This Week In My Classes: What Makes a “Teachable” Novel?

This week I decided to call my own bluff.

knots_crossesI spend a lot of time fretting about which books I assign in my Mystery and Detective Fiction course — because once you get past the few absolute “must haves” (something by Poe, some Sherlock Holmes, The Moonstone, something to represent the Golden Age, one of the hard-boiled essentials) there are many good reasons but no real imperatives to help me choose from the tens of thousands of possibilities. My guiding principles are coverage (of the major subgenres, such as the police procedural) and diversity (of voice or point of view), but that doesn’t really narrow things down that much. I’ve asked for suggestions quite a few times here, with great results: I have readers like Dorian to thank, for instance, for prodding me to read Sjöwall and Wahlöö, whose The Terrorists is currently a staple of my course reading list.

I tweak that list pretty regularly, and I’m always turning over alternatives in my mind. One of the books I’ve assigned the most is Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, which is his first Rebus novel. As often the case with the first books in a series, it is in some ways his most self-conscious, and it doesn’t assume any prior knowledge of Rebus on our part, which is useful for classroom purposes. It’s also a nifty little book in its own way, neatly constructed, with lots of clever twists; its deliberate invocations of the Scottish gothic tradition make it nicely literary and its inquiry into masculine identity, military “bonding,” and repression usually spark good discussion. It’s not the best Rebus novel, though (I know Rankin doesn’t think so either): the others, especially the more recent ones, have a broader social and political reach and do more as police procedurals, while Knots and Crosses (which was not intended as a “crime novel” to begin with) is really more of a psychological thriller. Every time I teach Knots and Crosses, then, I mutter to myself (and sometimes remark to the class) that to really see what Rankin and Rebus can do, we should read something else. Yet I have never acted on that conviction.

This week, then, I decided I should reread one of the others that has long been in my mind as an alternative: 2006’s The Naming of the Dead. Set in Edinburgh during the 2005 G8 meeting, it balances its murder investigations against political crimes and misdemeanors of all kinds. Siobhan Clarke is on the case too, but involved personally as well as professionally, and Rebus’s old antagonist, “Big Ger” Cafferty, becomes an uneasy ally. My recollection of the book is that it explored lots of themes we’re always interested in in this class, especially gray areas between crime and detection, or tensions between the law and real justice. Rereading it, this impression has been confirmed, as has my sense that its political context gives Rankin the opportunity to do something similar to what Sjöwall and Wahlöö do, that is, extend particular criminal investigations to larger critiques of systems of power. Rankin’s novels have been acknowledged as contemporary versions of the Victorian ‘condition of England’ novel: with Knots and Crosses, you can’t see why, but with The Naming of the Dead, the genealogy works and would, I think, be really interesting to discuss.

namingofthedeadAnd yet … I am not convinced that I should replace Knots and Crosses after all! Much as I’m enjoying rereading it, I’m not sure it would be as teachable as Knots and Crosses, and my hesitation over this has had me wondering: what do I mean by “teachable”? It’s not something I ever really consider about Victorian novels when choosing among them for my 19th-century fiction classes, but when I’m scouting for mystery novels to assign — or contemplating assigning some new (or new to me) novel for an intro course — “How would this work in the classroom?” is always a concern. And for the majority of mystery novels I read, the (usually unarticulated) response to this question is “it wouldn’t”: I put most of them aside without seriously considering them for my syllabus, which strikes me as interesting. Why would that be? Might it (she says a little nervously) have something to do with the “literary” vs. “genre” fiction distinction? Or, to be more precise, with the ways that methods for “teaching” a novel (at least for me) align with qualities that are more likely to occur in “literary” fiction?

