The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction

Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Good Survey Having read all of the fiction written by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar), I selected this course as a quick way to find a few other writers of the hard-boiled persuasion. Professor Schmid’s course alerted me to a few authors that might suit me and a larger number that I will avoid. I can see now that my tastes are fairly conventional in this large and varied genre. I appreciate the impossibility of covering every author, but it would have been interesting to hear Schmid’s opinions of Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) who wrote The Saint novels; Bartholomew Gill (Mark C. McGarrity, 1943-2002), author of Irish police procedurals with a detective named Peter McGarr; Ian James Rankin, best known for his Edinburgh-based Inspector Rebus novels; and James Lee Burke who wrote the Dave Robicheaux series, among others. Reading detective stories has always been an enjoyable diversion. My bookshelf supports a four-volume set of novels by Dashiell Hammett (Cassell, 1974) that I purchased from Foyles (W & G Foyle Ltd., f. 1903, 119-125 Charring Cross, London, WC2H) in 1975, most of John le Carré’s works, and almost all of the Chandler and Macdonald books. Schmid makes frequent reference to the ratiocination stories of Edgar Allan Poe; that prompted me to listen to a number of audio renditions of same that are easily obtainable on the internet. I’ll probably try the English translation of The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco next since I have read little in the way of historical mysteries. Altogether, this is a fine course ⸺well worth one’s time. HWF, Mesa AZ.
Date published: 2020-11-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Survey of Suspense and a History of Mystery As is often the case with TTC courses, it is clear that although the professors write and deliver the lectures, it is marketers who provide the titles. Although I have commented in the past about misleading titles, so far as I recall, I have never been mislead by a title to the extent that I purchased an unwanted course (at least for that reason). Generally just looking at the individual lecture titles gives a pretty good idea of what the course is really all about and the course overview is another helpful way to understand the intended thrust of the course. For sure the title of this course is misleading, but for me that is only a minor distraction and one that has no bearing on my enjoyment of this series of lectures. Professor Schmid has put together a series of lectures that span the genre since its inception and covers the various subtypes of stories (e.g. “locked room” or “cozy”), and genres (hardboiled, detective, etc.) while at the same time looking at the development of mystery/suspense fiction from an historical perspective. An introductory lecture is used to introduce a few early writers and their styles. It is true that he keeps coming back to Poe, Doyle, Christie, Chandler and the like, but only for comparison so that we can appreciate the development from the start to the present. Of course this necessitates omitting many more writers than the ones included, always a problem with any survey course. But he does cover most subtypes, usually centering on one or two writers, prominent in that genre. There are also lectures that cover, not types of fiction, but rather individual character types such as “The Sidekick” or “The Femme Fatale”. Dr. Schmid also gives us lectures on types of fiction that would not necessarily have occurred to me as separate subtypes such as the one on Native American Mysteries (even though the main writer he covers here is one of my favorites, Tony Hillerman). And we get lectures on historical mysteries and courtroom dramas (Perry Mason, obviously). Here it should be noted that Dr. Schmid is not necessarily wedded to the written word, as he frequently brings up TV and movie adaptations while discussing a subtype. At first I was surprised that Professor Schmid was given 36 lectures to cover a topic that seemed as though it should fit in TTC’s 24 lecture box, but the extra 12 lectures allow him a chance to devote (for example) individual lectures to women from being “femme fatale spear carriers to full fledged protagonists in their own right. Of course there are many other internal threads running throughout the course. Some reviewers have commented on Professor Schmid’s delivery, often criticizing his dropping the “g” in words ending in “ing”. Just his accent, the one he grew up with and is still with him, not a sign of intelligence. I figure that a degree from Oxford and a PhD from Stanford speaks more about him than how he speaks. Aside from his accent, his delivery is spot on, never being rushed and often enthusiastic. It is clear that in addition to his knowledge of the subject, that he also loves what he does. Recommended if you like this type of fiction. And if you don’t you might well give it a chance after this course.
Date published: 2020-11-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Poorly Titled This lecture series is poorly titled. A better title would be "The History of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction: 1841 - Mid 20th Century. While the lecturer is very good - interesting, articulate, well organized and very well informed, approximately 90% of his examples are earlier than the middle of the 20th century, with far too much emphasis on Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler By midway through the series, each time he raised Edgar Allan Poe, I thought I would vomit. The first lecture was the best, as it explained the formula and appeal of mystery and suspense fiction. I also liked the organization of the lecture topics. However, I was disappointed that many of the authors of the last 60 years were hardly mentioned or not mentioned at all. His exceptions were Dan Brown, Patricia Cornwell, Gilian Flynn, John Grisham, Thomas Harris, Tony Hillerman and Robert B. Parker. There are many, many more authors that he could have used to provide better balance; I started a list but stopped after 55 names just through the letter "L". I hope the lecturer does another series titled "Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction: 1960 to 2020.
Date published: 2020-11-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How to Know Everything (Almost) about Mystery Very detailed, lots of widespread examples. The professor so obviously enjoys the genre.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good course I've listened to about a third of the lectures so far, and overall I'm enjoying the course very much. So far there's been a bit more emphasis on Poe's three mystery stories, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie than I would personally have preferred. I get that these were important to the early history of the genre, but I'd like to get to authors I personally like better, such as Rex Stout. Also, wow do I disagree with the lecturer's take on cozy mysteries. But a course like this is going to follow the personal inclinations of the instructor, obviously, and that's fine. This particular course is one of the best for casual listening while walking dogs and driving.
Date published: 2020-07-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging and fun lectures by an expert The presentation and the illustrations make each lecture come alive. I thought I knew this genre well, but was happily surprised to learn even more. The recommended readings in the lecture notes are on my reading list, too.
Date published: 2020-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good detail into what makes a god mystery! I am a novice mystery writer. The lecture series helped me gain sisgnificant insight into plot development and the need for creating suspense throughout the story.
Date published: 2020-03-08
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Mystery and Suspense Fiction or Cultural Studies Got tired of the cultural studies references and just gathered a list of the authors and novels to read from the material.
Date published: 2019-10-12
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The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction
Course Trailer
Mystery Fiction's Secret Formula
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 ...

