Detective Stories Special: Sherlock Holmes, Meet Richard MacAndrew, Book Lists

To celebrate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday on May 22nd we have a Detective Special with:

  1. A focus on Sherlock Holmes and Classical Detective Stories
  2. An interview with Richard MacAndrew, the author of Dan and the Missing Dogs.
  3. Detective and Crime Book Lists and TV Series Recommendations

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1 Sherlock Holmes and Classical Detective Stories

Who is your favourite fictional detective? Sherlock Holmes? Auguste Dupin? Adèle Blanc-Sec? Hercule Poirot? Miss Marple? Philip Marlowe? Inspector Morse? Here at Helbling Readers Blog our vote is with Sherlock, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC TV series.

In recent years detective stories have become increasingly popular and ‘there has been a steady flow of excellent crime and detective novels for all ages’ (Eccleshare). However, there has always been an excellent choice of detective stories since Edgar Allan Poe brought the genre to a wide public at the beginning of the 1840s with his Auguste Dupin stories.  Then in 1887 the now legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes,  was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Successful detective stories are like playful puzzles, and secretly we probably all want to solve the crime before the detective.  These stories work perfectly in an educational environment, and Sherlock Holmes can be an excellent role model for our students.

Bényei points out that the thrill in detective stories is the brilliance of the detective’s brainwork, his genius, his philosophical and scientific thinking. ‘Sherlock Holmes is an excellent example of the detective who often amazes us with his analytical skills, but he always utilizes the tools of science, being a scientist himself.’ There are three important features of the language of classical detective stories: logical reasoning, scientific investigation and psychoanalysis. (Bényei 2000, 200-201)

Although it might be hard to define why detective stories are so popular, here are a few benefits of reading them:

1 Detective stories call for active participation from the reader, making the text a ‘writerly’ text (Barthes), which draws in the reader.

2 Detective stories focus on critical thinking, and improve our analytical and observational skills.

  • Here’s an article with classroom activities on detective stories and critical thinking.

3 Detective stories provide a great base for a cross-curricular approach. They call for scientific thinking and they are packed with cultural references.

  • Read about this high school course about ‘Detective Fiction’, a project set up by Timothy S. Greer, English and Fine Arts instructor at the Memphis University School in Memphis, TN. (‘Among his many objectives for the course are analyzing literary devices and concepts, fostering critical thinking and formal reasoning skills, examining recurring themes in detective fiction, examining the role of popular literature as a means of mass communication, and recognizing the cultural phenomenon of art imitating life and vice versa as the detective fiction genre mirrors the development of early modern criminology. Laboratory exercises include the analysis of handwriting and forgery, bite marks, gunshot residue, and the use of dogs for tracking.’)

Classroom Ideas:

  • Have fun with this quiz in the classroom: Are you Sherlock Holmes or Dr Watson?
  • Discussion idea: Talk about the qualities of a good detective. Some detectives are eccentric, some are ordinary people. What skills do good detectives need to have?
  • Do lateral thinking puzzles. You can practise question forms and passive voice with them.

For more about critical thinking, read our blog post: Help your students become critical readers – Critical thinking and reading in the ELT classroom.

Meet Richard MacAndrew, the author of Dan and the Missing Dogs.

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Some students might find the classic Sherlock Holmes stories too distant at the beginning of their reading experience. Contemporary stories with a teen focus can bring the genre closer to them, and reading original stories is a brilliannt way into the world of detectives.

Dan and the Missing Dogs is the first in our new series for teenagers. (Red Series, Level 2, Cambridge Level KET, Trinity 2,3). Dan Parks is a young boy with a dog called Dylan. When he hears about dogs going missing in his town, he begins to investigate the mystery.

We chatted to Richard about writing detective stories.

Question: What was the first crime story you read and who was your favourite detective as a teenager?

