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The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction

The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction

Professor David Schmid, Ph.D.
University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

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The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction

Course No. 2442
Professor David Schmid, Ph.D.
University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
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Course No. 2442
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What Will You Learn?

  • Examine the pivotal characters in Mystery and Suspense such as the criminal, sidekick, detective, and the femme fatale.
  • Peer inside the various subgenres of mystery and suspense including locked room mysteries, true-crime, spies, and more.
  • Look at the impact of this literature on film, TV, radio, podcasts, websites, and other experiences.
  • Discover new writers from other countries and learn about how they’ve adapted the mystery genre to suit other cultures.

Course Overview

On a dark, shadowy, cobblestone pavement in Victorian England, a pipe-smoking genius works with Scotland Yard to make meticulous observations and apply algorithm-like calculations that unravel impossible mysteries. In an internet café in Sweden, a chain-smoking computer hacker, working alone and outside the lines of legal constraints, creates actual algorithms that help her to decipher unfathomable puzzles. At first glance, it might seem like a long and winding road from Sherlock Holmes to Lisbeth Salander, but peer deeper into the captivating genre of mystery and suspense and you’ll find that different characters, eras, and locations often share familiar traits.

Great mystery and suspense writers have created some of the most unforgettable stories in all of literature. Even readers who don’t consider themselves fans of this intriguing genre are familiar with names such as Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Hannibal Lecter, and Robert Langdon, and understand the deep and lasting impact this writing has had on literature as a whole. An utterly captivating and compelling genre, mystery and suspense has leapt off the pages of the old dime store paperbacks, magazines, and comic books onto big screens, small screens, radio serials, podcasts, websites, and more. You’ll find elements, characters, and references permeating popular culture and news reports worldwide, and bleeding into other literary genres such as romance, political thrillers, sports stories, and even biographies. Nearly 200 years old, the genre of mystery and suspense literature is only growing more popular.

How did it become so prevalent? Why is mystery and suspense a go-to genre for so many readers around the world? What makes the dark and sometimes grisly themes appealing? In the 36 lectures of The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction, Professor David Schmid of the University at Buffalo examines these questions, as he guides you through an examination the many different varieties of the genre, including:

  • classic whodunits
  • hard-boiled crime fiction
  • historical mysteries
  • courtroom dramas
  • true crime narratives
  • espionage fiction
  • and many more

In doing so, you’ll travel the road of mystery and suspense backward and forward in time, around the world, and alongside some of the most amazing minds in literature. You’ll investigate the works of influential authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Thomas Harris, Walter Mosley, and more. You’ll see how the genre has been subverted and revitalized by contemporary writers, how it has affected and been affected by worldwide social and cultural transformations, and how the modern trend of “mash-up” literature (such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) had roots in very early mystery fiction. And by ripping stories from the headlines of real-life psychopaths and serial killers, you’ll see how the genre has—and still does—blur the line between reality and fiction. Most importantly, with the aid of this course, you’ll uncover nuances and themes you’ve probably never considered, no matter how familiar you are with these great works.

It’s Elementary: Examining the Elements of Mystery and Suspense

One of the most captivating components of this course is how Professor Schmid—both an avid fan of mystery and suspense and a scholar of the genre— surveys the same works through many lenses, giving you a different perspective each time. With Professor Schmid as your guide, you’ll examine the use and many variations of characters such as the detective, the criminal, the sidekick, the private eye, the police officer, and the femme fatale, as well as how the interconnections between these character types both define and defy their genres. For example, the relationship between the detective and police or the juxtaposition of criminal and private eye can help delineate subgenres within mystery and suspense fiction.

Professor Schmid considers the ways certain works might utilize clues, solutions, poetic justice, and violence, taking you through centuries of history and various sorts of suspense fiction to pinpoint specific examples. As authors experimented with the form over time, you’ll learn how books with ambiguous or unsolved conclusions became gradually more accepted into the mainstream, reflecting a change in the audience who once saw open-ended conclusions as simply frustrating or unsettling.

He also explores locations and the use of space to set the scene, comparing the claustrophobic panic evoked in the locked-room mysteries of Victorian England, when the killer was hidden in plain sight among the characters, to the open-ended suspicion when anything is possible in the dark back-alleys of noir. In this way, he invites you to reevaluate and reconsider a story you thought you were familiar with.

The Changing Faces of Detectives

The range of works that fall under the scope of Professor Schmid’s course will surprise and delight, as you are introduced to books by many international writers representing diverse racial and social groups. One of the keys to the success of this genre is its unique capacity for embracing real-world social changes while still remaining true to its defining features.

