Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present, by M. Lee Alexander (Modern Scholar Lectures)


Alexander isn't much of a lecturer, but I'm a big enough fan of detective fiction that I was able to overlook her lackluster delivery and less than incisive remarks. Really, she just lists the various well-known or important authors whose works fall into various categories of detective fiction--"golden age" detective fiction, hardboiled private eyes, amateur detectives, etc. I wasn't nearly as inspired to go out and read new authors as I was after listening to Michael D.C. Drout's lectures on science fiction and fantasy literature.

Also, while I appreciated her nod to more modern detective fiction developments (the television shows House, M.D., Monk, and Bones), I felt like she missed a lot of opportunities to mention other current trends--like crossover detective/sci fi/fantasy fiction. The upswing in fantasy literature (in the wake of the Lord of the Rings movies, Harry Potter, and the Twilight Saga) has led to some interesting combinations of genres (see, e.g., The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, pitting Doyle's classic detective against sci-fi or fantasy mysteries). The Southern Vampire Mysteries, for example, have been coming out for more than 10 years, and the television series True Blood,based on that series, is in its fourth season. Popular authors Dean Koontz and Stephen King also periodically combine elements of sci-fi/fantasy with detective fiction. Indeed, much fantasy/sci-fi literature involves an element of mystery and many protagonists double as sleuths.
Alexander highlights the recent trend of "irresolution" (or grey morality), but completely misses the excellent example of the television show Dexter, in which a serial killer limits himself to murdering only other murderers. The series raises a lot of ethical questions, and the answers are not always clear. It's gotten a lot of press and acclaim, and has been around since 2006 (a year before the admittedly fun but much less significant show Burn Notice, which Alexander does mention, as an example of "espionage" detective fiction). The books, which are less impressive than the show, have been around since 2004.

Alexander also committed the unpardonable (to me) sin of not giving sufficient attention to the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. (She mentions him briefly when discussing the current trend of "disabled detectives.") Not only are they some of my favorite books, but with something like 50 Nero Wolfe novels, two films, a host of radio programs, and several television iterations, I think he merits more than a passing remark.

It may be that I am more critical of this lecture series precisely because I've read more detective fiction than sci-fi/fantasy lit. Still, I think the lectures could have been so much better. Alexander clearly loves this genre--she's read a ton of it, and chose to lecture on it. Somehow, that love for the material just did not come through in her lectures. She didn't seem excited about it; the delivery was dry and matter-of-fact. There was little discussion of why detective fiction is so popular, why certain books matter, what makes people love them, etc.

Fortunately for Alexander, the material is--at least to me--inherently fascinating, so I had no trouble getting through the lectures. But it hurts to think about how good this could have been.

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