13 November 2015

"Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery"

By Art Taylor

As you might be able to tell from this post and my previous ones here, my teaching at George Mason University is dominating my mind these days—and lately it's not only the semester I'm enmeshed in but next semester as well that's occupying a lot of my mental energy.

In the spring 2016 semester, I'll be teaching a graduate-level course for the first time: "Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery." That's not my title, I should stress, and I have some issues with the idea of what's meant by the "the literary mystery"—a phrase that could go in a number of directions: mysteries that have books or bookish folks at the core of them maybe? But as intended primarily for aspiring writers in the MFA program here at Mason, I think the goals of the course are potentially a good one: an exploration of genre fiction, a look at the places where these persistent classifications of genre fiction and literary fiction blur, and a study of what so-called "literary writers" can learn from genre writers. To put all this in context, back when I was in the MFA program at Mason myself, I had a fellow writer tell me he'd finally read a Stephen King book and was surprised that it was actually good!

Stephen King
More context: I remember at panel on genre fiction at an AWP conference several years ago, where a writer/professor in another MFA program talked about the difference between his students interested in writing genre fiction and his students interested in writing literary fiction: If a he told students writing fantasy that they might want to read Gilgamesh or The Aeneid or any of a number of "high literary" works, they'd have it read by the next week, whereas if he suggested to literary-minded students that they should read a thriller or a sci-fi novel, they'd drag their heels.

There's lots of room to learn, clearly, from lots of different writers and lots of different kinds of writing—and I've often been fascinated, often written myself about, these delineations between kinds of books, the prejudices and biases at the core of such attitudes, and the continuing evolution of writers attitudes toward genre, how those writers might be informed by formal traditions on the one hand and how they might challenge them on another.

Much more to say on all this, but I mostly wanted to share some of the books I'm considering teaching—and invite others to chime in with books I might add to the reading list, whether one for the syllabus itself or a supplemental list for students to explore on their own.

The course will start out with a selection of short stories surveying both the foundational history of the genre (Poe and Conan Doyle there, among others) and also various subgenres within the larger world of crime fiction: the traditional mystery, the hard-boiled tale, the noir story, domestic suspense, the police procedural, true crime writing, etc. etc. But once that foundation is laid in the first few weeks, here's the list of full novels—and one feature film!—that have risen to the top so far (in no particular order yet but all, purposefully, pointedly, from 2000 onward):

  • A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny
  • Little Scarlet, Walter Mosley
  • In the Woods, Tana French
  • No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
  • The End of Everything, Megan Abbott
  • Country Hardball, Steve Weddle
  • Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan 
  • The City & the City, China MiĆ©ville
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
Thoughts? Additions?

I have a second list of strong contenders too that will be on a growing supplemental list, so.... Thanks in advance for suggestions and additions!


  1. Good luck with your new course.
    I would add anything by Kate Atkinson and Fred Vargas

  2. Ah, yes: Kate Atkinson is one of the other authors that I shuffled into and out of the syllabus-in-progress..... Case Histories was the contender. So many good books! (I'll admit I don't know Vargas's work--and obviously should!)
    Thanks for the suggestions!

  3. A few post 2000 greats:
    "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel
    "Mystic River", by Dennis Lehane
    "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell", by Susanna Clarke
    "Bel Canto", by Ann Patchett

    I love "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" - a great mystery, and an absolute heartbreaker.

  4. Great suggestions, Eve! Mystic River was already on my list too--shuttling in and out of the list I posted. I adore it, in so many ways.

    I haven't read Station Eleven yet, but it's on my TBR list—and appreciate the others, especially Bel Canto, which never crossed my mind here!


  5. I consider Bel Canto a magnificent example of cross-genre: literary, sophisticated, brutal, thriller, contemporary... And it haunted me, absolutely haunted me. I checked it out from the library, read it and then went out and bought it. Same with Station Eleven.

  6. My Catamaran Workshop in Pebble Beach in August was called "Literary Detective Fiction" and the instructor was John Straley. Good little workshop, though not a full-length MFA-level class. Looks like an interesting reading list. I wish you the best of luck, (and I wish I could take the class).

  7. Nice list! How about The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton?

  8. I’ve read a number of ancient classics but an unfortunate number of modern ‘literary’ works leave me cold. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish a literary novel from exceptionally bad vanity press fiction.