Mystery and suspense fiction is historically known for featuring male, Caucasian characters in the most prominent roles – as both protagonists and antagonists. However, you may be surprised to know that it is increasingly one of the most diversely written genres, with contributions from writers of many races and ethnicities worldwide being embraced. The genre naturally lends itself to illuminating pervasive issues like prejudice and bigotry, becoming a powerful outlet for writers to explore new perspectives.

Throughout the course, Professor Schmid devotes coverage to women, LGBTQ, Latin, Black, and Native American writers and characters, exploring how the context of the setting, the historical injustices, and the unique situations that come with these perspectives forced the classic elements of traditional mysteries to adapt and evolve. He will take you around the world with lectures focused on the influx of mysteries from Europe, Japan, Africa, and Latin America. He also devotes an entire lecture just to Nordic Noir: a distinctive subgenre of crime fiction authored by writers living in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland. Even if you are a mystery aficionado, Professor Schmid will likely introduce you to new names and series that you were not familiar with.

The author of Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture; coauthor of Zombie Talk: Culture, History, Politics; editor of Violence in American Popular Culture; and coeditor of Globalization and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction: A World of Crime, Professor Schmid is an expert on the genre, as well as a passionate and lively leader for this survey of a truly fascinating category of fiction. He has designed a course that takes a soup-to-nuts view of mystery and suspense books. Given the vast number of authors, books, time-periods, countries, and subgenres covered in this course, you simply can’t find a more comprehensive view. Fans of suspense will be delighted by the breadth and depth of information presented, guaranteed to uncover gems they had not yet discovered. But anyone, whether they are admirers of mystery on radio and film, or simply fans of literature, history, or pop culture, will find something to enlighten and entertain in this study of a genre with such tremendous impact.

Dive deeper into this genre than ever before with The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction, investigating multiple angles and getting a truly multifaceted picture of a fascinating literary subject.

