Detection and the Logics of Empire
Lesson Plan Production Details
Developer: Emma Soberano Contact
Peer Reviewers: Barbara Barrow, Renée Fox, Cherrie Kwok, Diana Rose Newby, Matthew Poland, Jessie Reeder, and Oishani Sengupta
Lesson Plan Cluster Developer/Copyeditor: Ryan D. Fong Contact
Webpage Developer: Ava K. Bindas
Cluster Title: Undisciplining In and Through Contemporary Texts
Publication Date: 2024
This cluster of texts was created for use in a mid-level undergraduate course on the history of the detective genre. It includes Wilkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone, Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Speckled Band,” and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 novel Mexican Gothic. The cluster places particular emphasis on how detection’s origins link it to British imperialism in the nineteenth century, and on interrogating the links between detection, logic and evidence, and colonial ideologies. The inclusion of Mexican Gothic asks that students consider how popular culture is grappling with colonial legacies and using forms and genres inaugurated in the 19th century to do so.
Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone provides an example of one of the genre’s first novels and its attempted critique of imperialism - though it’s important to discuss the novel’s use of imperial elements in its plot and the success of its critique. In the 125 years since his first appearance, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has come to be seen as the prototypical detective figure, while the repeated invocation of empire throughout his stories is oft-forgotten. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” brings Conan Doyle’s (and the genre’s) anxiety about the unintended effects of the British Empire to the fore in its use of foreign species and a villain corrupted by his contact with and love of the foreign. Mexican Gothic, which transplants the gothic and early detection’s manor house to rural 1950s Mexico, was taught as the final text, a contemporary culmination which makes use of and challenges many of the genre’s historical problems, including its treatment of women and racialized characters.
Mexican Gothic also makes explicit some of the questions which simmer beneath the surface of the other two texts - questions about how we delineate the bounds of an empire, who is allowed to be a detective, and what the work of detection even entails. In teaching Mexican Gothic alongside nineteenth-century texts, I not only want my students to recognize genre conventions, but to question how issues of imperialism, race, and gender are wrapped up in these conventions. By ending with Mexican Gothic, I ask my students to consider how a contemporary author’s choice to adhere to or deviate from conventions inaugurated in the 19th century can change the meaning and impact of their text, and current readers’ understandings of imperialism and the British Empire.
Wilkie Collins,The Moonstone (1868)
The Moonstone is often cited as one of the earliest detective novels, along with Collins’s 1859 novel, The Woman in White. Whereas empire is an undercurrent and tangential plot device in The Woman in White, in The Moonstone, the British colonial investment in India is central to the novel.
The plot follows the dandyish Franklin Blake as he attempts to solve the mystery of the disappearance of an enormous and reputedly cursed diamond, the eponymous Moonstone, which was gifted to his cousin Rachel Verinder for her 18th birthday, and then stolen that same night. The Moonstone diamond, however, was originally pilfered from a Hindu temple during a looting by Rachel and Franklin’s corrupt military man uncle (nicknamed Honourable John in a jibe by Collins at the East India Company).
The legend of the diamond’s curse involves three Hindu priests who have followed the diamond from India, attempting to recover it and return it to its rightful place. The Moonstone is rife with anti-imperialist themes and commentary, some more successful than others. The central mystery is solved by using opium to induce sleepwalking, a method which challenges contemporary notions of detection as a genre rooted in logic, empiricism, and objectivity, and can spur discussions about the definitions of these terms.
Arthur Conan Doyle, “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1892)
Because Sherlock Holmes has become the prototypical detective in our cultural imagination, reading a Conan Doyle story featuring the detective is integral to this cluster. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” revolves around a nefarious stepfather who has returned from living in India, and is caring for his stepdaughters in the wake of their mother’s death. When one of the young women dies, her sister suspects the stepfather of attempting to steal their fortune through murder.
Analyzing Holmes’s solution to the case helps students see the differences between 19th century and contemporary detection, and to correct some of the ways the Holmes character has been adapted throughout the years. Unlike in 21st century mysteries, in the original Sherlock Holmes stories, the reader is not given all the clues necessary to solve the puzzle. Instead, the detective is near super-heroic in his all-encompassing knowledge and deductive skills, resulting in an almost absurd solution which challenges many students’ preconceptions of Holmes.
