Contemporary Issues in Mystery and Detective Fiction (55+)

Contemporary fictional detectives face dilemmas that reflect real challenges for today’s police forces: migrating populations clash with racist attitudes; closed doors hide inaccessible family violence; ubiquitous sales of dangerous drugs are on the rise; mistrust of cops and governments continues; and criminal use of technology creates moral quandaries.

Among other issues, we will explore whether or not Venetian Commissario Guido Brunetti can justify allowing Signorina Elettra to deploy her formidable computer skills to hack systems in pursuit of evidence. In Edinburgh, we’ll ask how DI Siobhan Clarke can cope when irresponsible internet trolls and hack journalists hamper her investigations. And we’ll see how even hard-boiled Californian private eye Kinsey Millhone broods on damage resulting from misuse of precious water resources.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week 1: Introduction: Common concerns of geographically separated mystery writers

Fiction thrives on conflict, and contemporary mystery writers give their stories urgency and relevance by portraying many current social conflicts and challenges. We’ll consider some critical issues affecting societies in our era, then examine and discuss some brief novel excerpts. We will also watch some short video clips featuring our authors.

So you are prepared for next week’s discussion, please read the excerpt from Dragon Bones, by Lisa See as well as the novel Through a Glass, Darkly.

Week 2: Do money and power trump environmental responsibility?

In China, the Three Gorges Dam represents pride and profit as well as sorely-needed electrical power. Yet its construction involves massive displacement of people and destruction of landscapes and historic artifacts. Unsurprisingly, money and power prove corrupt influences.

Across the world, destruction is happening on a smaller scale among Murano glassmakers, who dump dangerous toxins in order to keep their businesses profitable.

Week 3: Through a Glass, Darkly: Should the police bend rules for the greater good?

In Through a Glass, Darkly, Donna Leon portrays violent consequences arising from the illegal dumping in Murano. The reader witnesses the corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency that plague the Venetian Questura. Signorina Elettra resorts to routine flattery and lies to cope with her vain, ambitious, lazy boss. Meanwhile, Commissario Guido Brunetti continues to close his eyes to her habit of using her computer to secretly mine information that helps with his cases.

Week 4: The Skeleton Road: Ethnic conflict and academic ambition

Academic ambition is rife in the closed world of privilege enjoyed by Oxford professor Maggie Blake, a historian who spent time in war-torn Dubrovnik when the Serbs attacked this Croatian city. With her Balkan lover, she made a point of living for the moment, while preparing to use her experience of the siege to launch an academic career. In the aftermath of the conflict, she continues to use both Oxford and international contacts to maintain her ego and position.

Week 5: The Skeleton Road: Blind pride and ego can infect the ambitious with a sense of entitlement beyond reason or redemption

The past overshadows and often haunts the present. While the war and its aftermath have raised the ambitious Maggie Blake and Tessa Minogue to dizzy heights in their social dominance hierarchies, the long-term costs cannot remain forever unpaid. When Detective Pirie confronts the two privileged women, Maggie and Tessa are forced to face the fact that their friendship is rotten beneath the surface, and readjust their ideas of themselves accordingly. The reader is left to contemplate the meaning of justice and who it serves.

Please read the Alexander McCall Smith excerpt for the final class.

Week 6: Past, present and future: Themes and motifs

Money talks and art is appreciated for its dollar value. Lawyers cut costs for insurance companies by negotiating ransom settlements with art thieves. Police face issues of trust among their colleagues, even as journalists cast them in a poor light to create sensational stories. Society is ill-equipped to stop pollution or influence decisions about mega-projects. Duelling bureaucracies struggle against one another for power. Using focus questions, we will discuss the thematic impact of the works we’ve studied and share what we’ve learned.

How will I learn?

  • Discussions
  • Small group work
  • Readings
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

The following books are required for this course. You may purchase any version from the SFU Bookstore or at your local or online bookstore.

  • Donna Leon, Through a Glass, Darkly
  • Val McDermid, The Skeleton Road

Excerpts from additional books will be distributed in class. Students need to read these for classes as assigned, and come to class prepared to discuss them.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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