The Familiar Detective was a one-off course that I composed and taught at the 2013 AyeWrite! Festival in Glasgow. It was based around the idea that each and every detective story relies more heavily on the accumulative knowledge learned from all detective stories up to that point in history than is common in most other genre fiction’s relations to the rest of its genre.
Readers of detective fiction are usually always “avid” readers of detective fiction, and each time they grasp a new mystery they are bringing to the task their vast knowledge of the genre. The author’s job, then, is to know his genre just a little bit better than the reader’s do, and to be able to thwart and reward their expectations in equal terms, so that the question becomes who knows the story better: The reader or the author?
Using MindNode on an overhead projector, the class and I constructed a fairly intricate flowchart of various detective figures from literature, pulps, cinema and television and then did our best to find the connecting threads between all of them; the “clichés” (for lack of a better word) that joined all of them.
We then had a discussion about what is the purpose or the sense of enjoyment in our reading of detective fiction and played around with ideas of subverting the stereotypical detective figure in order to come up with our own individual characters and settings.
Using examples from modern detective fiction we took accepted tropes, such as alcoholism, rocky love life, physical dominance, and replaced them with some other less common tropes, such as schizophrenia (Romulus Ledbetter), a happy marriage (Guido Brunetti), a deformed physique (Matthew Shardlake), gender (V.I. Warshawski) or, my favourite thwart against the strong silent type, Tourettes (Lionel Essrog).
Looking back at the course now my main concern is that I had made simply way to much assisting material for a one-off, two hour class, and had hoped to attack a subject which scope far surmounted that of our timeframe. It was an extremely enjoyable and rewarding experience, though, particularly as it included tutoring people who were extremely well versed in the subject matter but had not spent much or any time in academic institutions, and so brought me right up against some of my unrealised attempts at being ‘academic’ simply to seem clever, at the cost of a good reading experience.
I hope to teach the class again at some point in the future with a tighter scope as this subject has always fascinated me immensely. Probably because I am not a writer of detective fiction but simply a fan of detective fiction.