Learning History by Reading Mystery (55+)

Since the days of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Inspector Alleyn, mysteries have gained popularity while continuing to evolve. According to journalist-turned-crime-writer Val McDermid, it was the work of Scottish author Josephine Tey that “acted as a bridge between the classic detective stories of the golden age and contemporary crime fiction,” cracking open “a series of doors for others to walk through.”

Today’s mystery writers combine authentic research and vivid imagination to educate us by plunging us into other times and places. Our readings, provided in a course pack, will include work by Abir Mukherjee (India), Ovidia Yu (Singapore), Iona Whishaw (B.C.), Colin Cotterill (Laos), Adrian McKinty (Northern Ireland), Peter May (Scotland), and Qiu Xiaolong (Shanghai).

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

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Describe the historical settings of the various mystery novels covered
  • Discuss how fictional portrayals and real history are combined in the novels
  • Use literary terminology to discuss important elements of these historical mysteries
  • Outline different possible thematic interpretations of the texts

Learning methods

You will learn through a combination of in-class discussion, small group work and readings. For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: The appeal of mysteries endures as the genre evolves to portray significant history

We will briefly review the mystery sub-genres, before turning to examples that can teach us about history. In 1951, the popular mystery genre grew more capacious with the publication of The Daughter of Time. Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant shattered the standard policeman’s character mould, and her book tackled such large themes as the effects of propaganda and the ultimate unknowability of history. In 2012 Peter May’s mystery novel The Blackhouse featured a secretive all-male hunting ritual from the Isle of Lewis that dates back half a millennium.

Week 2: Northern Ireland during the Troubles and Laos under Communism

In The Cold Cold Ground, Adrian McKinty takes readers into a police station near Belfast in 1981. It’s the height of the Troubles, just after the funeral of hunger striker Bobby Sands. Through the eyes of fictional detective Sean Duffy, we see how the entrenched sectarian violence hampers his murder investigation. Meanwhile “across the water,” Mrs. Thatcher refuses “to negotiate with terrorists” while Prince Charles and Diana prepare for their wedding.

From an excerpt of Six and a Half Deadly Sins, we get a sense of life in 1970s Laos, surrounded by communist ideology. Novelist Colin Cotterill uses a lightly ironic tone to express the thoughts of Dr. Siri Paiboun, “the twice-retired ex-National Coroner of Laos.” 

Week 3: From Belfast and Vientiane to 1921 Calcutta under the Raj

We’ll observe how McKinty and Cotterill have portrayed the ordinary lives of responsible officials in Belfast and Vientiane handle the pressures placed on them by their respective political climates. We’ll then take a look at the work of a Scottish author with Bengali roots. Abir Mukherjee has set himself the task of using a series of mystery novels to reveal some actual history of Raj era India from 1920 to Independence. To this end, he has paired Sam Wyndham, a veteran of WWI, with “Surrender-not” Bannerjee. As Gandhi begins his campaign of non-violent non-cooperation against British rule, the two fictional policemen work together to uncover all sorts of crime and political skulduggery. 

Week 4: 1930s Singapore through the eyes of a young Chinese woman with a penchant for detective work

Mission school educated Su Lin isn’t officially a detective. In spite of her limp, caused by a bout of polio, she’s managed to persuade her conservative grandmother and uncle to allow her to assist in the “police hut.” There she’s able to use her considerable powers of observation and deduction, and to ferret out information Inspector LeFroy can’t get at. Uniquely positioned between opposing cultures, Ovidia Yu’s narrator expresses her perspective on world events, including the abdication of the British king.

Week 5: Australian farmers in a remote location deal with drought, and small-town post-war British Columbians cope with spies, secrecy and post-war emotional trauma

Melbourne police officer Adrian Falk wants nothing more than to escape his past. A begrudging visit to his home town for the funeral of an old friend exposes him to the emotional and physical effects of a two-year drought, chillingly shown by author Jane Harper. Meanwhile, in 1946 in a small town in the BC interior, former spy Lane Winslow also wants to forget the past and start a new life. When an emergency obliges her to translate for Russian speakers in her community, it gets a lot harder to keep a lid on the secret of her war service. Iona Whishaw’s fiction takes us into the heart of post-war small-town Canada, harmonious on the surface but divided beneath. 

Week 6: Themes and Motifs; further reading

After a last look at the work of Iona Whishaw, we will discuss and share what we’ve learned in class. Today a growing body of mystery novels waits to take readers into past times and remote places. Throughout the course, students are encouraged to contribute authors and titles to a list begun by the instructor, so on this final day, you will receive a reading list of other well-researched historical mysteries. 

Books, materials and resources

There is required reading for this course.

Reading material will be provided in a course pack on the first day of class. Some material may be online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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