Refreshing the Whodunit

Moving Beyond Christie and Doyle

 A Let’s Talk About It series developed by Dr. Karen E. Waldron

This Let’s Talk About It series provides new and experienced mystery and detective fans with an opportunity for in depth conversation about how this genre has incorporated the contemporary world’s globalism; dilemmas of race, gender, ethnicity and class; religious conflict; historical revision; and others.

 

  • The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King
  • Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman
  • The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison
  • A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow
  • Murder at the Nightwood Bar by Katherine V. Forrest
  • Inspector Morimoto and the Japanese Cranes: A Detective Story Set in Japan [alternate text, may be substituted for one of the above titles] by Timothy Hemion

 

Series Description

Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle – or some other detective maven – turned many of us into mystery and detective readers.  We found Christie and Doyle or another author (Sayers, Peters, Hammett?) on library shelves and devoured their oeuvre.  The questions underlying the mystery – of the tension between order and disorder, good and evil, and the process of logical deduction – generated an immense readerly pleasure.  But how does the reader navigate the proliferation of mystery and detective novels available now?  And what do these stories and novels do to us, why do they have this effect, and what kinds of discussion does a fuller understanding of the evolution of the mystery narrative as well as examination of new mystery treats make possible?

This Let’s Talk About It series provides new and experienced mystery and detective fans with an opportunity for in-depth conversation about how this fiction has incorporated the contemporary world’s globalism; dilemmas of race, gender, ethnicity and class; religious conflict; historical revision; and others.  To refresh the whodunit, participants will read from a selection of novels by writers more marginal and contemporary than Doyle and Christie – though in some cases playing off of the classics –and ponder questions of the mystery’s relationship to history and culture.  Does the mystery merely reflect its cultural environment or does it help to elucidate or even change that same environment?  What do contemporary mysteries bring today’s readers that we really need, though we may not have known we need it?  How much social change can a formulaic plot generate or reflect?

The perpetual argument about mystery fiction claims the publishers determine the possible plots, the plots determine the outcome and the genre determines plots again for every writer. Yet there must be some potential for social change or effect if Native American, women’s, gay and lesbian, Jewish, and other categories of mystery fiction are emerging for publishers, marketing departments, and consumers – and if the reinventions of Sherlock Holmes and Victorian England are even more fun than the originals.  This series samples writers from these categories and asks of ourselves how they are different, what they are teaching us, and what our pleasure in the mystery is – while providing the immense joy of reading and talking together about this popular but sophisticated and very modern genre.

Books

Laurie King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

King’s marvelous novel has become a classic in its “fresh approach” to Sherlock Holmes, a concept welcomed by some readers and dismissed by others.   King’s  contribution is the creation of Mary Russell, a teenage orphan who meets the beekeeper (Sherlock Holmes) on the Sussex Downs and impresses him with her unique intelligence, akin to his own, and her independent spirit.  Not only does Mary Russell learn from Holmes, she becomes his apprentice and later partner, offering a fresh and female perspective that modernizes Holmes with youthful delight, rich detail of setting and culture (the early years of World War I and the British upper crust), and an ability to inspire Holmes to oddities of detecting that are both consistent with Doyle’s creation and ingeniously re-gendered.  King’s depiction of the Russell/Holmes adventures is also profoundly intelligent and fabulously detailed.

Tony Hillerman, Dance Hall of the Dead:

An early Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn Mystery.  Tony Hillerman, now a household world, leapt on the mystery scene with his depiction of Navajo culture in The Blessing Way and admirable characterization of Navajo policeman Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn.  Dance Hall of the Dead is another of his early works, this time featuring both Navajo and Zuni culture.  Even for participants who may have read Hillerman, or this Hillerman, discussion will allow for detailed examination of Hillerman’s treatment of cultures, characterization through difference, and genius for bringing relevant social, historical, and cultural knowledge into the mystery.  Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, the character Hillerman would most want to have next door, combines attributes of the amateur and professional detective in another modernizing move.  As a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, Leaphorn brings all the culture and personality of the amateurs featured in Doyle, Christie, and Sayers to officialdom in uniquely liminal ways that help set the key themes of this series’ conversation.

Eliot Pattison, The Skull Mantra

The Skull Mantra shot on the literary scene as the first novel featuring the captured Chinese detective Shan, imprisoned in Tibetan labor camps by the Chinese police.  At the camps Shan finds himself supported by ancient Tibetan lamas, also miserably imprisoned.  The influence of Tibetan traditions helps Shan to see meaning even in his life as a prisoner, and to heal from deep personal wounds.  On the borderlands between a nomadic culture of the plateaus and the operations of a police state, the novel conveys not only a vivid sense of the Tibetan landscape but profound knowledge of its history and people.  Tibetan Buddhism becomes accessible to Shan, though always a tradition not his own, as he finds among the monks the kinds of friends he’s never had – people to admire.  When the harsh conditions join with the discovery of a murder, Shan’s experience as a policeman surface.  Despite the political danger, he knows his task must be to find the truth.  As Shan learns what has happened, Pattison merges and compares his seeking for spiritual and factual truths in a rich conversation between kinds of knowledge and necessity that any modern reader could appreciate.

Dana Stabenow, A Cold Day for Murder

Set in Alaska, this novel features Kate Shugak, a tough modern female sleuth who is unashamed of her physical strength, relatively fearless, and keeps company with a wolf-hound named Mutt in her isolated cabin.  A former top investigator for the Anchorage District Attorney’s Office, she retired to the Alaskan wilderness after suffering a life-threatening injury in the line of duty. Fiercely independent yet profoundly loving, Kate discovers that even the remote Alaskan wilderness cannot protect her from haunting memories from her past.  She is called out of retirement to find two people who have disappeared – one of whom is a congressman’s son.  Stabenow’s novels all feature exquisitely captivating portrayals of the Alaska wilderness along with a mystery to be solved and a fascinating central character who is part native, part white, and familiar with horrific crimes.

Katherine V. Forrest, Murder at the Nightwood Bar

The best text by the most widely–read author of the wildly expanding genre of lesbian and gay detective fiction.  Amateur City (1984) was the first Kate Delafield mystery, introducing a smart, modern lesbian detective dedicated to police work but also attempting to deal with her sexuality on the force.  Murder at the Nightwood Bar features Kate Delafield trying to solve the murder of a young female prostitute and drug addict.  Investigations at the Nightwood Bar, a lesbian hangout, require that Kate embrace both her role and the lesbian community, a tension she has avoided for years.  Lesbian and gay characters have good reasons not to trust the police and this novel richly examines Kate’s struggles with elements of her identity while solving a crime that may be a hate crime – and then again may be one committed within the lesbian community.  Character portrayals are particularly apt and this novel represents the underside of L.A. and Hollywood with ordinary extraordinary people, making discussion of diversity natural and fitting the Kate Delafield character into the tradition of Marlowe and Spade.

Alternate Text:  Timothy Hemion, Inspector Morimoto and the Japanese Cranes: A Detective Story Set in Japan:

Hemion has generated an intriguing series set in contemporary Japan,  featuring Inspector Morimoto and his female equal, Detective Suzuki.  Hemion, a mathematician, portrays Japanese culture not only in setting and character, but also in his precise mode of reasoning.  In addition, Inspector Morimote and the Japanese Cranes features travel to the ancient burial mounds of the Kibi kingdom along with the usual strength of logical deduction.  All of this gets set against a backdrop not only modern but politically intriguing; Morimoto and Suzuki belong to a police department that has, as most do, a profound need to satisfy the public.  Hemion handles the interrelationships between logic and politics with understated elegance while creating remarkably compelling though rarely emotional characters.