Geography 7 - First Year Seminar

(This course description was given to my students some years ago and, although I might now change and add to the readings, I will retain the general structure of the seminar. I was fortunate then to have access to two remarkably talented mystery writers who have become very famous but have remained accessible and generous of their time.)

Landscapes of Murder: The Geography of Mystery Fiction

The mystery or detective story is one of the most popular, rapidly changing, and demeaned of all literary genres. Its modern origin is Edgar Allan Poe’s "Murders in the Rue Morgue", published in 1844. This unique type of literature rapidly spread to Europe and to every country and culture on the globe, taking on different forms and perspectives in different societies. The mystery is a literary form of particular interest to the social and physical scientist. For the social scientist (read human geographer!) a crime is an intrusion in an orderly society with a real setting and in environments and cultures peculiar to a specific place. Each society, culture, class, and governmental organization has its own manner of dealing with crime and criminals (and even of defining a "crime"!). The crime is committed in a particular physical environment or landscape that defines the physical context of the story. In short, every mystery has a "geography" that, depending on the skill of the writer, provides the stage for the action and often plays a critical role in the plot or solution of the story. As Eudora Welty notes, "fiction depends for its life on place" *. This seminar is focused on the roles that place or geography plays in the mystery.

At a global scale, the mystery as a relatively recent literary innovation, diffused spatially over the globe, being adopted and adapted in every culture and country. As the form was adopted by indigenous writers the style, structure, message, and function of the mystery changed. This seminar will examine the "traditional" mystery and trace its evolution through time and across cultures. The significance of the mystery will become clear as it is examined in contexts as disparate as Japan, Argentina, Mexico, and Russia.

Most seminar sessions will be dedicated to discussions and analysis (even arguments!) of the works selected for reading. A few sessions will be set aside for special topics (e.g. bibliographical sources) and importantly for meetings with noted mystery writers. Two authors are scheduled for this term - Archer Mayor who sets his stories in Vermont and Janet Evanovich, probably the most "popular" writer in America today who uses Trenton, NY as her stage.

The reading assignment in this seminar is very heavy in terms of amount! Much of the reading is, however, fun or, at least, exciting. Every seminar participant must keep up in order to participate in the sessions. No Excuses for unread assignments on the scheduled date are allowed! The readings are made up of a number of scholarly articles, short stories and seven mystery novels. All readings are listed on a separate page.

There are nine required pieces of writing to be completed for the seminar (and the basis of your grade!). A tight, clear, terse critical review of each of the mystery novels is required. A "rejoinder" to the articles by Edmund Wilson (see readings) must be written and turned in. Finally, and most importantly, each participant must write an original, short mystery story. Details on the written assignments will be provided at the first seminar session. All written assignments must be typed, double-spaced, free from misspellings and grammatical errors. Dates for assignment completion will be announced in class. Procedures and rules for "rewrites" will be discussed and set later.

Grades for the seminar are based on 4 components as follows:

·         Class participation 20%

·         Critical mystery reviews 35%

·         Rejoinder to Wilson 5%

·         Original short mystery 40%

As one of the great detectives of all mystery fiction cried - "the game is afoot"!!

* Eudora Welty, "Place in Fiction", The Eye of the Story, Vintage Books, 1979.



·         Eudora Welty, "Place in Fiction", in The Eye of the Story

·         Edmund Wilson, “Who cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd" and "Mr. Holmes, They Were the Footprints of a Gigantic Hound", The New Yorker.

·         Yi-Fu Tuan, "The Landscapes of Sherlock Holmes"

·         G.J. Demko,

o        (a) "Murderous Places: The Geography of Mysteries"

o        (b) "Crime in Cold Places: A Geographic Review"

o        (c) selected columns by G. J. Demko from "The Armchair Detective".

Short Stories

·         Edgar Allan Poe, "Murders in the Rue Morgue".

·         A. Conan Doyle,"A Scandal in Bohemia" and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"

·         Tony Hillerman, "Chu's Witch".

·         Linda Barnes, "Lucky Penny".

·         Josef Skvorecky, "Crime in a Girl’s High School".

·         Jose Luis Borges, "Death and the Compass"


·         Janet Evanovich, Two for the Dough, Simon & Schuster.

·         Archer Mayor, Scent of Evil, Warner Books.

·         Walter Mosley, White Butterfly, NASCORP.

·         Nevada Barr, Firestorm, Orion Books.

·         K.C. Constantine, Good Sons, Warner Books

·         Arthur Upfield, Man of Two Tribes, Simon & Schuster.

·         Robert van Gulik, Phantom of the Temple, Univ. of Chicago Press.

Seminar Calendar of Topics

(This schedule is a moveable feast and topics/dates will be shuffled according to availability of guest authors)

Jan. 6, Tuesday: Introduction - the game, the rules, the requirements, schedule of assignments, and more.
[Read Poe, Welty, Doyle, Demko (a), Evanovich]

Jan 8, Thursday: A Selective History of the Genre - the "formula", the "rules" and some bibliographic sources.
[Read Tuan, Demko (b)]

Jan 13, Tuesday: "Geography" Defined" (with examples) & the Spatial Diffusion of the Genre.
[Read Mayor, Barnes, Hillerman]

Jan 15, Thursday: U.S. Regional Mystery Writers and Mysteries

Jan 20, Tuesday: Guest Speaker - Janet Evanovich (lunch included after seminar)
[Read Mosley]

Jan 22, Thursday: Historical Mysteries & Mystery Writers
An Ellis Peters mystery on film –Virgin in the Ice.
[Read Skvorecky, Borges, and Demko (c)]

Jan 27, Tuesday: Mysteries in Foreign Places
[Read Upfield]

Jan 29, Thursday: Guest Speaker - Archer Mayor (lunch included after seminar)

Feb 3, Tuesday: More Mysteries in Foreign Places
[Read van Gulik]

Feb 5, Thursday: Traditional Mysteries on Film
2 versions of Holmes – Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett

Feb 10, Tuesday: Diversity in the Genre - women, ethnics, gays, physically challenged & more.
[Read Barr]

Feb 12, Thursday: Mysteries as Mirrors of Every Type of Place - Examples
[Read Constantine]

Feb 17, Tuesday:Mysteries as "Literature"

Feb 19, Thursday: Critical Discussion of Required Novels

Feb 24, Tuesday: Student Previews of Short Mysteries

Feb 26, Thursday: Mysteries Set in Home Regions of Class Members

Mar 3, Tuesday: Discussion of Student Mysteries

Mar 5, Thursday: Campus Mysteries

Mar 10, Tuesday: Conclusions & More


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