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Jill Girgulis

Popularity of detective fiction course no mystery

By Jill Girgulis, January 19 2016 —

Do the names Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot ring any bells?

Holmes and Poirot, arguably the world’s most famous detectives, are just two of the fictional sleuths students will encounter in English 399: Detective Fiction.

ENGL 399 is a historical survey of detective fiction. It has previously featured the work of prominent detective writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Canadian  author Louise Penny. 

Lifelong detective fiction fan Murray McGillivray teaches the University of Calgary’s only course on stories about crime, mystery and the powers of deduction.

“I habitually listed [ENGL 399] among my preferred courses that I would want to teach, and it took 23 years before somebody said, ‘okay, we’ll give him a chance,’” McGillivray said.

McGillivray is a professor of medieval studies. He always enjoyed detective fiction, though he was unable to pursue a PhD in the genre.

“That would have been frowned upon during that period,” McGillivray said. “Popular genres were just not given serious study.”

However, detective fiction is now taken seriously in scholarly work, alongside traditional literary genres.

“The respectability of investigating [popular genres like detective fiction] in scholarly ways has really mushroomed in the last twenty years.”

McGillivray hopes students will take the class because it’s fun.

“You get to read a bunch of stuff that’s fun to read and has a good kind of plot, and has curiosity driving you.”

Instead of the traditional essay, ENGL 399’s major assignment asks students to pick a recently published detective novel and write a 750-word book review.

McGillivray admits he has some hidden motives in assigning the project.

“[The students] go out and find a detective novel, and they tell me what it’s like,” McGillivary said. “Often it happens that somebody is recommending something to me.”

He also believes the course is relevant to students from all disciplines.

“One of the things I really love is that probably 75–85 per cent [of students] are registering in it because they like the idea of reading these books.”

Interested students can expect to see ENGL 399 in either the upcoming Fall 2016 or Winter 2017 semesters.

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