What qualities am I looking for in a novel I assign? I suppose the fundamental requirement is that there be something in it for us to talk about — not just for a few minutes, but for enough classroom hours that we can spread our work on the novel across whatever seems like a reasonable amount of time for the students to read the whole thing. The formula for this will vary depending on the level and nature of the class, of course, but anything that will take up a week or more of class time has to be of a certain complexity — and not just of plot, because just rehearsing what happened is not particularly valuable or interesting. It might sound foolish to put it this way, but to teach a book there also has to be something about it that needs explaining, as well as something that rewards discussion. Not all of this has to be generated by the intrinsic qualities of the book: a book might get some of its interest from external contexts — (literary) historical, for instance, or theoretical. But you don’t (well, I don’t) want to spend a lot of time on stuff around the book and only point to the book itself in passing: you want to dig in and really get to know it!

One way of labeling the process I’m most used to, pedagogically, would be “deep reading,” or “close reading.” Not all books reward that particular kind of reading equally. An alternative is “horizontal reading,” where the individual text is seen as part of a broad array of related and perhaps even quite similar material. Its interest arises at least in part, in that case, by comparison: among things of this kind, how is this particular one different or interesting? In Mystery and Detective Fiction we actually do a combination of the two. I spend a fair amount of time describing a broad horizon of comparison (because we don’t have time to read lots and lots of examples to establish it on our own) and then we consider how our specific example fits into or revises common conventions and tropes. Mystery fiction really is strongly governed by recognizable patterns which in their least interesting versions seem simply formulaic — which is not to say that there aren’t tropes and conventions and formulas in “literary” fiction too, and one reason I’m using scare-quotes is that I am very aware that the distinction I’m invoking is a vexed and imperfect one. But it seems silly to pretend there aren’t books that are very clearly of a kind, perhaps even repetitively or predictably so, and that whatever the pleasures they afford many readers, they don’t individually hold up under the kind of scrutiny I am inclined to give them in class. Or, in another variation on the problem, they don’t do something new and thought-provoking enough to those tropes and conventions that they jump out as examples we need to consider. I’m not judging these books in any absolute way, of course. I’m just measuring them by what I perceive as my pedagogical goals.

moonstoneThen there are other constraints on teachability: more pragmatic ones. Again, with Victorian novels I mostly don’t worry too much about these, though I am wise, or cautious, or jaded, enough never to assign two genuine door-stoppers in the same term  (say, Bleak House and Middlemarch). Students who sign up for “The 19th-Century Novel from Dickens to Hardy” have to know what they are getting into! But the mystery class is a lower-level course that is purely an elective for everybody in it. I can barely get them all through The Moonstone (and in fact I am confident there are always some who never make it to the end) — and that’s a book that’s so interesting I can barely stop talking about it myself! It earns its two weeks of class time by being not just important but really complex and (for the class) quite challenging. This is actually where I fear The Naming of the Dead  falls apart as an option (though I’m not 100% sure yet). Its nearly 500 pages are not nearly as dense as The Moonstone‘s, but in a way that’s just the problem: it goes on for almost as long a time without actually being as complex. It is broad, I might say, and it’s smart, but it’s not particularly deep. I’m not sure about this, because I haven’t tried to map out any lecture topics, but it would be a bad idea to assign 500 pages and then end up feeling like we were spinning our wheels in class.

It’s true that you can find something to say about almost anything, and that there is no one uniform approach that works for teaching all novels. The Naming of the Dead seems to me an in-between case: I’m ruling it out (I think) because it requires too big an investment for the likely payoff in this particular course. It also matters to me that Knots and Crosses — which is both short and suspenseful — is always very popular with students: it is often singled out in course evaluations as a favorite, for instance, and class discussions about it tend to be pretty lively. (This year The Terrorists has been our most-discussed book so far, though.) Maybe it will inspire students to go on and read more of Rankin’s (better) novels on their own; I’m guessing that the number who are inspired to read more Wilkie Collins is very small! I suppose I could swap it out for a different example of the police procedural. I’ve tried that before, actually: one year we read Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, which earned its spot on the list because the 87th Precinct series was ground-breaking of its kind. But for all that is interesting about it, Cop Hater is a really badly written novel, or so we ended up thinking by the time we’d talked it through. In that case, being teachable turned out not to be enough to teach it again!