32 min
The Detective Is Born
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 character...

33 min
The Criminal
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 su...

34 min
The Sidekick
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 character...

33 min
Detecting Clues
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....

33 min
Case Closed? The Problem with Solutions
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....

35 min
The Locked Room
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 influent...

36 min
The Dime Novel
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 em...

35 min
Murder in Cozy Places
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 se...

34 min
Return of the Classic Detective
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...

35 min
The City Tests the Detective
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 m...

32 min
The Private Eye Opens
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 myster...

32 min
African American Mysteries
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 broad...

30 min
The Femme Fatale
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....

33 min
The Private Eye Evolves
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...

30 min
Latino Detectives on the Border
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 Héctor Tobar in order to recognize common suspense story elements, and identify various interpretations of mystery subgenres including American ...

29 min
The Lady Detective
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 assum...

32 min
Violence Waits in the Wings
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 vi...

30 min
Violence Takes Center Stage
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....

29 min
Psychopaths and Mind Hunters
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 thrilli...

32 min
Police as Antagonist
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 det...

32 min
Police as Protagonist
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...

29 min
Native American Mysteries
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 ...

29 min
The European Mystery Tradition
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, w...

32 min
Nordic Noir
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 c...

30 min
Japanese and Latin American Mysteries
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,...

33 min
Precursors to True Crime
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 e...

33 min
True Crime in the 20th Century
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....

31 min
Historical Mysteries
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 s...

30 min
Spies, Thrillers, and Conspiracies
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 rea...

30 min
Female-Centered Mystery and Suspense
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 nuance...

30 min
Poetic Justice
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....

30 min
Courtroom Drama
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 ...

31 min
Gay and Lesbian Mystery and Suspense
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....

29 min
Adapting the Multimedia Mystery
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...

30 min
Mysterious Experiments
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 f...

32 min
David Schmid

Perhaps the ultimate secret to great mystery and suspense fiction is that, in one way or another, it satisfies a deep-seated desire we all have for the world around us to make sense.


Stanford University


University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

About David Schmid

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 University, his M.A. from the University of Sussex, and his Ph.D. in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University.

Dr. Schmid has published on a variety of subjects, including the nonfiction novel, celebrity, film adaptation, Dracula, and crime fiction. He is 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.

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