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.