The following descriptions are meant to be samples of lessons that can be taught through the use of mystery fiction. The lessons will concentrate on three areas of fiction: plot, character and setting. While all the reading selections discussed previously in this paper contain all three elements, the lesson plans will take one selection and concentrate on one element at a time. The order used in this paper in no way implies the only sequence to be used. Indeed, a teacher using this outline should feel quite free to use whatever order (or for that matter, whatever reading selections), he/she feels comfortable with.
For this unit plot will be defined as consisting of four parts, exposition of the problem, rising action, climax and resolution. As previously stated in the unit, I have used this breakdown successfully when discussing short stories, and it is a method that allows young readers to get at the literal meaning of a story. Briefly, students first need to recognize the author’s method of revealing the problem. Does the author state the problem in several opening paragraphs of narrative, or does he start with the action immediately and let the problem emerge? If the problem is revealed in narrative, then the students next must recognize the action that grows out of the problem. What do the characters do to try to resolve the problem? What are the forces in the story that are against each other? As the action progresses, students must see the action building to a final showdown between the opposite sides. In our study of mystery fiction, the climax will come with the solution of the mystery. Finally, students must recognize what happens after the problem is solved. What has resulted from the resolution of the problem? The characters are forever locked in place, unlike real life where variables are ever present.
As an aid for students when they are working on plot recognition, I have used the following outline as an initial writing exercise:
Title and Author
: Here students must concentrate on those characters whose actions are primary to the resolution of the problem, and students should also be able to recognize one or two of the most important characters out of the principal characters.
: Students should concentrate on how the setting affects the action of the story. This is a study of plot, so a brief description of the setting is all that is necessary.
: This is the most important section since students will actually describe the story using the actions of the characters, and therein lies the plot in the stories being read. Students should use brief sentences to describe the important action in some sort of order, perhaps chronological. This part of the activity lends itself particularly well to small group discussion, and then, when the whole class is brought back together, a large group discussion where some ideas of important actions might be considered unimportant. A final list of sentences describing the action can then be produced.
: Here students will describe how the mystery was solved. When did the detective know who the guilty party was? When was that person confronted? There may indeed be more than one climax. In “This Won’t Kill You”, by Rex Stout, the first problem, where is Nick Ferrone, is solved rather quickly and leads to the next problem. The second problem is also solved (who drugged the drinks), but, of course, this leads the reader to the final climax, who killed Nick Ferrone.
: Students describe the states of the primary characters after the mystery is solved, and then the students discuss why the author chose the resolution he did. A follow-up writing exercise would have the students changing an element in the action, and thereby causing a different resolution to occur.
Ask students to tell what they think the term setting means and the immediate response is, the place the story happens. The teacher’s job in developing analytical reading skills is to take that germ of an idea and develop it into a fuller understanding of the term itself, and then to help students understand the significance of setting in fully comprehending an author’s intent. Each beginning discussion in a classroom on setting starts with place and time of a story. Then discussion must move to historical context, political context, social context or maybe psychological context. Each time a new set of conditions is discussed, students’ understanding of setting as an essential element of fiction is broadened and strengthened, and eventually students’ acuity in recognizing the importance of setting is honed. The teacher must first get over that initial hump of setting being merely where the story takes place. After that, students enjoy their newly acquired insight into fiction, and as a result enjoy the fiction more.
The setting in
The Glass Village
is an ominous and essential factor in fully enjoying and understanding the story. This importance is foreshadowed by the author immediately upon opening the book: a map of Shinn Corners is the first image the reader finds. The parochial look of the place is instantly apparent, and the closeness of the place is striking. The town is totally surrounded by woods and looks on the page like a completely isolated community. The physical nature is apparent, and as the students begin reading, the narrative bears out that first impression. The drive from Cudburry to Shinn Corners is an increasingly deeper trip away from what looks like normal civilization. The main character, Johnny Shinn, becomes more depressed as he nears Shinn Corners. The foreboding feeling about the place is that time stands still there, and nothing productive is going to happen in the decaying society. Early on in the narrative, another group of setting contextual clues is introduced. Judge Shinn talks about the social shortcomings of the Puritan thought of Shinn Corners residents, and how impossible this philosophy is in modern times. The Judge proves how firmly set Puritanism is in town with an anecdote about the one time the citizens allowed the outside community to intrude, and the disastrous results that occurred. A third group of setting context clues is introduced through the character of Johnny Shinn. He is an army officer who has recently returned from the Korean War, in which he was an intelligence officer, and he represents the outside world, its philosophies, societies and forward thinking. The ultimate use of setting is how the murder is solved. A painting by the victim, Fanny Adams, provides the final clue. Students, finally, will get a good sense of an author’s use of setting in mystery fiction from reading
The Glass Village
After reading and discussing the book, paying particular attention to setting as an essential factor, students will be better ready to write their own versions of settings. Initially a class brainstorming session for ideas for possible settings will encourage all students to participate in the early stages of writing. After ideas presented by the class are put on the chalkboard, students will select a setting that they feel comfortable and familiar with. The next step will involve discussion of what the audience is going to be for the written work. Since the focus is on mystery, writing about a setting should be intentionally mysterious, eerie or ominous. Perhaps a student’s choice will be a covered bridge that he or she has visited. In that case he/she should be encouraged to remember the dark corners and the shadows rather than the bright sunshine. Each student will be told to make a detail chart consisting of brief phrases listing who, what, when, where, and why to help him/her organize ideas. Topic sentences are next, and emphasis must be placed here to make certain that students set the tone early in the paragraphs. Using the detail charts students will then write good sentences for the details, decide on a logical order for their description, and write a first draft. After completing first drafts students will share them with small groups to help students clarify ideas. A final draft based on discussions with classmates and the teacher should produce some particularly mysterious paragraphs.
