Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mystery Literature: Sign Up Now!

At Pomfret School, where I live and work, I’m fortunate to have my day job and my writing life overlap. Among my duties, I teach an elective titled Mystery Literature.

Before the late, great Ed McBain wrote his legendary 87th Precinct series, an agent offered him a warning: If he did not continue to write “serious” novels, he would ruin his literary reputation. McBain countered: “What’s more serious than life and death?”

Students of all ages get what McBain was saying. And they love mysteries. I have taught the course at various schools and at a college. We always begin the survey with Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” move to the PI novels including Chandler, and work up to the contemporary police procedural. I bring in local crime-fiction authors, and we discuss many aspects of crime and society. At the community college level, I regularly had students tell me these were the first books they ever finished reading.

That’s no slight on the course or the level of discourse these texts lead to. For instance, this week, students finished reading Michael Connelly’s City of Bones. Connelly’s protagonist, LAPD detective Harry Bosch, was named after the painter Heironymus Bosch, whose 14th century art is said to depict moral corruption. It is interesting to see how the artist’s work has influenced Connelly’s wonderful series, so I asked students to discuss just that.

The culminating assignment is below. I thought I’d share it with the Type M community.

Introduction: While studying at the University of Florida, author Michael Connelly took an art history class in which he was introduced to the works of 14th Century Netherlands painter Heironymus Bosch (circa 1450-1560). Bosch was “known for [his] use of fantastic imagery to illustrate moral and religious concepts and narratives” (“Heironymus Bosch”). Connelly was so moved by Bosch’s works that he later named his protagonist, LA homicide det. Harry Bosch, after the painter.

Assignment: Carefully examine Heironymus Bosch’s painting “Hell,” which is said to portray “fantastic punishments of the various types of sinners” (“Art”). Then, considering what you know about Michael Connelly’s character Harry Bosch and the novel City of Bones, write an essay in which you examine the ways the painting and Connelly’s novel are similar or different. You may wish to consider items such as tone, setting, human nature, plot, and characterization.

5 comments:

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Rick Blechta said...

Boy, am I glad I’m not having to write this assignment. Having just started the novel (previously having read all the other Bosch novels), this could either turn into a head-scratcher on where to begin, or the longest essay in the history of the world.

I do believe it’s only a matter of time before a successful writer includes in his bio, "I got my start on writing in a class I took with John Corrigan."

Hannah Dennison said...

I wish with all my heart I'd had a teacher just like you! Your classes sound really great! I was taught by the dreary Miss Mason and frankly, it's a miracle I became a writer at all.

John Corrigan said...

Thanks, gang. Grading the papers as we speak. Pretty damn impressive. Better than I could have done at 17.