Teaching Crime Narratives: Historicizing Genre and the Politics of Form

  • Will Norman
Part of the Teaching the New English book series (TENEEN)


This chapter will examine the teaching of crime narratives in the context of an undergraduate module on American Crime Fiction. My purpose is to elucidate how the study of crime fiction can be a way of helping students understand the politics of narrative form. As such it traces the progression of the module from the reading of Poe’s detective stories through the narrative disruptions of mid-century hardboiled crime fiction to more contemporary noir fiction by authors such as Sara Paretsky and Attica Locke. I will discuss how students become accustomed to historicizing shifts in the ways crime narratives are constructed.

Todorov’s classic essay on ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’ serves as an accessible formalist introduction to the spectrum of crime narratives, distinguished by their various configurations of the relationship between fabula and sjuzhet. His essay helps students to begin asking narratological questions about their reading, but one of the objectives of the module is to encourage students to discover the limitations of Todorov’s ahistorical perspective. In discussing the transition from the classic ‘whodunit’ narrative structure to the disorientating and tangled narratives of Chandler and his successors, students find their own ways of recuperating some of the historical content of the form, which has been evacuated from purely Formalist analysis. Using Franco Moretti’s Marxist analysis of detective fiction as a corrective, we move into more sophisticated discussions of how readers undertake structural and functional analyses simultaneously, and thereby of how hardboiled and contemporary noir narratives represent entanglement with society and politics.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Will Norman
    • 1
  1. 1.University of KentCanterburyUK

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