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36 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
  • 1
    Mystery Fiction's Secret Formula
    It shouldn't be a surprise to learn that the origins of the mystery genre are, themselves, shrouded in mystery. Delve into the controversial viewpoints on what the first true mystery novel was, study important components of early mysteries and writers, including Poe, Doyle, and Christie and why their work continues to influence modern day stories. Then, examine the different types of stories that fall under the mystery and suspense label. x
  • 2
    The Detective Is Born
    What would an inscrutable mystery be without the central figure of a detective? Usually flawed, quite often brilliant, and sometimes not even aware of their role as an investigator, this compelling character is a staple of the genre. This lecture will scrutinize the many ways the detective has been portrayed across stories and series over time, revealing similarities between a variety of characters that make even the most unique detectives oddly familiar. x
  • 3
    The Criminal
    On the other end of the spectrum from the detective, we find the criminal. Equally important to the success of the story, explore a fascinating cast of notorious characters who have survived through the annals of time and popular culture. Spend this lecture looking at the cat-and-mouse games that law enforcement and criminals play as you learn just how vital getting this balance right is to the success of the story. x
  • 4
    The Sidekick
    Where would a Sherlock be without a Watson? The story of the sidekick isn't required in a successful mystery but they remain pivotal and entertaining characters who deserve their own deep dive. Follow the diverse cast that fulfilled the many roles sidekicks play, from the straight man in what could be a very long joke to the secret brilliant mind behind every solved case. Learn how their characterization can uncover vital insights into the plot, and learn how the absence of a sidekick in a story can reveal just as much about a story as the character might. x
  • 5
    Detecting Clues
    The clue is so imperative to the successful mystery story that there are few elements more subject to rules and regulations. Yet for all the requirements around how, when, and why to present clues, this narrative element is highly subjective. In this lecture, you'll learn how clues are used to help, hinder, mislead, and solve mysteries, for both the characters and the audience. x
  • 6
    Case Closed? The Problem with Solutions
    The clue is so imperative to the successful mystery story that there are few elements more subject to rules and regulations. Yet for all the requirements around how, when, and why to present clues, this narrative element is highly subjective. In this lecture, you'll learn how clues are used to help, hinder, mislead, and solve mysteries, for both the characters and the audience. x
  • 7
    The Locked Room
    Having reviewed the essential components of a successful mystery, Professor Schmid moves to the various subgenres of mystery and suspense, starting with the locked-room stories popular during the Victorian age. Look at how these puzzle-like stories are often dismissed due to formulaic scenarios that have to abide by a certain set of conventions, yet they remain one of the most popular and influential styles of writing, reflected even in contemporary board games and live entertainment. x
  • 8
    The Dime Novel
    The dime novels" of the 19th century are often considered cheap, serialized pulp fiction, but proved to be a turning point in the history of suspense fiction. In this lecture, Professor Schmid invites you to take a new look at a variety of dime novel publications and delve into how an important characteristic of mystery and suspense fiction originated with these throw-away stories: the idea of embracing and reflecting real-life social, political, and cultural change." x
  • 9
    Murder in Cozy Places
    As society changed, and the grim story lines of mystery and suspense more often reflected harsh reality, a new type of novel emerged to keep the audience shaken. Authors began springing shocking situations in what were typically considered safe" environments: dinner parties, countryside estates, utopian suburban neighborhoods. Learn how the transformation of innocuous locations brought its own set of rules to mystery genre." x
  • 10
    Return of the Classic Detective
    Revisit the role of the detective through the lens of the Golden Age of fiction, including the hard-boiled crime fiction of the early 20th century. Examine how social influences such as prohibition and the mafia impacted this subgenre. You'll also explore how the element of theater and empowering the audience to solve the mysteries made a lasting mark on the role of the protagonist in crime novels. x
  • 11
    The City Tests the Detective
    Whether real or fictional, the time and place in which a story is set can be a vital part of the plot when it comes to mysteries. Professor Schmid reveals how the city is often portrayed as more than merely a backdrop, but rather as a character, as much so as the detective, sidekick, or criminal. Chaos, noise, pollution, crowds, danger, traffic-each of these traits associated with urban areas do more than set a scene: they can have an impact on getting the information vital to solving the case. Trace the evolution of both how the city is portrayed and its impact on the history of suspense novels. x
  • 12
    The Private Eye Opens
    Often confused with the detective," the private eye is different from the classical version of the detective in terms of motivation, methods, lifestyle, and beliefs, and is the major contribution of American hard-boiled fiction. Comparing a vast selection of stories across history, you'll isolate the differences between the two crime-solvers and understand the different impacts each had on mystery and suspense." x
  • 13
    African American Mysteries
    Professor Schmid challenges the stereotypical lack of diversity in most mystery and suspense fiction by presenting the contribution that writers from other races and ethnicities have made to the genre. By investigating both black writers and black characters, you'll see how black mystery fiction views crime not just in terms of challenges and solutions, but also in terms of justice in a much broader and more ethical sense. x
  • 14
    The Femme Fatale
    One of the most iconic characters in mystery is that of the femme fatale. Uncover the many iterations of this definitive character and the different approaches writers have used to present the femme fatale, while always staying true to the basic essence of the character. Understand why this role is key and how it has become symbolic of noir and hard boiled classics. x
  • 15
    The Private Eye Evolves
    As the mystery genre adapted and grew in reaction to social transformations, the characters themselves evolved in new and different ways. In this lecture, Professor Schmid examines traditional examples of the private eye and compares them to a modern take on this character as illustrated by Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. While the classic private eye characters are often noted for possessing distinct character flaws, Larsson updates this notion with a vengeance, giving Lisbeth almost no likeable qualities. x
  • 16
    Latino Detectives on the Border
    Stepping back to once again take a multicultural look at mystery and suspense, Professor Schmid examines the world of Hispanic writers and characters. Examine over a century of work and authors including Rolando Hinojosa, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, and Hector Tobar in order to recognize common suspense story elements, and identify various interpretations of mystery subgenres including American hard-boiled crime fiction. x
  • 17
    The Lady Detective
    From complicated clients to lusty love interests, from sprightly sidekick to detail-oriented detectives, women have always played a role in mystery and suspense fiction. Professor Schmid introduces you to female detectives in literature through time - a history that goes much further back than you might expect - and examines how even at the earliest stages, the figure of the female detective assumed a wide variety of types in order to appeal to different audiences. x
  • 18
    Violence Waits in the Wings
    Much like the setting and the character, the use or lack of violence, and the amount and intensity depicted, can provide more clarity into the mystery you're trying to solve. And, much like the guidelines about using clues in suspense writing, there are so many exceptions to the rules of using violence that the rules themselves may need to be called into question. Study the different forms that violence takes within each subgenre and the various functions it performs in mystery and suspense fiction. x
  • 19
    Violence Takes Center Stage
