Monday, August 31, 2020

The Lessons of Crime Fiction

Teaching about the Black Lives Matter movement offers many opportunities. Opening the classroom to conversations about racism, justice, activism, and healing allows a teacher to touch upon a multitude of lessons and helps create resolution and positive action. Perhaps surprisingly, crime fiction can play a part in these lessons.

Dr. Anjili Babbar and Dr. Myron T. Strong consider how crime fiction can be used to explore racism, its history and its current incarnation. 

Dr. Anjili Babbar

 Dr. Myron T. Strong

In June of this year, as protests erupted across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, our students were actively discussing Dashiell Hammett’s short story, “The Gutting of Couffignal,” in their online discussion board. This story follows the Continental Op as he tries to get to the bottom of a seeming riot on an elite island. He eventually discovers that the perpetrators are formerly wealthy Russians, forced to flee their country after the Communist Revolution, now living in destitution. “This really relates to the Black Lives Matter movement,” one student noted. “The Russians have been disenfranchised, and they’re voiceless. When people aren’t heard, they turn to methods that can’t be ignored. Like the protests that led to riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray. Martin Luther King said that ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’”

Was this Hammett’s intention in the story? It’s difficult to say. On one hand, Hammett had sympathy for the Communist movement, and the Op does not hesitate to use violence against the ringleaders of the Couffignal looting. On the other, Hammett’s inclusion of the Czarists’ motives suggests a willingness to consider responses to injustice—whether real or perceived—as ubiquitous, common to all people. In the classroom, the imperative point was that the story inspired the students to situate current socio-political events in a broader context.

Later in the semester, the same students read Sarah Paretsky’s “Skin Deep,” in which V.I. Warshawski maneuvers a discriminatory criminal justice system on behalf of her Black friend, who has been falsely accused of murder. Even with this premise, the students were disappointed by the main character. “She doesn’t see the forest for the trees,” one student asserted. “She tries to pressure her friend’s boss to help her by threatening to expose the undocumented immigrants working there.” Not only were the students broadening their context of specific social concerns; the approach had become second nature to the extent that they were criticizing a character for not doing the same.

The obstacles to approaching diverse perspectives in the classroom have long been the elephant in the room of undergraduate academia. The curriculum long offered little diversity in readings and assignments, instead focusing on canonical white, often male, writers. That has shifted in recent years, but approaches remain problematic. Some students report discomfort about white professors guiding students of color in discussing their lived experiences, and about a focus on oppression narratives, at the exclusion of other lived experiences of marginalized people. Following nation-wide responses to the murder of George Floyd, academic departments across the country have scrambled to find better ways to promote “own voices” narratives and to address systemic racism and corruption – yet professors of crime fiction have been tackling these topics for decades, even as their focus has sometimes been dismissed as “genre fiction,” rather than “real” literature.

The use of crime fiction to explore diverse perspectives and systemic social challenges overcomes many problematics. Rather than being spoon-fed interpretations that might seem restrictive or alienating, students can apply critical thinking skills to analyze issues of justice invoked by crime fiction narratives and draw their own conclusions. Likewise, these narratives naturally encourage students to recognize specific social issues as part of a broader socio-historical framework, and thus to approach justice-related concerns outside of the contemporary biases of political discourse. This, in turn, helps them to develop empathy for disparate perspectives – an empathy which is underscored by the inclusion of marginalized characters who are individuals with agency in the pursuit of justice.

In our classes, students discuss gender-socialized power dynamics (Nikki Dolson); they discuss “othering” and its relationship to criminal justice (Peter Robinson, Agatha Christie); they discuss police discrimination and reform (Adrian McKinty); they discuss immigration (Angie Kim), classism (Colin Dexter), racism (Walter Mosley), and the politics of war (Anthony Horowitz). By examining these topics outside of the contemporary, location-specific contexts to which they are habituated, students can approach them on their own terms, at least partially unconstrained by the politically-charged discourse that surrounds them on social media. In turn, they are able to build the tools to return to these specific, contemporary issues with the wisdom, logic, and critical thinking supplied by a broader context. 


Dr. Anjili Babbar is a writer, scholar, and professor of crime fiction, British and Irish literature, and folklore, and president of the Dashiell Hammett Society. Upcoming publications include Finders: Justice, Faith, and Identity in Irish Crime Fiction (Syracuse University Press) and “‘This Isn’t F*cking Miss Marple, Mate’: Intertextuality in Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy Series” (in Guilt Rules All: Mysteries, Detectives, and Crime in Irish Fiction, edited by Elizabeth Mannion and Brian Cliff, Syracuse University Press).

Dr. Myron T. Strong is an award-winning sociologist and writer, whose areas of expertise include the sociology of race, gender, Afro-futurism, and comics. He is Academic Outreach Coordinator for the Dashiell Hammett Society, Executive Council Member for the Eastern Sociological Society, and Co-Chair for the Committee on Community Colleges of the American Sociological Association. Recent publications include the co-authored textbook, Sociology in Stories: A Creative Introduction to a Fascinating Perspective (Kendall Hunt).

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