January 11, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

Students are meeting everybody from Miss Marple to Sam Spade in an interim class on detective fiction.

The class was talking about Betty, who they originally thought was such a nice girl. “She just seemed so innocent …” said one student. “She’s not the one you’d expect to be a straight-up liar.” Another student, however, had seen early signs of degeneracy: “She smiles and has a sinister appearance,” he reminded the class.

Betty is a central character of The Franchise Affair, a 1948 mystery novel by Josephine Tey based on an actual 18th-century case of bogus kidnapping. The book is part of the curriculum of a Calvin interim class titled “Crime and Detective Fiction,” and the students were finding more than Betty a little fishy. The romance, for example: “It wasn’t unnecessary, but it doesn’t really add anything to the plot,” one argued. And then there was the denouement: “When the guy came in at the end and gave the solution—I didn’t find that plausible,” said another.

Fiction under examination

Garth Pauley, the communication arts and sciences professor who was leading the examination—characters, motives, setting, theme, virtues of the work?—said that the book’s all-knowing detective was a common feature of early detective stories. The class had just finished their study of Victorian-era mysteries by Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe and G.K. Chesterton, all of which feature omniscient sleuths like Sherlock Holmes. “I’m not a fan of Sherlock Holmes,” Pauley confessed. “The appeal seems to be that there’s this really clever detective.”

The class next queried the golden age of detective fiction, the era of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Marjorie Allingham, authors whose signature  detectives—Lord Peter Whimsey, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple— dropped helpful clues about the outcome. “The idea that readers could follow along with the detective seemed to appeal,” Pauley said, and he summarized his findings on the fictional era from Holmes to Poirot: “A lot of golden age and Victorian fiction seems to trivialize crime … In the Victorian era, crime seems to have no consequence. There’s no big disruption to the world.”

Not so, he added, in the era of hard-boiled fiction. The day after Betty came a cropper, the students were introduced to the world of Sam Spade with a viewing of The Maltese Falcon. Spade, along with Lew Archer, and Phillip Marlowe, the detectives popularized by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, represent a different kind of investigative universe, said Pauley: “There’s a lot of moral ambiguity, and things are not what they seem … People are not who they seem, criminals seem to be double-crossing each other.” He put the students on alert for the trademarks—realism, pessimism, fatalism, toughness, California setting—of the genre. “The hard-boiled detective seems to be a kind of physical tough guy,” Pauley said. “He’s not very interested in the criminal justice system.”

Taken in moderation

One trademark of hard-boiled detective fiction he warned about: “The cynical element. After a while, you want to put it down because you get fairly cynical, a point-of-view that does not combine well with a Christian outlook.”

Despite this caution, Pauley started the “Crime and Detective Fiction” interim in part to enhance students’ reading habits. “It’s always on the top of the bestseller list,” he said of crime and detective fiction. “I figured there must be student interest in it. I figured I’d guide them to read better stuff than what’s out there.”

Next up are thrillers and low-profile mysteries such as The Man Who Watched Trains Go By.” Students will also be taxed with a little mystery writing.

Meantime, at least some of them are enjoying the genre. Dan Kerr, a junior exercise science major and fan of Humphrey Bogart, signed up for the class to hang out with a friend. “Interim is about taking something you don’t usually take as well, and, so far, I’m kind of liking my decision … .” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed just being able to read the novels thus far.”

His favorite detective so far? “I honestly do like Sherlock Holmes,” he said.

The class discusses a case.

CAS professor Garth Pauley

Recent stories