The Curious Case of the Classroom

As a young reader, I tore through the different series featuring Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, and Hardy Boys.  As a teenager, I favored mysteries by Phyllis Whitney, Agatha Christie, and too many others to count.  Yet I have no memory of reading a mystery for school (other than the mystery of math word problems). 

Knowing at least the basic conventions of mystery is crucial for interpreting certain literary texts–for example, there is little chance of fully appreciating Gertrude Stein’s Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, Paul Auster’s City of Glass, or Sylvia Plath’s “The Detective” without them in mind. When I teach such texts, it’s typically not until we go over some of “the rules” (e.g., Knox’s Decalogue, the Van Dine list, and Raymond Chandler’s commandments) that classes can proceed to lively discussion of the ways in which the authors are using, responding to, or subverting those conventions. The lists themselves require careful consideration and evaluation (particularly the problematic elements), and it is fascinating to see how many of said rules have been skillfully–even beautifully–broken.

I’m not suggesting that we should read mysteries only for literary analysis or critical thinking purposes, though. We should definitely read mysteries simply to read mysteries! They offer so much. In fact, I wonder why the mystery has not always been considered one of the necessary genres to be taught.

Did you begin reading the mystery genre at a young age or later on?  In school or out?

75 thoughts on “The Curious Case of the Classroom

  1. I remember my 4th grade teacher would read to us sometimes. I remember her reading The Bobbsey Twins and then I told my mom about it when we got home and she bought some of them for me to read and The Happy Hollisters. When I was older I would read Phyllis A Whitney and Victoria Holt after my mom finished reading them. In high school you are right, they never had us read any mysteries. Maybe a short story that could count.

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  2. Now that you mention it, I don’t remember reading mysteries in school. I was a late bloomer where crime fiction is concerned but was hooked the moment I discovered Mary Higgins Clark.

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  3. I too read the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden. I don’t think schools took mysteries seriously, or they thought that reading about murder would somehow make us all criminals. Back when I was in school, in the 60’s, the stuff they made us read a lot of the time had “inner meanings” Looking for what the author “really” meant made my head hurt.
    Give me a nice cozy mystery any day!
    Carol

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    1. That should be a bumper sticker! “Give me a nice cozy mystery any day!” Interesting point re: reading about murder potentially making us criminals…somehow those gatekeepers always ignored how very bloody Shakespeare was, ha.

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      1. That should be a bumper sticker! “Give me a nice cozy mystery any day!”
        Hey! There’s a thought for malice swag!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Always great to get a glimpse inside your classes, Cynthia! And hope the past semester went well. I still need to read the Gertrude Stein, which you’ve mentioned to me before—adding it to the list! Again!!

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    1. So true, Art! How I’d love to take one of Cynthia’s classes! (Do you do Zoom audits, Cyn?) And yes, gotta read that Stein book–as how I would love to see a performance of the Tom Stoppard play!

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    2. Thank you and likewise, Art! Whenever I hear you talk about your classes, I want to take them. Hope your semester went well too! And when you’re finished with Gertrude, let’s chat. Interested in your perspective. It’s difficult but interesting to teach, especially once we start asking questions about Lizzie Borden…

      And oh my goodness, you all are so nice about the classes. Zoom Audit Crew would be a BLAST. ❤

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  5. I read mysteries “for fun” in school, starting with Encylopedia Brown and Nancy Drew, and moving up to Agatha Christie, MHC, Frederick Forsyth, and Robert Ludlum.

    I read Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and Wilkie Collins’s THE MOONSTONE in high school, but didn’t learn they were considered mysteries until college.

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    1. YES Encyclopedia Brown too! I think we may have read “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” too but it was lumped in with “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” and not discussed as crime fiction for some reason.

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      1. Cynthia,
        That is because these are considered literary works of art. Mysteries? Heaven forbid they be labeled as mysteries!
        HA!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Never for school. I started with Trixie Belden and went on from there. But, honestly, if I’d had to read mysteries for school, it might have ruined them for me. Everyone (or everyone my age) had to read Moby Dick. Does anyone like Moby Dick?

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    1. I love Moby Dick, arguably the single greatest piece of American literature. I have read it numerous times, and I always find something I missed before on rereading. My wife, my son and I just finished reading a chapter a day as a family a couple of months ago.

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      1. Did you have to read it for school? If I hadn’t had to read it and do all that analysis, I might have liked it.

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      1. I read Moby Dick for the third or fourth time in college as part of an American lit class that I took as an elective (I was a biology major). I wrote a paper on it – something about Ahab’s quest to free man’s mind from superstition, if I remember correctly.

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  7. In my Catholic grammar school, one room was set aside as a library, and the nuns used to march us down there once a month or so, where we were required to select a book to read and write a book report about. We were also allowed to bring books from home to school, subject to Sister’s approval, of course. I don’t remember if mysteries were stocked in the school library–I read a lot of Hardy Boys in those days, so I suspect that they were. I remember bringing a Perry Mason book to school when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, which was promptly confiscated by Sister for the scantily clad female on the cover. That was funny, because the Perry Mason books had little to no sex in them–most were as bland as the popular TV show starring Raymond Burr. My mom went to the school and gave the nun hell, telling her never to take a book away from me again! I also started reading Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers about that time.

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    1. I went to public school, Tom, but my older sister went through the Catholic system. I suspect I wasn’t invited to attend, because I had a mom who gave the nuns hell, too. But my mom, I am sorry to tell you, was not a fan of Moby Dick. The only book I ever heard her say she hated.

