In my last post I went over my plans for refreshing the reading lists for my regular courses on the 19th-century novel. I have now set up a shelf for these books and begun requesting exam copies for those I don’t already have. Next up is the reading list for my upper-level seminar ‘Women and Detective Fiction,’ which I’ll be offering next fall for the first time since 2014. Here is the book list from that iteration of the course:
Agatha Christie, Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories (selections)
Carolyn Keene, Nancy Drew: The Secret of the Old Clock
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
Sue Grafton, A is for Alibi
Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only
Katherine V. Forrest, Death at the Nightwood Bar
DVD: LaPlante/Mirren, Prime Suspect I
We also read a sampler of stories: “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and Hammett’s “The House on Turk Street” (as touchstones for the tropes and traditions of the genre), and Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “The Long Arm,” and Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” I have not taught this particular seminar often and there has not been a lot of variation in the reading list, but in earlier versions I included Murder at the Vicarage instead of the short stories for Christie, and I used to assign Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position until it went out of print, while Death at the Nightwood Bar was a new addition to the course in 2014.
To date, the books I’ve chosen for this seminar have all been by women writers, about women detectives, and explicitly interested in gender and detection. They all, that is, bring a lot of self-consciousness to their engagement with detective fiction as a genre. Collectively, they also cover a good range of subgenres or types of detective fiction. While in these respects the list has reasonable breadth, however, in other respects it is quite narrow; the feminist tradition it covers is, to put it mildly, not very intersectional. I put in some time in the past trying to fix this problem; though I came up short, the good news is that I do, as a result, already have a preliminary list of names to start with, particularly of African American authors: among these are Barbara Neely (whose books were out of print the last time I looked but appear to be available again), Eleanor Taylor Bland, Paula L. Woods, Grace F. Edwards, Frankie Y. Bailey, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and Attica Locke, whose The Cutting Season looks especially promising because its historical angle is something the books on my usual list don’t include. I basically haven’t read any books by these authors, so if anyone has tips about where to start with them or other ideas about good candidates for my seminar that would help me make the reading list more diverse, I’d be grateful.
So far I have never assigned a Canadian writer in either of my detective fiction classes, primarily because I haven’t found one that takes the genre in what seems like a new direction or that really made me sit up and take notice. (Phonse Jessome’s Disposable Souls came close and might yet end up on the list for the survey course, both because it’s good and because the local angle would be interesting to take on.) For Women and Detective Fiction, I am very tempted to include Katherena Vermette’s The Break this time, even though it may or may not be genre fiction–it would be a good opportunity to discuss how or why we use that label anyway. The Break would differ from my usual reading list in that it does not follow a woman detective, though it is definitely about women and crime (and if that focus was enough to put a book on the reading list, it would open the door to Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, an intriguing possibility). A recent article in Quill & Quire also gave me a starter list of Indigenous mystery writers, including Mardi Oakley Medewar, Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, and Alison Whitaker–more authors whose work will be new to me.
One of the problems I ran into last time I went down this road was getting my hands on samples from the authors I was interested in. I probably just need to be more persistent and order a lot of titles through interlibrary loan. The other problem is that I’m not really a voracious or enthusiastic reader of mysteries (odd, I know, in the circumstances) so I tire easily of the necessary exploratory work and I can take a while to warm to books that are not immediately appealing to me (though I can eventually get there, as has happened with Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress–still not a personal favorite, but one I have found very satisfying to teach). This is why I need help sifting through or coming up with good options so that I can make this reading list represent a wider range of voices. Ideas and recommendations would be very welcome.
Postscript: Dorian sent me a link to this excellent round-table discussion on diversity in detective fiction from Writer’s Digest, which might be of interest to others.