’t really see that there was much significance in the way that the dagger was described in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. And without giving too much away, I’m sure most of your listeners will have read that novel.
But without giving too much away of the plot, actually, one of the interesting things about the way that dagger is described is the perspective from which is being described that the narrator who’s describing it and why he’s describing it rather than describing other things that are in the room at the time, i.e. a dead body which actually gets less attention than the dagger. So that’s not how we might normally go about doing close reading necessarily. But I think there is still a way in which you can use those sorts of techniques for that type of material.
Caroline: As that Lanchester essay shows, it’s still quite common for critics to be especially critical of Agatha Christie — and although I would be the first to admit that her work isn’t flawless, it’s hard not to think that her immense popularity plays a part in this approach. There’s a lot more to her work than might immediately meet the eye, Victoria says, and that’s the kind of thing she’s encouraging her students to seek out.
Victoria: I always try and encourage students to think about historical contexts. That’s that’s another aspect that you can bring in again. Sometimes Christie has been characterized or even caricatured as not really saying much about the historical context in which her stories unfold. But actually there are definitely clues there. So, for instance, again, to use Roger Ackroyd as an example, there’s a character who appears from America and what America signifies as a place in the mid 1920s, there’s a whole set of associations that would have been available to readers at the time that are perhaps a bit opaque to us now. And that’s the the kind of work we might do in trying to establish how that might have signified to a contemporary reader of Christie.
Caroline: Victoria’s students are assessed on their detective fiction module via an essay they write at the end, which can be about any author or work they choose. They might go on to become passionate fans of detective fiction, or the course might only have succeeded in persuading them that watching Poirot when visiting Gran is the limit of their interest in the genre. But either way, they’ve participated in something important — a programme of critical study that doesn’t make any difference between this kind of popular fiction and the more rarefied world of literary fiction. In short, they’ve had ample opportunity to absorb the idea that just because a lot of people enjoy something, it shouldn’t automatically be considered to be unserious. And who knows, maybe Victoria is training future generations of Shedunnit fans while she’s at it.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest, Dr Victoria Stewart. You can find more information about her work as well as links to all the books and sources we mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/teachingsleuthing. There, you can also read a full transcript.
Don’t forget that if you’d like to see me doing this as well as hearing it, you can come to the upcoming Shedunnit live shows in Birmingham on 1 February. More details and tickets at shedunnitshow.com/events.
I’ll be back on 4 February with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: The Great Gladys.