The following curriculum unit circumscribes some potential roles for detective fiction in the classroom, teaching writing to high school students. But before we define what detective fiction is, some general remarks must be made. Because teaching writing also involves teaching how to read, and inevitably involves research and consideration of evidence in order to write cogent analytical responses, the teacher must press into service disparate walks of life, reaching for analogies and connections. A writing class asks not only for lessons about metaphor and simile, but demands demonstration of these figures as living tools and links to the living past and future. A writing class which weighs the interactions between myth and history, must trouble itself with the conventions of genres. The teacher trains students in a practical fashion, with an eye to composition as a craft. Within this there is also the aspiration, the edge with an eye to each draft's artfulness.
The question of what to read is a difficult one. One may simply need to demonstrate such devices as hyperbole and caricature, or else works of a particular genre. If I were to teach Raymond Chandler, it would be for the sake of relief, I suppose, as an interlude with an easy pleasure, useful for demonstrating various formulas. But would I imply that it is such good writing that it should take priority over a grave classic? Pulp fiction, a low-imitative expression of popular culture, composed of street slang and shop talk, patently sentimental about truth and justice, hackneyed and foreseeable, has made it to the classroom, I suspect, because teachers will try nearly anything to get students to read. Assuming one has not chosen F. Scott Fitzgerald or Nathaniel West to fill the slot (authors capable of higher irony and satire, less sullied by cliche), let us assume for the sake of this curriculum unit that Chandler may be taught. Students may unravel the detective's analogues, each student herself a detective, gazing at history or the news, all clues potential evidence, all sources needing verification. Students are able to think about the notion of rational inquiry, and its fundamental place in what we think we know for sure; as opposed to what we casually assume: the dross of hearsay and tangles of passive consensus. Good minds are made to find irony, with proper guidance, in the method of Socrates, and fantastic, mythical romance and its monsters in the Odyssey. So too should they find pleasure in the caricatures dabbed by Chandler, with his deadpan hyperbolic similes. All projects such as this launch the student into the realm of comparative literature, a realm composed of unsaturatable potential for discovery.
Discovery is the basic ingredient in any learning. Works of detective fiction, if paired with other works of high literature, have much to teach about the structures of discovery: the hide and seek of gradual revelation based on tests of one's valor, wit, and of course, ability to explain, by way of rational inquiry, the story of a question and its best answer. No wonder Robert B. Parker gives us Spenser: he calls attention to the romance of the Faerie Queene, the allegorical landscape, the moral snares and need for uncompromisable self-examination, clear intuition, and the hard work of research. By its very nature conventional, this genre relies heavily on recurrent elements, long identified. Though naïve and romantic commentators may find it spoils a simplistic notion of inspiration to say that formulas may be employed by a professional writer working in a highly conventional, ritual space, genuine laborers at the art of written expression will have little objection to the accusation that they employ formulaic devices, of plot, characterization, motif, rhythm, figurative language, metrical structure and so forth. The following sections, through considerations of history and poetry as well as prose fiction, situate detective fiction within a larger world. A larger world must be emphasized, not a compartmentalized, provincial perspective. Writing means reading, assessing, most of all questioning. Judgment follows on its heels, then an answer.
Often a teacher is asked by a student to answer a question seemingly unrelated to the lesson at hand, which, serendipitously, ends up opening a discussion quite relevant. A freshman, who happens to be a girl, and black, asked me if I knew that Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen, was black. I asked her where she had heard this and she replied that her grandparents had told her. This young girl holds her grandparents in very high esteem, actually thinks of them as nearly infallible. When I told her that Cleopatra was not black, was in fact a Macedonian, and offered texts to prove it, she refused to believe that her grandparents could be wrong, and even doubted whether the books were right. This phenomenon has been referred to as the "parental threshold," beyond which the child's mind fears to tread. Summarizing an argument of Hartley's, Routley states, "Compassion without justice becomes sentimentality, and sentimentality becomes cruelty: so compassion defeats itself if it is not subordinate to justice…" Many issues come into play when a student has learned the wrong information. No teacher wants to have to tell a student that her beloved grandparents are mistaken; compassion would have us break it to her gently. But the spirit of inquiry demands that we ask ourselves how and why a misconception came about. In this case, perhaps it was the noble search for role models from the ancient past, a search for great black women to look up to, mixed up with various popular misconceptions; or quite possibly it was a deliberate fabrication based upon a rueful combination of ideological ambition and historical ignorance; perhaps, even, simply wishful thinking. Did she mix her up with Nefertiti, whose illustrious bust appears in many texts? If the teacher is to teach well, teaching the students to use reason responsibly, he must stand for justice, where justice equals the preservation of the truth of matters as they really happened, as fully as may be demonstrated in fact. How else can something true overcome the suspicions derived from ignorance and ideology?
A responsible reader of history, under proper circumstances, may parallel the hero-detective who finally shouts "eureka" after he has looked so long beyond the effect to the causes of what he has encountered. He must let the truth be known, and in so doing he simultaneously makes a stand for the necessity of rational inquiry and clear, scientific reasoning, with eyes to revelation, and thereby, justice. By historical analogy, as a teacher who attempts to bring rational inquiry to devout students, it seems one must resemble the astronomer of the 17th century trying to persuade a Ptolemaic Christendom that the earth revolves around the sun. Many of the students, when pressed, reject any Darwinian hypotheses as somehow offensive to their dignity. If justice is a matter of discerning the truth by weighing rationally as much of the information as possible, then we have a duty to be critical of issues of belief as compounded of myth. There is no denying that the hummingbird and the flowers which use it for pollination show the intricacy of superior design. It is a matter of myth, ordained meaning and belief (irrational), to say that it is the handiwork of the divine. But faith and science are not enemies, as some would assume, nor in any way incompatible. One may believe it to be so, but a teacher has an obligation to explain it on as many levels as possible, to differentiate the mythical explanations from the scientific explanations. We should be clear about what results from methodical, rational inquiry, and what is a matter of belief.