The Art of Detection: Poe, Doyle, Chesterton

Wintersemester 2014
Universität Zürich, Englisches Seminar, Plattenstrasse 47, 8032 Zürich


It has often been noted that crime investigation and the study of literature share striking similarities: As the scholar must study the literary text with particular attention to details which might influence his interpretation, so too the detective is supposed to „read“ the crime scene for clues, which will enable him to reconstruct what has happened. Thus detective stories, one could argue, can be understood as the metafictional literary genre par excellence since its stories are never only about a particular mystery to solve, but will also – although often involuntarily – make an argument about what it means to write and to read literature.

In this course we will track these correlations between crime fiction and theory of literature by focusing on three seminal authors: Edgar Allan Poe, who is supposed to have established the genre of detective fiction in the english speaking world with his three Dupin-stories, Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes remains the most famous of all literary detectives, and finally Gilbert Keith Chesterton, whose unlikely detective Father Brown can be seen as a kind of counter-example to the above mentioned heroes of rational thought.

The close reading of their short stories will be brought into a discussion with theoretical texts by Walter Benjamin, Carlo Ginzburg, Umberto Eco and Tom McCarthy. In addition to that, we will also take a look at the cinematic afterlife of the detective, looking at David Fincher’s Zodiac from 2007 in particular, as this film represents something like the cul-de-sac of the detective genre as such.

Participants are expected to have purchased and read Tom McCarthy’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Berkeley: Counterpoint 2008) by the first session. All other primary and secondary texts will be made available on OLAT.


18. September

Introduction & Tom McCarthy, Tintin and the Secret of Literature

25. September

Arthur Conan Doyle, „A Case of Identity“ & Carlo Ginzburg, „Clues and Scientific Method“

02. October

Edgar Allan Poe, „The Purloined Letter“

09. October

Edgar Allan Poe, „The Purloined Letter“ & Jacques Lacan, „Seminar on ‹The Purloined Letter›“

16. October

Edgar Allan Poe, „The Purloined Letter“ & Jacques Lacan, „Seminar on ‹The Purloined Letter›“

23. October

Edgar Allan Poe, „Man of the Crowd“ & Walter Benjamin, „The Flaneur“

30. October

Arthur Conan Doyle, „The Adventure of the Copper Beeches“ & Thomas and Jean Sebeok, „A Juxtaposition of Charles S. Peirce and Sherlock Holmes“

06. November

Arthur Conan Doyle, „The Problem of Thor Bridge“

13. November

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades (Excerpts)

20. November

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, „The Oracle of the Dog“

27. November

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, „The Man in the Passage“

04. December

Edgar Allan Poe, „The Murders in the Rue Morgue“

11. December

Zodiac (USA 2007), Dir. David Fincher

18. December

Zodiac (USA 2007), Dir. David Fincher & The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (USA 2011), Dir. David Fincher

 Please note that the syllabus may be subject to change. 

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