English 90ad: American Detective Fiction [undergraduate seminar]

Semester: 

Spring

Offered: 

2013

Detective fiction is a vibrant genre of American literature. This course examines the development of that genre from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, beginning with Edgar A. Poe, extending to Thomas Pynchon, and considering along the way Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, William Faulkner, Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith, Paul Auster, and Jim Holt. After analyzing three foundational detective stories by Poe, we will turn to the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, who set an influential precedent with Sherlock Holmes, literature’s most famous detective. We will then dwell on the hardboiled style that flourished between 1930 and 1960, before turning to the postmodern innovations of Auster and Pynchon. While certain texts (e.g. The Maltese Falcon, The Long Goodbye) are classic examples, others reside at the edges of the genre (e.g. The Price of Salt, Sanctuary, Why Does the World Exist?). Our first objective, then, will be to define what constitutes detective fiction, identifying its main conventions, even as we strive to understand how those conventions have been stretched and snapped, transformed and redeployed by individual authors. Mediated by both literary theory and cultural criticism, our class discussions will concentrate on literary form.