This is a course for any wanting to deepen their appreciation of – and perhaps even write – crime fiction. The main historical phases of the genre will be looked at, from mid-19th Century origins to the ‘Golden Age’ and American ‘hard-boiled’, to post-war spy thrillers and novels of psychological suspense. The course will examine not only the effects achieved by the authors, but also how these effects are achieved, in terms of plotting, atmosphere, characterisation and dialogue. A not-too taxing reading list will be set, including works by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Len Deighton, Patricia Highsmith and Gillian Flynn. (‘And please note that it is not absolutely obligatory to read any book.’)

Tutor:     Andrew Martin 

Time:      Fridays 10.30 – 12.30pm

Term: May 12 – Jun 30 (half term June 2)

Venue:    Gosling Room

Fee: HLSI Members £65 (non-members £82)

Summer term 2017

Course tutor: Andrew Martin

This course is for those who would like to deepen their appreciation of, and perhaps even write, crime fiction. The history of the genre will be surveyed, and insights will be offered into the mechanics of the writing: the creation of plot; of character and dialogue; manipulation of point of view; evocation of atmosphere. Each week, many books will be mentioned in passing, but two will be discussed in some detail, and these are numbered 1 and 2 below. If students only have time to read one book, then it should be number 1.

Week One: Origins

A brief overview of crime fiction will be given. The question will be asked: why do we read it? And should we be slightly embarrassed about doing so? The mid-Nineteenth Century origins of the genre will be looked at, in relation to growing literacy, urbanisation, the rise of the railways, and the foundation of the detective branch of the Metropolitan Police. The first crime novel is usually said to be The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, and it has often been called the greatest crime novel. We will look in particular at the book’s epistolary form, and compare this to Arthur Conan Doyle’s use of the first person in another early landmark of crime fiction, the Sherlock Holmes stores. The emergence in these stories of devices including locked room puzzles, the detective’s ‘idiot friend’, and ‘the least likely suspect’ will be examined.


1. The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.

2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Week Two: The Golden Age.

This term denotes the highly stylised crime fiction of the inter-war period. It is sometimes called ‘cosy’, and this is the world of the Cluedo Board, with middle or upper class characters coming to grief in comfortable settings. The emphasis is on the puzzle, and its resolution by a God-like detective. The historical circumstances that gave rise to this template will be considered. Most of the Golden Age practitioners were women: Agatha Christie; Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham; Ngaio Marsh; Josephine Tey. The focus will be on ‘the Queen of Crime’, Agatha Christie, and the question will be put: was she actually a good writer? The Maigret novels of George Simenon will also be looked at here.


1. The Murder on the Links, by Agatha Christie.

2. The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers.

Week Three: The Golden Age in America.

This is associated with the emergence of the ‘hard-boiled’ style, especially in the hands of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The two will be compared and contrasted. In particular, Chandler’s use of the first person will be compared with Hammett’s use of ‘the close third person’, whereby the reader does not know what the protagonist is thinking at any point. Hammett is considered ‘tougher’ than Chandler, but is this necessarily a virtue? Some of the heirs of the ‘hard-boiled’ tradition, including Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy will be considered. The more soft-boiled American Golden Age books of Ellery Queen will also be mentioned here.


1. The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett.

2. The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler.

Week Four: Post-war Spy Thrillers.

These emerged in the paranoid climate of the cold war, raising the possibility of ‘doubling’ (an agent working covertly for the opposite side). The growth of consumer society, the permissive society, and the increasing importance of technology, were also contributory factors, especially to the Bond novels. The question will be put: what is the difference between a thriller and a crime novel? The influence of John Buchan will be considered, as will the recent spy novels of Mick Herron, who has been called a latterday Deighton.


1. The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton.

2. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carre.

Week Five: Psychological Crime Fiction.

In these books, which arose in reaction to the artificiality of Golden Age fictions, character is more important than the puzzle. The question is less ‘Whodunit?’ than why or how the crime was committed. Sometimes, as in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, the villain is also the hero. But how can a murderer be made sympathetic? The ‘Grip Lit’ genre of novels about distressed young women (often referred to in the titles as a ‘Girl’) will be considered here.


1. The Talented Mr Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith.

2. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.

Week Six: Historical Crime Fiction.

This genre had a vogue beginning with the publication of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco…but why set a crime novel in the past? One danger is that of imposing a modern attitude towards crime on a society that held different views. The difficulty of setting a ‘detective’ novel in Britain before the formation of the police will be considered. One advantage of a historical setting is that it offers a more atmospheric world – of candles, real fires, stars and silence. The course tutor apologises for including his own novel on the reading list, but the book concerned did win the Crime Writer’s Association Ellis Peters Award for Historical Crime Fiction in the year it appeared.


1. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco.

2. The Somme Stations, by Andrew Martin.

Week Seven: Some Big Sellers of Today

In this final week, the question will be asked: what makes a crime novel commercially successful? The question of marketing and author image will be touched on, as well as literary considerations. In relation to Ian Rankin, something will be said about the ‘police procedural’ format beloved of TV. Participants will be invited to discuss some of their own favourites, whether best-selling or obscure, and the future of crime fiction will be considered.


1. Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin.

2. Make Me, by Lee Child.