Mystery and Detection: Course Description

Does literature make detectives of us?  Are all literary works mysteries?

We will begin with these questions as we make our way from Greek tragedy (Oedipus Rex) to 21st-century popular television (Lost), dipping into some canonical texts (Twelfth Night, Jane Eyre) and classic mystery stories (from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie) along the way.  As we journey through a series of works we just can’t put down (or switch off), we will consider how stories keep us “hooked” by carefully controlling our access to knowledge and meaning.  Our reading will take us through several centuries, but we will pause as the detective story emerges in Britain and the US in the nineteenth century so that we can understand the formation of this genre in relation to a longer history of literary mystery and discovery.  As we encounter a range of intriguing plots and narrative twists, we’ll be asking:

What is so appealing about narratives that hide knowledge from us?  

We will explore the role of mystery in narrative and investigate the common narrative threads that run through plays, stories, novels, and movies produced centuries and continents apart.

What kind of knowledge do they hide? 

We will find mistaken identity, criminal behavior, mystery, murder, and intrigue throughout this class, but we will also think about how different time periods and literary forms reimagine what is hidden and dangerous in society.  One of our primary tasks will be to understand how mystery narratives try to pin down what are often very slippery identities.

 What do we discover?  How do we discover it?

Do we approach a Shakespeare play and a movie differently?  Throughout this class we will pay close attention to how we read – the perspectives we bring to these texts and how we find meaning in them. 

Syllabus (PDF) >

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