    Building upon the insights revealed in the previous lecture, you'll examine mysteries that don't use any violence and compare them to stories that are borderline gratuitous in the depiction or details of violent acts. You'll also explore the rise of violence in mysteries, starting with a peak period in the wartime 1940s through to the present and discuss the reasons why. x
  • 20
    Psychopaths and Mind Hunters
    In the last century, with the increased interest and research into how our minds work, the concept of whydunit" became just as intriguing as the concept of "whodunit." Once authors began to reverse the traditional methods of mystery by revealing the killer in the early parts of the story, they had to explore new ways to motivate readers to continue to the end, often making the incentive a thrilling race against the clock to stop the suspect. It also provides the need for a new antagonist/protagonist dynamic, introducing psychological profilers." x
  • 21
    Police as Antagonist
    Sometimes cast as helpful, sometimes as a hindrance, the police are typically prominent players in mysteries and suspense novels. Professor Schmid reviews stories where the police are at odds with the protagonist, forcing the detective to work outside the law; stories where the detective is ambivalent, only using the police as a helpful resource to provide inside information; stories where the detective and police work together affably; and stories where the detective is (or was) on the actual police force. x
  • 22
    Police as Protagonist
    The shift of the role of police from a passive, outside observer to an active participant in the mystery genre, and even protagonists of their own variety, came about with the emergence of the police procedural. Journeying from Maigret to Dragnet, and exploring authors such as Georges Simenon, John Creasey, Ed McBain, and Chester Himes, you'll see how the police procedural started as an attempt to introduce realism and resulted in redefining the genre and branching into a new subgenre. x
  • 23
    Native American Mysteries
    Further demonstrating the expansive universe of the mystery genre, Professor Schmid uncovers the understudied world of Native American writers and characters. He reveals how the context of Native American settings has changed many of the classic elements you find in a traditional whodunit. You'll learn why tribal police, jurisdictional limitations, and cultural conflicts, among other factors, all add new levels of complexity and suspense to the standard mystery story. x
  • 24
    The European Mystery Tradition
    Whether set in Europe, featuring European characters, or written by European authors, there is no denying the richness and variety of European mystery fiction. Inheriting the legacy of mystery and suspense from American writers, Europe took the genre far more seriously. Travel through France, Germany, Italy, and Spain to see how the genre manages to address location-specific issues and cultures, while maintaining the core elements of a successful mystery and suspense story. x
  • 25
    Nordic Noir
    The last decade has seen Nordic noir-dark mysteries written by Nordic writers and set in Scandinavian countries-enter the American mainstream, though they have been popular in their homeland for half a century. Professor Schmid takes you through this progressive form of mystery and suspense fiction, showing how many examples of Nordic noir not only showcased mystery, but also provided a socially conscious look at powerful themes such as complicity with the Nazis, prejudice and racism, misogyny, corruption, and class. x
  • 26
    Japanese and Latin American Mysteries
    Discover the works of mystery and suspense fiction writers from outside America, Europe, and Scandinavia. You'll start in early 20th Japan with Taro Hirai, and travel through to modern Japanese suspense writers such as Natsuo Kirino. Then, travel to Africa to learn about the popular series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and discover the lesser-known Darko Dawson series. In Latin America, you'll look in-depth at two influential contributors: Leonardo Padura Fuentes and Paco Ignacio Taibo II. x
  • 27
    Precursors to True Crime
    Professor Schmid moves away from fiction to look at the novelization of true crime stories. Although considered a modern phenomenon, he traces examples back to 16th century America, where they rose to prominence through sensationalist news stories and sermons, which opened the door to true crime novels and demonstrated how mystery and suspense fiction and real-life stories have always influenced each other. x
  • 28
    True Crime in the 20th Century
    Spend some time focusing on the modern forms of true crime, which Professor Schmid notes are integrally related to mystery and suspense fiction as the genre draws upon both fiction and nonfiction techniques to achieve its effects. He also demonstrates how true crime stories were disparaged as trivial and damaging yet overcame unscrupulous reputations to become mainstream successes. x
  • 29
    Historical Mysteries
    Explore how many writers take the foundational elements of mystery and suspense and move them to earlier periods of history, often mixing true events and historical facts with fictional characters or situations, highlighting the changes between today and yesterday and educating readers while providing an entertaining story. Professor Schmid introduces you to two types of historical mysteries and showcases a number of examples to understand why historical mysteries are so popular among their legions of fans. x
  • 30
    Spies, Thrillers, and Conspiracies
    Start this section by comparing and contrasting mystery and suspense genres through the lens of realism and how spy and conspiracy suspense novels often take realism one step further by incorporating real world geopolitical and global concerns to enhance verisimilitude. You'll explore the most famous spy and conspiracy novels, including James Bond, The DaVinci Code, George Smiley?examining the real-life political circumstances of each period. x
  • 31
    Female-Centered Mystery and Suspense
    In this lecture, women step out of the three traditional roles they are typically reduced to in the mystery and suspense genre: victim, femme fatale, or detective. By examining a variety of mystery and suspense books over the last century, Professor Schmid looks at both the good and the bad roles of women in the genre and how these stories have elevated female characters to more complex and nuanced roles in order to reflect and comment on changes taking place in the societies around them. x
  • 32
    Poetic Justice
    Often a staple in mysteries, poetic justice is frequently used to help the reader feel a sense of satisfaction in the ending, especially in a genre where many mystery and suspense tales are simply uninterested in legal proceedings and aftermath. Professor Schmid defines poetic justice, discusses why there is so much of it in the genre, and outlines the many reasons why we find it satisfying. x
  • 33
    Courtroom Drama
    A majority of mysteries conclude as soon as the crime is solved; once a criminal was apprehended, there was no motivation to read further. Professor Schmid discusses how the genre moved beyond this and court procedurals became not just a component of mysteries, but in some cases, the setting or secondary plot point of a story. From documentaries such as Making a Murderer and the podcast Serial to fictionalized programs such as Law and Order, you'll see why capturing the criminal is sometimes just the beginning. x
  • 34
    Gay and Lesbian Mystery and Suspense
    Examine the reasons for the popularity of gay and lesbian mystery and suspense fiction, focusing in particular on how these narratives both draw upon and selectively reinterpret elements of the tradition from which they emerge. You'll learn how the traditional components of mystery novels were reinvigorated by the emergence of gay and lesbian characters. x
  • 35
    Adapting the Multimedia Mystery
    The most famous characters in mystery and suspense are often revisited again and again in many forms. Among a variety of enlightening examples, Professor Schmid takes you through a number of variations of Sherlock Holmes, from versions that perfectly represented the original intent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to depictions of Watson being the brains behind the duo, while Holmes is more of a bumbling buffoon. x
  • 36
    Mysterious Experiments
    Professor Schmid concludes the course by re-examining all the ways the mystery and suspense genre has adapted, yet continued to remain true to its core successful elements. He speculates on modern changes such as mash-ups with other literary genres, twist endings, and lack of resolution. You'll wrap up with a review of the evolution of the mystery and suspense books, and why this is a golden age for fans as the genre continues to grow in popularity. x