Richard MacAndrew: To be honest, I can’t remember the first crime story I read, but it was possibly a Sherlock Holmes story. I certainly read all the Sherlock Holmes stories as a teenager. In fact, I read them all again fairly recently. They are classics of the genre.

My favourite detective was, and probably still is, Nero Wolfe, the creation of American writer, Rex Stout. Nero Wolfe lived in New York, was enormously fat, kept orchids as a hobby and never left his house on business. His assistant, Archie Goodwin, did all the legwork, while Wolfe sat in his office, interviewed the suspects and solved the crimes.

Question: Do you remember the first detective story you wrote?

Richard MacAndrew: It was a cowboy detective story, called Murder at Eagle Hill. My wife and I were teaching in secondary schools in Malaysia in the early 1980s and there were very few reading materials available at the right level, so we wrote this story to use with our classes. We also got a group of friends together and made a recording of it, complete with sound effects: for example, using coconut shells to make the sound of horse’s hooves! It was great fun to write and to record, and the children loved it.

Question: Where did the idea of Dan and the Missing Dogs come from?

Richard MacAndrew: When I started writing this story, my wife and I had just moved from a large town to a small village out in the countryside. I thought somewhere like that would be a good setting for the story. I try to set stories in places I know. It makes it easier to visualize what’s happening.

At the time we had a lovely, intelligent, very inquisitive dog (now, sadly, in the great kennel in the sky) and there are a lot of dogs in the village. Youngsters often love their pets dearly so I naturally thought of having some dogs in the story. And when I found out how much some dogs actually cost in the UK, dognapping seemed like a suitable crime for this story.

Question: How did you create Dan’s character?

Richard MacAndrew: I’m never quite sure how characters are created. Mostly I feel they are just ‘there’ in some way and they channel themselves onto the page through me. I create the situation and then ‘watch’ what they do. I knew Dan was young, intelligent, had lots of initiative, but I also knew he was a bit impulsive and likely to get himself into trouble from time to time.

Question: Do you think that certain places serve as better setting for detective stories?

Richard MacAndrew: I think detective stories can be set just about anywhere so long as the writer has a sense of the place and of how the setting might contribute to the story. Even places which seem light, pleasant, airy and benign can contain undercurrents of criminality and evil.

Question: Which cities do you think would make great setting for new stories?

Richard MacAndrew: As you know, Dan’s friend, Sue, is half-Chinese. Her mother is from Hong Kong. I am hoping that in another story Sue might take Dan on holiday with her when she goes to see her grandparents in Hong Kong, and they might have an adventure together there. The village of Steeple Compton, where Dan and Sue live, is not far from Oxford which would be another likely place for an adventure. Parts of Oxford are also very beautiful so a story set there could have some lovely illustrations.

Question: Do you think we can help our students think like a detective? Which skills should we try to develop?

Richard MacAndrew: Detective work is all about research and observation, and then working out what the pattern is to build a complete picture of events. We can encourage students to research language (in grammars and dictionaries), to observe language (in reading and listening texts) and to work out how the patterns fit together when they speak and write for themselves.

Thank you for the interview!

3 BOOK LISTS AND TV SERIES

If you’re looking for detective stories for teens, here’s one on the Book Trust website.

In the Helbling Readers Catalogue you’ll find original stories, graphic stories and classic fiction.

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More book lists:

TV Series for Young Adults and Adults (mostly for you to binge-watch):

References:

Bényei, T. Rejtélyes rend. A krimi, a metafizika és a posztmodern. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2000. Print.

Clayton, V. (1995). ” Detective Fiction: Focus on Critical Thinking.” Curriculum Unit 95.01.01. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Retrived Retrieved May 22, 2014 from http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1995/1/95.01.01.x.html.

Eccleshare, J. (2014, January 6). “Beyond Sherlock: are there any good detective novels for teens?” The Guardian. Retrieved May 22, 2014 from http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site.

Finnerty, P. (2010). “Why do we read detective stories?” Innervate, Vol. 2, 80-86. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/english/documents/innervate.

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