This Week (and Last) in My Classes (March 24, 2009)

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we have been working on examples of the police procedural, including short stories by Ed McBain, Peter Robinson, and Ian Rankin. Now we are nearly done with our discussion of Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. I initially chose this novel for this course because I admire the quality of Rankin’s writing and have generally gone with the first in a series, to avoid the sense that I need to fill in a lot of back story on the detective’s development. I have kept it on the list because I enjoy its self-conscious literary and gothic elements and the way it doesn’t really fit the conventions of the procedural. It also deals with themes about masculinity, brotherhood (especially as nurtured–or forced–through the army and the police force), and uneasy relationships between male sexuality and violence. In these ways I feel it provides a good complement to, say, Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi (though in a very different register)–which also explores sex and violence but as linked through conventional romantic fantasies, and considered from the perspective of a female protagonist struggling to reconcile her own sexual desires with her autonomy. Knots and Crosses is also short (Rankin’s books get both better and much, much longer) and neatly structured (almost too neatly, I now think). In other words, it’s a pretty good teaching text. This year, though, I find I’m a bit tired of it. It’s creepy, for one thing (students have remarked this in past years as well), and there are signs in it of Rankin’s relative inexperience as a novelist (for instance, what I consider problems in his handling of point of view, such as shifting occasionally to the perspective of the serial killer or of one of his victims–this kind of thing can be done well, but here seems primarily aimed at increasing suspense, which I find manipulative if it doesn’t also serve some larger idea or balance). Especially since I think I’m going to concede the argument against An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (routinely an unpopular text, though one of the few books on the reading list that I like just as a book to read), I may consider either a longer P. D. James or a longer Rankin to represent the procedural. I’m tempted by Fleshmarket Close, but then a 400+ pager near the end of term might sink my evaluations altogether….

In Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt last week it was a small sampling of Pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne, and Christina Rossetti. CR is the author of a couple of my favourite poems, including this one:


Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope and love of finished years.

O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter-sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brim-full of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death;
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

It’s the sound and feeling of the words here that I respond to here, as much as, or more than, anything the poem is specifically saying. For the class, we read a selection of her religious poetry (I know, one way or another it can all be read as religious)–“Up-Hill,” “A Better Resurrection,” “The Three Enemies,” and a couple of others, and then “Goblin Market,” always fun to read and provoking to interpret. For today and Wednesday it’s Hopkins (faith today, with “God’s Grandeur,” “The Windhover,” and “Pied Beauty,” and doubt next time, with some of the ‘terrible’ sonnets). So a lot of our discussions over the past few classes have turned on relationships between aesthetic and sensual responses to the world and spiritual ideas and feelings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.