Investigating Genre: The Case of the Classic Detective Story
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The mystery genre is in some ways the most stable and recognizable of the genres of fiction, but its popularity has lead to updating, altering, and critiquing its conventions. In this lesson, students examine a somewhat controversial list of conventions for the mystery genre before analyzing The Hound of the Baskervilles for these traits. They then write an original mystery and, after peer feedback, compose a reflective essay that explains their choices within and against the genre conventions.
This lesson was adapted from The Hound of the Baskervilles Teacher's Guide, written by Katherine Shulten and published by WGBH Educational Foundation, (c)2003. A Sherlock Holmes series, set in modern-day London, is available through PBS's MASTERPIECE. Go here for more information.
|Mystery Cube: This student interactive is used to help students plan and write a mystery.
From Theory to Practice
"Because genres are responses to social situations (and situations are always changing)," Deborah Dean asserts in Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being, "genres cannot be fixed" (10). In this lesson, students interact with a genre that is so predictable as to become formulaic: the classic detective story. Although "a certain amount of stability is essential for genres to carry out action," students can be encouraged experiment with and push the boundaries of a familiar genre since different examples of a genre "are never exactly the same since no two situations are exactly the same" (10).
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or another traditional mystery/detective story of your choice, in print, audio, or video form
This site provides some background on Ronald Knox and lists the “commandments” he
made for the genre of detective fiction.
This guide provides ideas and resources related to the mystery genre, Sherlock Holmes,
and the reading and viewing The Hound of the Baskervilles, which originally aired on
PBS's Masterpiece in 2003.
Containing a biography, fimography, and section dedicated to the character of Sherlock Holmes, this site offers a wealth of resources related to Doyle and his works.
- Consider the degree to which your students are already familiar with the rhetorical concept of genre. This lesson assumes students have a basic grasp of genre; if you feel students need additional support or clarification, consider providing information or instruction adapted from the ReadWriteThink resources What is a Genre?, Genre List, Genre Study: A Collaborative Approach, and from the Guide to the Study of Literature.
- Have students view, listen to, or read The Hound of the Baskervilles or another Sherlock Holmes story or traditional mystery. Consider using ReadWriteThink resources such as Recording Readers Theatre: Developing Comprehension and Fluency With Audio Texts, Everyone Loves a Mystery, or the Joan Lowry Nixon calendar entry to facilitate student response to and comprehension of the mystery.
- explore the concept of genre and generate a list of conventions for a given genre.
- critique a list of genre conventions to reveal the social norms behind them.
- generate a list of genre conventions with awareness of the social norms that inform them.
- compose a text that responds to a list of genre conventions.
- reflect on their text and the ways in which it adheres to and deviates from genre conventions for effect.
- After reading, viewing, or listening to a mystery such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, ask students to write down all the ways they knew the story was a mystery.
- Have students share some of the features or characteristics they listed. Record the examples on the board, a projector, or a piece of chart paper.
- Review with students the concept of genre, making sure that that students have an acceptable grasp—both in terms of its rigidity (guidelines that examples within a genre tend to follow or characteristics that they tend to share) and flexibility (rarely does an example follow all guidelines).
- Share with students some background on the subgenre of traditional detective fiction, the genre they have been describing, and the essay "The Mystery Genre" which is part of the Masterpiece Teacher's guide before projecting the “Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction” from Ronald Knox, a British mystery writer active in the 1920s.
- Read over the commandments with students, clarifying any unfamiliar words or concepts. Ask them to share their responses regarding the validity or applicability of Knox’s rules. Students will inevitably, and rightly, be surprised and offended at the fifth commandment. Use his racist comment to begin a conversation about genre as a construction of a certain period and set of beliefs, not something that is rigid and unchangeable.
- Elicit from students ways in which The Hound of the Baskervilles follows and does not follow the guidelines Knox suggested, reinforcing the understanding that genre conventions are not completely rigid.
- Then, using Knox’s Genre Commandments as an example, work with students to generate an updated list of rules for a “traditional mystery” that suits the realities of the present day. For example, students might think about ways technology and social networking should and should not be allowed to function in a mystery.
- Record students’ ideas on the board, a projector, or a piece of chart paper. Ask students to think about this list—including anything they would want to change or add—for the next session.
- Begin the session by reviewing the list of genre conventions for a contemporary mystery that the class generated in the previous session. Ask if students have any additional ideas they want to share.
- Facilitate a vote to select ten genre conventions that will be the focus for the
creative writing portion of the lesson.
- Have students copy down the ten agreed-upon conventions so they can refer to them as they work. Assure students that they do not need to agree with every characteristic, since the notion of genre is flexible and they will have the opportunity to bend and play with characteristics in their own original writing.
- Share with students that they will be getting the opportunity to write their own mystery, using the conventions as a guide.
- If you wish, provide students with the list of Genre-Defining Sentences from a recent film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles that they can use as story starters or incorporate throughout their story.
- Challenge students to be aware of when they are purposefully using a genre convention (from the list of conventions the class generated, Traditional Detective Fiction “Commandments”, or the Genre-Defining Sentences handout) to make their story function as a mystery—or when they are breaking, altering, or bending a convention to make their story fresh and new.
- Consider letting students use the Mystery Cube or provide the Mystery Cube planning sheet to help students as they plan and write their mystery.
- Determine with students a date for a future session when students will share their mysteries with a small group of peers. On the determined date, students should bring three copies of their completed mystery.
- After students have had time to write their mysteries, select—or have students select—groups of three for sharing their writing.
- Distribute the Original Mystery Peer Feedback Guide and explain to students that they will use this handout to record some comments that they will eventually share with their peers. Each student will give copies of his or her mystery to the others in the group. The author will read his or her mystery as peers follow along, stopping occasionally to record comments they wish to offer.
- After all three group members have read, students should take turns offering their comments. They should use the space a the bottom of the guide to record ideas they have for their own writing now that they have listened to and commented on two other mysteries.
- Ask students to make any revisions or additions they feel are appropriate based on the comments from their peers.
- Have students write a reflective piece that highlights the intentions behind their mystery’s adherence to and deviation from the expectations for the genre.
- After students write and share their updated mysteries, have students view the newest interpretation of Sherlock Holmes set in modern London and utilizing tools such as the Internet and cell phones (PBS Masterpiece, fall 2010).
- After investigating the subgenre of classic detective fiction, allow students to choose another subgenre within mystery—or another genre entirely—to explore.
- Students can record their mysteries, add music and sound effects, and publish them as podcasts on a school website.
- Investigate the iconic character of Sherlock Holmes, as well as the mystery genre, in this excerpt from MASTERPIECE’s 2002 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. As students are introduced to Holmes, they use their own analytical skills to understand the methods and characteristics of the famous detective, the history of the mystery genre, and why Sherlock Holmes, in particular, has continued to fascinate and engage audiences.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Focusing more on students’ reflective writing that the mystery itself, look for evidence of students’ blind adherence to genre standards or capricious or ineffective deviation from them and provide appropriate corrective feedback on their drafts. Also look for evidence of thoughtful use of the conventions to make the story identifiable as and function as a mystery and justifiable deviations that enhance the effectiveness of their story.