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    2. I am like all of you, I read The Bobbsey Twins as a child (and I still have them), later Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Judy Bolton, ,etc. and while I was in high school (but at home) I read Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Elizabeth George, etc. I checked those out from the library. We did not read mysteries in school, except for short stories from Edgar Allen Poe, Ring Lardner and Guy de Maupassant. I guess that was the curriculum in back in the day. But then I found Dashiell Hammett, John D. McDonald, Agatha Christie, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, and Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder and fell in love with the genre. Mysteries keep your your mind sharp and make you pay attention for clues and trying to figure out the killer and why. I don’t like gory ones though. We all go through phases in reading at some point–historical, historical romance, romance, science fiction, classics, biographies, etc.

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      1. I even gave a talk in my high school English class about the evolution of the American mystery novel in the 20th century, featuring authors like Ellery Queen, S.S. Van Dine, Erle Stanley Gardener and Rex Stout.

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  8. I began reading mysteries with Nancy Drew, like half the population. I have no memory of ever being assigned a mystery in school, but you’re right. Kids of all ages should be!

    I LOVE that list of rules. I read the ones for “Spicy Detectives” too. Wow, talk about dated! Fun stuff. 😉

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  9. I read “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in school, but that’s the only “official” mystery we had on our syllabus. But truly, many many great works of literature are at their heart a mystery (think the Brontes, Kafka’s The Trial, Dickens’ Bleak House, and one of my favorites, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, which ultimately turns out to be a murder mystery). So it’s a shame that so-called “mysteries” are stigmatized and not taught at our schools. Thanks for doing your part to change that, Cyn!

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    1. YES, Leslie! Great examples. I always make that argument too…and include Hamlet! Another one I love is Trifles by Susan Glaspell, which unravels a mystery and makes important points about gender while doing so.

      And awww, thank you…labor of love. xo

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  10. Great post, Professor Chick Cynthia! Gosh, now that you mention it, I don’t recall studying any mysteries at all in school. I read them all on my own. But I do remember our teacher reading us Encyclopedia Brown puzzles on rainy, no-recess days. I hated ol’ EB because I never figured out any of the answers. One I remember, something about a hard-boiled egg spinning or not spinning–I mean, come on. So I hated that series, lol. Distantly related, in my book, to math word problems.

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  11. I do remember reading Nancy Drew, etc. on my own, and I “checked out” Sherlock Holmes from our in-classroom library.

    My teachers also assigned us From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Plus, I had another teacher read The Westing Game to us (which I so enjoyed!).

    No mysteries in the classroom past elementary school, though…

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  12. Mysteries weren’t taught in the classroom, but I was hooked after a sick day at home with Nancy Drew. After I tore through the series, I went on to Trixie Belden, Perry Mason, Christie, Doyle, Chandler… Basically once I started I couldn’t (wouldn’t?) stop!

    I absolutely think mysteries should be on the syllabus! And please add me to the list of those clamoring to take your classes. That would be amazing! ❤

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    1. Kathy, you’re right–they’re addictive!! And would love to work with you!

      But now that I’m thinking about it…I would turn you ALL into guest speakers because we can learn from YOU.

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  13. I am possibly the lone outcast here.
    When I was in school, my favorites were Shakespeare, Goeorge Orwell, Kafka, Steinbeck, things like that.
    And wholesome stuff was only allowed at home, like Little House on the Prairie. Yup, I was not allowed up past 8pm until I was a junior in high school. Then I could stay up till 9.
    I did not start reading mysteries until probably 30? And look at me making up for it now!

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  14. Professor Kuhn, add me to the list for your Zoom class! Now that you point it out, I can’t remember mystery or crime fiction assignments, other than Poe. Weird! I’m glad you’re addressing this overlooked segment of the literary canon!

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  15. Definitely started young. Like you, I can’t remember reading mysteries in school until I took a college class “Detective Fiction.” We talked about the conventions and such, and then we were tasked with writing one. It took for-freaking-ever and I had parties to attend so I ended up performing the terrible literary faux pas of dropping a solution out of the heavens. And heavens, was it bad! I ran across it not too long ago and my professor generously gave me a B on it. I guess it was good up until the end!

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  16. Hello Cynthia, I began mysteries when I was 9 or 10 with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I also have read so many other mysteries books that the list is too long. Thank you for your intriguing post, it made me STOP and remember what I truly LOVE about mysteries… EVERYTHING 😀 Blessings and honor, Christine C Sponsler

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      1. I plan to be here often. I am working on a series pertaining to the mysteries inside The New Creations Manor which is set in a drug rehab manor. It’s fun, cuz it is loosely based on the Christian rehab I was in (2003-2005).

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    1. Christine, how exciting that you’re writing a new series! And please do come back and hang out with us. If you haven’t joined Sisters in Crime, yet, would highly recommend–national chapter first, then Guppies (the online chapter which has a lively email loop) and local chapter too, if there’s one nearby. > https://www.sistersincrime.org/

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  17. I read all the Nancy Drews but I preferred the Hardy Boys. Nancy’s twinsets, pearls, and roadster didn’t interest me. In high school we did read Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band. But my older sister became enthralled with Holmes, and I followed suit. Just last year she was invested as a Baker Street Irregular! In college back in the 70s, we had 3 week January term classes, and I took Detective Fiction with Dr. Panek–from Wilkie Collins to Dashiell Hammett. My roommate was traumatized by John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge! Years later I was gratified to learn that Dr. Leroy Panek had won two Edgars for non-fiction, not bad for a professor from a small liberal arts college in mid-Maryland.

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