Jane K. Marshall
Most teachers are dismayed when they first realize how rarely students read solely for pleasure. Many student deficits in writing, thinking. and reading skills have been attributed to student alienation with regard to the written word. Teachers have cause to view nostalgically a time when students were able to get “lost” in a book, for such an involvement fostered high reading scores. individualism, and an ability to sort through ideas. The main purpose of “Good-bye Magnum PI” will be to encourage, cajole, or seduce, if need be, students into the individualized world of reading.
TV has long been labeled the scourge of the classroom. Many of today’s students are so used to being “tuned-in” and/or entertained passively, they expect, or wish, to be met each day by a glib entertainer rather than a teacher. This, of course, upsets many of us. More upsetting is the realization that students have somehow been denied thoughtful or thought-provoking entertainment. TV detective series are fun when one needs to “tune-out” or escape. They should be regarded as insidious when the viewer fails to realize anything else exists. Needless to say, I am tired of hearing of the plastic heroes and watered-down plots which are fed to my students, much as nourishment is given to comatose patients.
TV programs such as “Magnum PI” are popular, I believe, because they are of a serial nature. The viewer becomes intrigued by an appealing character, and looks forward to renewing the acquaintance week after week. It’s fun to watch the hero time and again outwit those who make life unpalatable, dangerous, and evil. We wish we could do the same. My point is that it’s more fun to do this when one has a choice of the entree. Reading allows choices of when one wants to renew acquaintance, with whom, and in what setting. Thus reading should be equated with freedom.
This unit will introduce students to various detective heroes. Initially the class will have common readings to accomplish this goal. Following this introduction, students will choose a particular series hero with whom they wish to become familiar. They will be expected to read three or four novels featuring this hero. I believe such an approach will provide students with a comfortable experience with reading, and perhaps foster the notion that reading can be a recreation.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes would probably be an appropriate character to introduce to students initially. Most students are familiar with this character via Saturday afternoon TV fare, and an introductory discussion concerning the idiosyncrasies of Holmes undoubtedly would set the scene for a comfortable reading experience. Recordings are available for both “The Speckled Band” and “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”; often these “read-along” recordings help to create a mood of excitement and/or suspense, for they feature mood music, sound effects, and other grabbers. (Sound effects are occasionally corny, and yet I have sat in front of a class gearing up for the first howl of laughter, only to be amazed by the total concentration with the text of my students.)
Sherlock Holmes also provides students with a model of at least one type of detective (the scientific, intellectual, arm-chair type) who would become the precursor to such notables as Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, et al. At some point students will be asked to compare and contrast Holmes, Poirot, and Wolfe; I believe students will be able to discern patterns of personality which exist among these characters, and thereby come to a sense of the development of the genre.
Many students are daunted by literature assuming, I guess, that books are written by supermen whose life experiences are totally alien to their own. The idea that writing might in some sense be considered a craft never occurs to them. I believe that a study of the genre will ultimately serve as an encouragement for students to write. Following reading. discussion, and the study of various authors and their heroes, students will be required to write a mystery of their own.
This assignment will not produce future Christies, Stouts, et al. One hopes it will encourage creativity and promote a better understanding of literature. It might be maintained that students understand well only that with which they have been creatively involved. Requiring that students attempt to emulate the genre will necessarily encourage their engagement in a more rigorous appraisal of the art form. Studying is prerequisite to imitation. And, in a sense, “Imitation is the best form of flattery.”—even when it’s forced.
Students should be introduced to a fairly large number of detectives of literature: male and female, young and old, foreign and American, hard-boiled and intellectual. These might include: Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Travis McGee etc. While it can be maintained that readers are drawn into the mystery genre because of the intrigue of the puzzle, the full-blown habit which I am trying to instill in my students is, I believe, born of a fascination with character. Here, then, is where we shall begin with my realizing that the choices must be large and varied enough to hook all.
The wide scope of readings, in addition, will allow many and varied discussions on a variety of topics such as setting in the detective novel (How important is it? What can we as readers learn about various times and places?), character in the detective novel (What is the role of the stereotyped character?—the individualized character?), and theme in the detective novel (What statements is an author able to make about human nature, environmental pressures, or cultural trends?).
Needless to say, the scope of this unit seems broad. Yet perhaps it should be. Various angles, activities, and directions may provide a loose enough framework to make some sort of impact on all students.