If you’re curious about which books I’ve chosen over the years, in Mystery and Detective Fiction or in my other classes, you can get a good sense of the range by scanning the On Teaching page of this blog.

Rebus is Back: Ian Rankin, Standing in Another Man’s Grave

rankingraveYes, Rebus is back, and it’s good to see him again, the sodden old crank. The Malcolm Fox novels have been fine, but I don’t find Fox as interesting a character as Rebus–though that could be because I’ve known Rebus for so long. Also, I had hoped that Rankin would take up Siobhan Clarke as his protagonist when Rebus retired. She has quite a prominent role in Standing in Another Man’s Grave, so my hope of that is renewed!

Rebus is back — and that seemed to me the major feature of this new novel. It’s a solid, well-constructed procedural on its own merits — Rankin is an experienced pro at this, after all — but it’s as a novel of character that Standing in Another Man’s Grave is most interesting. It doesn’t have the ambitious scale or political reach of the late books in the initial Rebus series, particularly Fleshmarket Close (which is described on the cover as a “state of the nation novel”–surely a variation on what I talk about in the 19thC context as a “condition of England novel”) or The Naming of the Dead. Both of these work their particular crimes up as symptoms of much wider social evils. By contrast, the case in Standing in Another Man’s Grave is mostly an occasion for Rebus to revisit and rethink his identity as a detective as he contemplates a move from the cold case unit he moved to on retirement back into active service (something made possible as a plot twist by changes in regulations). The case itself seemed a little perfunctory, except that in linking together old cases with new, it continues the preoccupation of all of the Rebus novels with the complex relationship between past and present.

Here, it’s Rebus himself who often seems like a relic of the past, something Rankin can make the most of because this novel is itself a kind of throwback. While Rebus was out of our sight, our world and his was changing, and his ways of doing things — always borderline inappropriate — are now conspicuously “old-school,” as Malcolm Fox’s colleague Tony Kaye points out. Rankin set Fox up to be in many ways Rebus’s antithesis, and here we see Fox determined to put an end to Rebus’s tainted career. “I know a cop gone bad when I see one,” he tells Siobhan, warning her to cut ties if she values her own career advancement:

Rebus has spent so many years crossing the line, he’s managed to rub it out altogether. As far as he’s concerned, his way’s the right way, no matter how wrong the rest of us might know it to be.

“You don’t know him,” Siobhan replies, and that’s what long-time Rebus readers would say as well: Fox’s summary is pretty accurate, except for his conclusion that Rebus’s disregard for rules, protocols, and lines proves him to have “gone bad.” Rebus’s methods may be unorthodox, but the law and the right do not always completely coincide, and Fox’s determination to put Rebus on one side or the other of that line shows his own moral limitations, or at least his own moral rigidity.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave is in some ways an affirmation of Rebus’s approach. As Kaye tells Fox,

Rebus got results the old way, without seeming to earn them. He did that because he got close to some nasty people in a way that you couldn’t. . . . Rebus specialises in something a bit different — doesn’t necessarily make him the enemy.

Rebus gets results here too, through “old-school” contacts, hunches, and the weary, dogged persistence that has seen him through so many cases before.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave is not quite a triumphant return to form for Rebus, though. Rebus proves himself still up to the job, but just barely — not so much because he’s bemused by new methods and new media, such as Twitter (a bit of an inside joke from Rankin, who is a frequent and adept user of social media — you can follow him at @beathhigh if you’re interested) but because he’s just barely hanging in there physically, and no wonder, considering he smokes and drinks incessantly. Even if his application to be reinstated is accepted, how long before he’s in his own grave? His ancient Saab, also on its last legs (wheels?), becomes a metaphor for his debilitated condition. “And the Saab didn’t break down?” asks Siobhan after one of Rebus’s long trips to check out leads. “Not ready for the knacker’s yard just yet,” replies Rebus, and the same seems to be true of him. Maybe there’s one more Rebus novel left in him before Siobhan gets her chance at the lead role.