Writing Assignment: Reading as a Detective

Background: After an introduction to literature, poetry, and the evolving genre of romance, we began following the development of mystery from the folktale “Three Princes of Seredip” and Voltaire’s Zadig, or the Book of Fate through Edgar Allan Poe’s crystallization of the detective story in his tales of rationcination, exemplified by “The Purloined Letter.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle further developed and popularized detective fiction in his Sherlock Holmes stories, such as “A Scandal in Bohemia.” We saw the gentleman detective turn into tough, morally complex character in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, then lost ourselves in the many twists of Ira Levin’s play Deathtrap. Throughout this unit, we have explored the connection between detective work and close reading, namely looking for clues and constructing meaning from those clues. Now it’s your turn to practice a bit of detective work on the mystery of your choice.

Goal: To interpret a mystery using techniques of close reading, exploring social issues of morality, class, gender, sexuality, and so on.

Your Task: Write a 4-6 page double-spaced essay in MLA format, exploring a work of mystery, which may be one of the works we have read in this unit or your own selection (as long I approve your choice). Identify a central social issue in the text. What point does the text make about the issue and how does that relate to your own attitudes? In your thesis, present your central argument about the issue, using the work to make a statement of wider social significance. Frame your argument as specific advice for a specific group of people, answering the question “Who should do what?” Back up your argument with plenty of textual evidence, as well as your own knowledge and research.

Introduction: Grab the reader’s attention with a catchy hook, then give some background to the themes you will be addressing, or give a brief narrative explaining your interest in the story. Then, introduce the author and the piece (or pieces), and finally present your thesis,  social issue you have identified in the work of your choice. For example, a thesis for this paper could be “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle challenges Victorian assumptions about the reasoning powers of women in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’” or “In The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett explores the conflict between self-interest and morality.”

Body: In the body of the paper, open paragraphs with topic sentences that announce the topic and controlling idea (what you want to say about the topic), or present the topic and central question of the paragraph in a rhetorical question. You topic sentences should lay out the stages of your argument. A topic sentence could be “Hammett brought moral complexity to the hero of detective fiction.” Paragraphs should explore narrative elements, namely setting, characterization, plot, point of view, tone, symbolism, and so on, as well as including historical background, biographical information about the author, and comparisons to other works of mystery.

Conclusion: In the conclusion, summarize your main points, discuss how your reading of the work is different from typical readings, tell us who should care about your analysis and why, relate your reading of the story to a broader cultural and literary context, suggest approaches to further study, or present thought-provoking questions that grow out of your argument.

Generation of Ideas (Freewriting and Discussion): Consider the following questions to produce ideas. Why did you choose this story or novel? What was your experience reading the work? How did it make you feel? What characteristics of the author’s use of language caught your attention? What narrative elements, such as setting, characterization, plot, point of view, tone, and symbolism, stood out?

What is the purpose or meaning of the story or novel? What is the primary conflict? What issues does the author discuss? How does the author use genre to discuss important social questions? How does the work help the reader to experience these issues from a new perspective? What can a reader learn by reading the work? How should the reader change her or his attitudes after reading the text?

Basic requirements: The paper must

  • be 4-6 pages typed and double-spaced in MLA format (as described on the OWL at Purdue website).

  • get attention with a catchy title and introduction.

  • focus on a debatable thesis statement which gives specific advice for a specific group of people, regarding an important social issue, answering the question “Who should do what?”

  • be organized as a carefully staged argument.

  • have topic sentences, giving topic and controlling idea (what you want to say about the topic).

  • draw attention to narrative elements, such as setting, characterization, plot, point of view, tone, symbolism, and so on.

  • include many summaries, paraphrases and quotes from the text.

  • integrate research from a scholarly source (books from the library or an article from library databases).

  • include in-text citations and a works cited page in MLA format.

  • help readers experience the work more richly.

  • be clear, specific and detailed.

  • have sentences built on concrete nouns (sentence focus) and employ active verbs.

  • connect ideas and paragraphs with coordinating conjunctions, subordinating conjunctions and transitions, punctuated correctly.

  • make all items in lists grammatically parallel.

  • be relatively free of spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, especially regarding sentence boundaries.

(Extra credit points) An exceptional paper will:

  • encourage the reader to change attitudes or opinions.

  • give entirely new insights into the story or novel.

  • include extra research.

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