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David Schmid

About Your Professor

David Schmid, Ph.D.
University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
David Schmid is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York (SUNY). The recipient of the Milton Plesur Excellence in Teaching Award and the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, he teaches courses in British and American fiction, cultural studies, and popular culture. Born and raised in England, Dr. Schmid received his B.A. from Oxford...
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Reviews

The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 29.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History of Mystery The instructor introduced me to so many authors to whom I had never been exposed. I really enjoyed the class.
Date published: 2017-05-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Most Enjoyable! We very much enjoyed this particular course. Professor Schmid put together a comprehensive and well structured series of lectures. His knowledge of the subject matter was profound, his manner affable, and he was engaging and thorough. We especially enjoyed the care given to the set itself.
Date published: 2017-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very detailed for those wanting to write mysteries
Date published: 2017-04-27
Rated 2 out of 5 by from The Secrets of Great Mysteries and Suspense Fictio Disappointing. A better title would be The History of... The lecturer rarely covered anything more recent that the 1950s. He is highly analytical but from an historic perspective, not a writer's POV. I felt like I learned a lot of history but not secrets. He included very few female authors (other than Dame Agatha) and way too much Poe.
Date published: 2017-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mystery Fans Will Love This I bought this for my wife who loves mystery books. She loves this lecture series. This may be one of the best gifts I have ever given her (except for some jewelry and cruise trips). I am very happy because she is happy.
Date published: 2017-04-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extremely knowledgeable Professor I am not a huge fan of mystery and suspense fiction, but I tried this course anyway. I found the professor to be very knowledgeable and easy to understand. His style is engaging and helpful. He shares enough about the books, so that those I was not familiar with were still valuable resources to me. Overall I give this class a solid A
Date published: 2017-04-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from FOR ALL MYSTERY READERS AND WRITERS I purchased this video download set a few weeks ago but was waiting until I finished another fine GREAT COURSES class on writing. This course opened my eyes to a subject that interested me throughout my life: mysteries. I learned about the early writers of mystery fiction were and how they invented the types of characters. As I am an aspiring writing I am paying great attention to each section and how I can incorporate it into my novel.
Date published: 2017-04-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Hugely entertaining, very insightful Mystery and suspense fiction has always been one of my favorite genres, though I often felt guilty about enjoying an "inferior" form of literature. Thanks to this course, I no longer feel any such guilt: it makes it clear that this is a fully respectable with genre with a long and rich history. I also learned much about different kinds of mystery (e.g. by gay and lesbian writers) with which I was unfamiliar and now want to explore more.
Date published: 2017-04-01
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