Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mystery Literature Class and An Essay Assignment

At Pomfret School, where I live and teach, I offer a senior elective, Mystery Literature. Before students sign up for the class, they often ask me about it. Do we write mystery stories or read them? I clarify that it is a literature seminar. What do we talk about?

“The class,” I explain, “ends up being part literature, part philosophy, and part the study of the legal system.”

I thought we were going to try to figure out who did it?

“We will,” I say, “and we talk about the stuff that make the genre important, stuff like what role does crime play in our society.”

To me, that question sums up not only my class but our genre. Is there an issue that serves as a better example of how we as writers explore the human condition?

When Ed McBain wrote what would be the first 87th Precinct novel, COP HATER, he was still Evan Hunter. The story goes that upon receiving the manuscript, McBain’s then agent told him the departure from mainstream fiction to crime fiction would kill his reputation as a “serious” novelist. Hunter’s reply was, “What could be more serious than life and death or crime and punishment?” They reached a compromise in the form of a pseudonym.

Perhaps it is in THE HECKLER where McBain most thoroughly explores the question he posed to his agent and where McBain’s work best exemplifies the question I ask would-be students.

Officer Steve Carella has been shot and, lying in bed, has a moment of clarity:

Carella wonder[ed] about his own role as a cop and his own duties as an enforcer of the law. He was a man dedicated to the prevention of crime, or failing that, to the apprehension of the person or persons committing crime. If he totally succeeded in his job, there would be no more crime and no more criminals; and, carrying the thought to its logical conclusion, there would also be no more job. If there was no crime, there would be no need for the men involved in preventing it or detecting it.

And yet somehow this logic was illogical, and it led Carella to a further thought which was as frightening as the sudden clarity he was experiencing.

The thought sprang into his head full-blown: If there is no crime, will there be society?

The thought was shocking—at least to Carella it was. For society was predicated on a principal of law and order, of meaning as opposed to chaos. But if there were no crime, if there in effect were no lawbreakers, no one to oppose law and order, would there be a necessity for law? Without lawbreakers, was there a need for law? And without law, would there be lawbreakers?


Read it forwards or backwards and it says the same thing. A cute party gag, but what happens when you say, “Crime is symbiotic with society,” and then reverse the statement so that it reads, “Society is symbiotic with crime?”

McBain’s novel was published in 1960, and, of course, he was ahead of his time; he knew just how “serious” this genre would become. After all, consider all the themes one can explore in a mystery literature course (not to mention when writing a crime novel). How’s this for a two-page essay assignment? Take a shot at the mid-term exam: Carefully examine the passage above from Ed McBain’s novel THE HECKLER focusing on the question(s) posed regarding society’s relationship with crime. Then write an essay in which you explain how closely society and crime are linked. You may use examples from your readings, your experiences, and/or world events.

Any takers? If so, e-mail responses to An "A" will get you a Jack Austin novel.


Rick Blechta said...

“Crime is symbiotic with society...”

An interesting point. Crime is also symbiotic with commerce. The simple connection is all the revenue generated by our fear of crime: alarms, cameras, security guards, etc.

But there's also an industry, shadowy or not, that supports what might be called "corporate crime", meaning the stealing of trade secrets, financial information and the like.

As a society, we're inured to tolerate a certain amount of crime, and do in fact probably encourage it.

Great, thought-provoking post! Thanks.

Vicki Delany said...

Wow. I would love to tackle that assignment. You can go further, what is a crime? I just saw the Michael Moore movie Capitalism: a Love Story in which Moore is standing on Wall Stret with a blowhorn trying to make a citizen's arrest. Of course, it's very funny. Ha. Ha. Like anyone would be arrested for stealing $700 billon. Ha. Ha.

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