    I haven’t read Bel Canto yet but I have decidedly mixed feelings about Mystic River.

    My new best favorite novel is Gone Girl. First, it’s one of the most intricately plotted novels I can think of. Second, it contains a broad range of criticisms including literary criticism within and slipping in sly winks at the intellectual literary world, as if the authoress is saying “Been there, done that. Nya, nah nah nuh nah nah.”

    Art, I don’t know if this would fit your plans, but short stories pack a lot into a little space. Some of us have multiple levels going on and often a story that appears about one thing is about something else entirely. Rob and I write like this and I’ve picked up hints of layers from Eve, Janice, and RT. James Lincoln Warren is kind of a modern master.

  9. I never quite saw the point of literary fiction other than it was opaque. That's not fully true of course because I enjoy a lot of poetry. But some novels … what's the point of, let's say, not having a plot or ending? Wouldn't that ordinarily be simply called a collection of scenes?

  10. Hi, all! Been out at some book events today, so just catching up here--but appreciate all the comments and suggestions! (And Alan, I knew you were going to suggest The Lock Artist--a reminder that I still need to read that!!! I know, I know.....)

    A couple of quick responses:
    1) Leigh: I'm including short fiction in the first few weeks of this class, but all classics--foundational works to give students a sense of the historical development of the genre and the breadth of the subgenres. However, I'm also teaching another class in the mystery short story--second time I've done this one--and I always include some current authors in that. As you know, short stories are my own favorite, and I'm always glad to celebrate the form and celebrate some of today's best practitioners--present company included!

    2) Booke: Agreed that some "literary" fiction (a tough terms to define) can be both opaque and plotless, but I don't think all of it is, of course. At least two of the books on this list would likely be classified more as "literary" than as genre fiction by most readers--McCarthy's and Haddon's, I'm thinking of--and both of them are plot-driven in many ways and emotionally riveting too, of course. I think that just as some readers of literary fiction unfairly deride all of genre fiction on the basis of some limited examples of it (complaints of cardboard characters, pedestrian prose, no depth of theme--and surely you can find mysteries that have such troubles), it's also easy for fans of genre fiction to unfairly deride literary fiction on the basis of extreme examples. To my mind, and I'm borrowing a metaphor here from Julianna Baggott, the most interesting books are those that locate themselves in the borderlands--plot-driven, for example, but also with attention to crafting great prose; tackling tough themes or illuminating character but not at the expense of compelling storytelling; and (to speak to your point about "not having... [an] ending") sometimes challenging the notion of providing clear, complete resolutions that have often been fundamental to traditional mysteries. Just look at In the Woods on these points: dense, character-driven, ultimately open-ended on a pivotal plot-point, and yet also plot-driven, fast-paced, gripping every step of the way.

    Sorry! Sounds like I'm already in front of the class, doesn't it? Yikes!

    Thanks again for the comments, everyone.

  11. Would it be useful for your short story class for SleuthSayers to make selected stories freely available to your class? Of course it would give exposure to SleuthSayers and story magazines, but would that be useful? On a broader note to our colleagues, would that be something to explore in the education framework?

  12. Daniel Woodrell is another writer you might want to look at, Art. He's great in both the long (Winter's Bone) and short form.

  13. For literary mysteries, I'd recommend A GREAT DELIVERANCE by Elizabeth George, RIVER OF DARKNESS by Rennie Airth, and LONELY HEARTS by John Harvey. A poet as well as a novelist, Harvey is absolutely brilliant.

  14. Thanks for the recommendations, Sandra and Gail! I'm a big fan of Daniell Woodrell and have taught his work before (short stories only)—but appreciate the other recommendations as well. And sorry to have been slow in responding here. No internet this morning and then out on the road for much of the day with events in NC.

    And Leigh: Thanks so much for the question here and the offer of short stories! I'm still putting together the syllabus for that class, so not sure how it will all shake out. The last time I taught, I had space at end of the semester to showcase three short story writers writing today--with a focus on some themes/trends in contemporary crime fiction (specifically the paranormal and rural noir that semester). Whatever I'm able to include on the syllabus itself, I'll certainly point folks to the blog here--and do think that work by many of our contributors--and the blog posts themselves--can be useful and educational to students. Not sure entirely how to frame that generally here on the site itself, but a great idea!



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