Professor Lures Students into Reading with Detective Fiction

Posted: February 11, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Ryann Doyle

Art Taylor
Art Taylor
Photo by Tara Laskowski

The television airwaves are flooded by detective fiction programs such as “Law and Order,” “CSI” and “Monk,” and mystery and suspense titles crowd the bestseller lists each week. That popularity is one reason why Art Taylor, term assistant professor of English, was eager to teach English 202 (Texts and Contexts) focusing on American detective fiction.

In order to analyze a literary work, one must have an understanding of the content and an interest in the subject matter. Taylor says that one of the challenges of teaching students who are fulfilling their general education requirements is that many of them openly claim that they’re just not “into” reading.

“Part of the struggle is getting them to engage with a piece of literature in the first place. Only then do I feel like I can most profitably take those next steps toward teaching them about a writer’s artistic choices or thematic concerns,” says Taylor.

However, detective fiction television shows, movies and crime stories on the news tend to appeal to college-age students. Taylor sees this trend continuing with detective fiction books.

“Students have an immediate interest in the subject matter — a ready context for it, even if they weren’t aware of it when they came in the classroom,” says Taylor. “They understand the form, how it works, what it’s trying to do. In these ways, detective fiction meets them on their turf.”

Throughout the semester, the class reads stories written by some of the best practitioners of detective fiction, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. The class explores how detective fiction is not only an action-packed adventure finding out “whodunit,” but it is also similar to “high literature” in that detective fiction addresses questions that have greater social, cultural and even philosophical ramifications.

“Like Hawthorne and Faulkner, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald are exploring family and class and societal values and the way that the past, or the sins of the past, loom over the present,” Taylor explains. “Like Ellison, Chester Himes strives to paint a vivid, true portrait of race issues and conflicts in mid-20th century. And like O’Connor, each of the writers we’re reading grapple with questions of morality: what’s right, what’s wrong, where do you draw the line, where do you cross it?” says Taylor.

By the end of this semester, Taylor hopes that students will leave his class with a greater appreciation of what popular fiction can do.

“I want students to see the ways in which all writers try to come to terms with the world around them and to see how they themselves, as readers, can turn to literature, many forms of literature, to illuminate that world as well,” says Taylor.

Mysteries are central to Taylor’s own reading and writing. He’s had short stories published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and is working on a mystery novel. He also reviews mysteries for the Washington Post, Mystery Scene, The Strand and others, and hopes that his own writing, both fictional and more scholarly work, helps to bring a variety of perspectives to students taking his course.

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