This Week in My Classes (February 12, 2008)

We wrapped up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in Mystery and Detective Fiction yesterday. I enjoy going over the details of the text to demonstrate just how ingeniously Christie (by way of her narrator, of course) uses language to play the game in it, stating the truth but keeping, as Poirot points out, ‘becomingly reticent’ about Sheppard’s precise role in events. Of its kind, Ackroyd is no doubt close to perfect. If in the end I judge it an inferior book, which I do, that judgment rests on my sense that its kind is inferior: clever, amusing, entertaining, but also superficial, trivial–worst, trivializing, including of its central subject, murder. These are hardly new criticisms; they are made derisively and at length of the genre overall by Edmund Wilson in “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd,” and more constructively by Raymond Chandler in “The Simple Art of Murder.” I think Chandler is right that the degree of realism introduced into mystery fiction by, for instance, Dashiell Hammett (and there already, though Chandler does not say as much, in earlier examples such as The Moonstone) is necessary to make the genre substantially meaningful as well as literary. The scene in which various members of Ackroyd’s household carry on a perfectly cool and collected conversation in the presence of his corpse, complete with dagger sticking out of his neck, is entirely ludicrous and morally objectionable except that emotional detachment (by both characters and readers) is a prerequisite of this type of detective story. Harmless enough for diversion, I suppose, but perhaps Carlyle’s comments on Scott’s achievement have some application here:

But after all, in the loudest blaring and trumpeting of popularity, it is ever to be held in mind, as a truth remaining true forever, that Literature has other aims than that of harmlessly amusing indolent languid men: or if Literature have them not, then Literature is a very poor affair; and something else must have them, and must accomplish them, with thanks or without thanks; the thankful or thankless world were not long a world otherwise!

Once we admit that literature (including mystery fiction) can be much more than a harmless amusement, I think the ‘cozy’ necessarily sinks to a low rung on the merit ladder. Mind you, I have related reservations about hard-boiled fiction, with what one critic has called its ‘poetics of violence’; that’s where we’re headed next this week, with one of Hammett’s “Continental Op” stories and Chandler’s “No Crime in the Mountains.” It’s P.D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (of the novels on our reading list) that really takes up the ethical challenge of literary treatments of detection where the Victorians left off, in my opinion, and that’s no surprise given that James points to Trollope and George Eliot as her influences rather than her predecessors in detection. More on that when the time comes!

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ we’ve had our first session on He Knew He Was Right and I’m feeling good so far about the synergy between it and our previous novels. The thematic and plot links are obvious, but the structure of Trollope’s multiplot monster is also of interest; like its other loose baggy cousins, HKHWR works as a kind of theme and variations, so the juxtaposition of the various stories, especially those of unmarried women in different contexts confronting their options, or their lack of options, cumulatively creates a rich sense of the complexities of social and political life for women. While Helen’s disastrous marriage to Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall comes to seem exemplary, if in an extreme way, of the novel’s whole concept of the relations between the sexes, here every case has its clear individual features even as the laws and rules of propriety are fairly fixed structures within which everyone has to find a way forward. My students were also intrigued at, and pleased by, what they felt was his complex presentation of the male characters, particularly Louis but also Colonel Osborne. No simple polarization of right and wrong here–and so we were able also to give some time to critical views of Trollope as a practitioner of a form of ‘virtue ethics,’ developing morality through practice and particulars, rather than precepts and prescriptions. I took the unusual step (for me) of leading off also with a clip from the BBC adaptation. My thinking was that it’s a very long book that relies heavily on our forming relationships with the characters: Trollope writes about people more than themes, abstractions, or anything else (our next book is Middlemarch, which I think will make a fascinating comparison in this respect). Given all the things competing for my students’ attention, I thought it would help to bring the people to life dramatically, even at the risk of substituting Andrew Davies’s ideas of them for Trollope’s. As always, showing an adaptation also helps us see some things about how the material is managed in the original. In this case, for example, the adaptation seemed more melodramatic, the action more sensational–and, as one of my students pointed out, it seemed to make Emily more clearly sympathetic. So I think we managed to use our clip to further our thinking about the novel. We’ll be working on the book for almost a month, so we need to build up enough momentum that finishing it does not become a chore. I’m optimistic! But of course I am, or I would never have assigned it in the first place…

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