This unit has several purposes. One of them was to demonstrate a difference between formal detective fiction and hard-boiled detective fiction. Finding an example of the detective implies hard-drinking, hard-talking and easy women, topics not easily handled in a middle-school classroom. If the unit is used in high school, the problems cited become diminished as the age of the students increases.
A decision had to be made, and rather than search out a book of lesser literary value it was decided to excerpt portions of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novel. As stated earlier in this paper, the novel chosen is
. Ultimately, it would have to be left up to the individual teacher assessing his/her particular class to decide whether to read the entire book, or to select portions to read to students.
A second purpose of this unit is to help students better understand the use of character in fiction. Does the author tell the reader directly who the characters are, or does the reader learn about the characters through what each one does or says? Robert Parker uses both methods, of course, but the reader learns most about Spenser, Parker’s detective, through dialogue, action, and a narrative that lets the reader in on Spenser’s thought processes. In each novel, the reader gets a fuller understanding of who Spenser is, and what his strengths and shortcomings are: the picture drawn is in the classic tough guy tradition, a detective with a code by which to live his life, regardless, at times, of how society views him. Spenser is John Wayne, Shane, and every other hero who ever had to help someone in distress, someone who could not rely on traditional support services.
Attempting to excerpt a tightly written novel is perhaps presumptuous. The teacher must keep in mind what the purpose is at all times. Spenser’s character and the basic plot of the story must somehow be kept intact, while trying to avoid anything that might be offensive to younger readers. On pages 9-25 of
the reader meets Spenser and the motivating factor in the plot. These pages give glimpses into the self-assured detective that will be developed throughout the novel, as well as tell the reader why Spenser is on the case. When Spenser meets Marty and Linda Rabb, and the chief antagonist, Frank Doerr, (pp. 53-81) would be essential to understanding the plot. These pages also develop Spenser’s character. He begins to see holes in the Rabb’s story that begin to bother him, and we see him in action as tough guy detective, meeting tough guy gangster, Frank Doerr. The reader also begins to see the detective at work tracing leads and gathering evidence. On pages 101-115 Spenser follows leads to Chicago to investigate Linda Rabb’s background. Spenser’s subsequent visit to New York can be omitted due to his encounter with a colorful pimp named Violet, whose language might be too much for young readers. However, that section is rich in character development, which the teacher might want to discuss with the class. There is a scene where Spenser turns on his charm with a social services worker, and falls on his face revealing the more human side of our hero. Also, Spenser’s meeting Patricia Utley, a very high-class New York madam, is a wonderfully written section, but once again perhaps too mature for middle school. The conferences between Quirk, the Boston police officer, and Spenser (pp. 201-209), and Doerr and Spenser, (pp. 211-222) are important to the character development of Spenser.
In the first meeting the reader sees the detective dealing with society’s laws, and how carefully he remains parallel, but not directly in line with the police. Spenser stays within the law only if it doesn’t betray his code. The second meeting with Doerr, is a classic confrontation with the evil of the story. Once again Spenser appears to be almost a part of that aspect of society, particularly in his methods of coercion, but he never steps in line with the evil. The hard-boiled detective at his finest, straddling both worlds, equally comfortable or uncomfortable in both.
There are many sections of the novel that can be dealt with in a middle school classroom, and ultimate discretion must be left up to the teacher. There are several other sections that can be used, for example, the gun battle between Spenser and Doerr in the park, where Spenser takes the only action possible if he is to stay within his code. There is also the hard decision for Linda Rabb to make, and Parker writes the scene with dignity and humaneness. By listening to the above excerpts read to them, middle-schoolers will gain understanding of what the hard-boiled detective is. In classroom discussions of the Rex Stout, Ellery Queen and Robert Parker stories, the difference between the formal and hard-boiled detectives will become apparent. A writing assignment to look forward to is a contrast paper on the two forms of detective fiction. After discussion of the two types based on background presented in this paper earlier, students will be prepared to write about these two forms with greater understanding.
In addition to writing about the two types of detectives, students will write short pieces creating their own characters. Using narrative and dialogue, students will create their own detectives. Dialogue is something that middle-schoolers love to do, although their skill in it is many times questionable. Using mystery fiction as an impetus, an excellent opportunity to motivate the study of the mechanics of writing dialogue will be presented. As in other lessons above, oral presentation will be used to get classmates to assist each other in refining writing. Perhaps an interchange of dialogues between students presented in play form could be done, if the class discussion is led in that direction.