"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Friday, August 31, 2012

Eng. 180: Arthur Conan Doyle

What a whirlwind week of Sherlock Holmes it has been--and I'm actually really sad to see him go.  Since none of my students signed up for the Conan Doyle author presentation (not really surprised, since it came up really fast), I did it--and that meant I got to watch the British Sherlock series and call it "research."  The movies themselves I didn't watch again until this week.  I love my job.  Watching the Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law Sherlock Holmes yesterday, I picked up on a lot of things I hadn't on previous watchings--like Holmes wanting to dissect Blackwood's brain (Victorians were big on phrenology), etc.

Monday started with the author presentation, which was lovely if I do say so myself.  Then we jumped right in and talked about "A Scandal in Bohemia."  Whether it was Monday, only the fourth time we'd seen each other, the first day of a new author (and era), or something else, my class was sleepy and difficult to engage in conversation.  But we did get to talk about gender and class, as well as narrative structure and other fun things.

On Wednesday, I changed my tactics for our discussion of "The Speckled Band."  I divided them up into groups (hopefully covering those who didn't read their assignment), then assigned each group a specific question.

  • What role does the built environment play in this story?  How is it being used?  Where can you identify where it is playing an active role in the plot (making things happen or preventing them from happening)?
  • What purpose does the natural environment play here?  Where is it being used, to what purpose?
  • How is the environment itself literally a part of the narrative structure?  (After all, this is actually a locked-door mystery.)
  • Where can you identify where what Conan Doyle/Holmes/Victorian society values?  And how is what they value being threatened by the crime?
  • Where is class reflected by how Conan Doyle uses place in this story?

I let them go for a while and then we came back together--and while we're still stuck in the question-and-answer stage of awkward discussion (rather them talking with each other), they mostly got what I was hoping they would.  The built environment--mostly in the use of Stoke Moran--plays an active role in the plot, because without the renovations that Grimesby Roylott is making to the house, Helen Stoner would not have been moved into the room where her sister died (and she suspects was murdered).  I just love that.  Nature is regarded as threat here, not a pastoral paradise.  Even when Grimesby Roylott shows up at 221B Baker Street and he is described in terms of the natural world (bird of prey, etc.), he's also described in terms of how he fills the doorway.  Brilliant.

Today, we finish up our Holmes unit with "The Red-Headed League."  We talked motive today, as that was our specific theme for the day.  Why do we do what we do?  I told them the story of my college math professor who once told us that the root of all conflicts was either money, sex, or power.  Yup.  In our class, we questioned not only why the criminal-villain does what s/he does--but an even more interesting question we rarely consider is why does the detective do what s/he does?  Holmes, for the most part, does it because it saves him from being bored, it's a mental challenge.  He doesn't do it for the greater good, to clean up the streets, for justice, or any other more noble calling.  I can't wait to talk about motive further as we keep reading--should be interesting when we get to Raymond Chandler... 

In the classic detective stories we've been reading, and specifically Conan Doyle this week, the mores of Victorian society, the ideals of honor, class, and gender roles are incredibly important--and a lot of the villain's motives are related to those elements.  That John Clay is the bastard of a royal duke is important, because it puts Clay outside accepted society--even as he invokes his grandfather's blood to get better treatment (and the aristocracy would have received better treatment anyway).  It is also important to remember that Holmes only investigates crimes of the "higher order," not the lower class of crimes, which I term to be crimes of survival (like stealing because one is hungry).  Murder is fairly rare in Conan Doyle, so the idea that more is at stake than the body is incredibly important.  In only one of the three stories we read for this week is there a murder.  Murder is much more common in contemporary crime literature and in many cases, motive is moot, simply because the villain functions as simply "evil," a psychopath or sociopath whose mind does not operate on the same wavelength as "normal" people.  Also, the theme of revenge/justice is also more common as a motive for crime in contemporary crime literature.  Should be interesting to explore as we move into Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" next week.

"The Red-Headed League" is different in the narrative structure itself--generally, there is no interaction of Holmes with the crime.  In this story, the crime he is investigating has not happened yet and his goal is to foil the plot.  In the classic detective stories of this type (and in modern times, the tv show Monk is a good example), the story is divided in two:  the story of the crime is self-contained and the story of the investigation is self-contained and never the twain shall meet.  Mostly.  But writers break their rules all the time.  Almost never in this type of story does the detective have a personal relationship with the criminal he is tracking--but in this story, Holmes has been after the culprit for quite some time.We spent the first part of class talking about all the rules that Conan Doyle is breaking here, narratively, what makes "The Red-Headed League" different from the other stories we've read--and the first thing one of my students said was that the crime hasn't been committed yet, that the plot is about preventing the crime, not catching the villain after the fact.  The other major thing my students observed is that Holmes has a personal relationship with the villain, John Clay--and this is another breaking of general rules, where the crime and the detection are separate, that the detective has no personal stake in catching the villain.  

Note to self:  this group does not say much when we're in a large group.  In the future, lesson plans must include some sort of group work.

In other news, congratulations to William Kent Krueger on the release of his new Cork O'Connor book Trickster's Point, which debuted at #12 on the New York Times bestseller list!  Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy and a better writer--and I can't wait to introduce him to my students, both in the first book in the O'Connor series (Iron Lake) and via Skype when we get to talk to him face to face.

And the good news this morning is that Dennis Lehane has agreed to do an email interview with my class (hopefully next time I teach a class like this it will fit better with his schedule)--so we still get to ask him questions about Mystic River!

Life is good.  I picked up some Ken Bruen and Declan Hughes at the library a couple of days ago, so if I get some free time this Labor Day weekend, I get to spend to take a tour of Galway's seedy side with Ken Bruen and Dublin with Declan Hughes.  And we (hopefully) get the bad guys.  Interesting to see how the literature of social order functions in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland...

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