If there is room in the course for a longer work, The Sign of the Four (1890) also centers characters whose histories of involvement in British imperialism come to bear on the home sphere, and may make for an interesting addition to the cluster.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic (2020)
In this gothic detective story set in 1950s Mexico, a young socialite must investigate when her recently-married cousin sends a concerning letter asking to be rescued from her husband’s country manor home. Though set in post-revolutionary Mexico rather than the 19th century, this novel owes much to both 19th century gothicism and detective stories, and invokes commentary on Britain’s imperial entanglements in Mexico during the 1800s. Noemi’s cousin Catalina has married into the Doyle family, composed of British silver miners obsessed with eugenics, who are hiding sinister family secrets. While Noemi attempts to investigate, taking on a role as amateur sleuth, the novel’s conclusion unfolds in genre-pushing revelations.
Reading Mexican Gothic last helps students make connections between the novel’s form and earlier detective stories like The Moonstone and “Speckled Band,” and question the construction of evidence and western science, and the crossed lineages of detection and forms of empire.
This cluster looks at its included texts primarily through the lenses of genre and empire. In particular, as this cluster was developed for use in a course on the history of detective fiction, I have included critical sources on early detection, surveillance, and the relationship between detection and the British Empire, as well as sources meant to give context on England’s relationship to Mexico. While Mexican Gothic is, as the title suggests, a gothic novel, early detective fiction shares quite a bit of overlap with gothicism, as Patrick Brantlinger points out. Understanding this lineage, and the influences gothicism bore and continues to bear on the genre, is a critical aspect of framing this cluster, and considering how we define both gothicism and detection allows for the introduction of key ideas including race, gender, and empire.
Because this cluster creates a lineage of detection, from 19th century gothic to contemporary fiction, I use genre and its attendant tropes as a framing tool to explore questions of race and gender. For instance, the trope of the uniquely objective white male detective relies on racialized and gendered ideas about the intellectual capacities of different groups. In a trope which has become less common since the decline of formal empire, The Moonstone and “Adventure of the Speckled Band” both make use of anxieties surrounding imperialism and contagion - the fear that contact with colonial zones would “contaminate” the home sphere (traced by Yumna Siddiqi in her essay, below). Yet, in examining the mechanisms of how detection occurs in both of these texts, the persistent ideas about white male objectivity, and about detection’s function in uncovering an objective reality, are brought into question.
Mexican Gothic, meanwhile, takes the Victorian anxieties regarding the British Empire and upends them. The white characters, whose family has been involved in the spread of Britain’s informal imperial influence in rural Mexico, are deeply concerned with eugenics, and as the novel progresses, their obsession with controlling family bloodlines sinisterly seeps into other aspects of the text. The idea that involvement in imperialism leads in some way to corruption is explored throughout the primary texts included here, though in different ways and to different ends.
The critical texts below provide context on defining detection and its link to gothicism, Mestizaje and Indigeneity in Mexico, the relationship between England and Mexico, and detection’s anxieties about imperialism. To help my students move between different forms and regions of British imperialism, I gave contextualizing slide presentations prior to starting a new text (I made slide decks available on Canvas so that students could return to them after class). I also gave further context during discussion when necessary, and used discussion and guided reading response questions to encourage my students to make connections and ask questions about the relationships between the texts and their contexts.
I recommend the following sources for contextualizing the cluster. I primarily used these sources to prepare brief contextualizing slide presentations for my students on various topics related to the readings. As part of these presentations I selected and highlighted useful quotes and pointed students to sources in the Works Cited slide which they could later use for their writing assignments. Because I created this cluster as part of a 200-level elective course which draws many non-majors, I tried not to assign too much scholarly work. That said, Yumna Sidiqqi’s chapter “Sherlock Holmes and the Cesspool of Empire” is clear and approachable for those new to working with literary criticism, and my students reported that it was interesting and helpful.
Genre & Early Detection
- Brantlinger, Patrick. “What Is ‘Sensational’ About the ‘Sensation Novel’?” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 37, no. 1, 1982, pp. 1-28.
In this seminal essay, Brantlinger explores the subgenre of sensation fiction - often considered a precursor to detective fiction. The essay, which includes The Moonstone among the texts it considers, outlines the genre’s predecessors in gothicism and newgate fiction, and its development into the detective novel. As well as tracing a literary lineage for detection, I find that the way Brantlinger thinks about genre - as both identifiable and yet inherently slippery - is helpful for framing discussions about how the texts in this cluster adhere to, use, and challenge conventions.
- Miller, D.A. The Novel and the Police. University of California Press, 1988
Miller argues that the 19th century novel is inherently conservative, guided by a Foucauldian disciplinary impulse. Miller analyzes detective novels by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Anthony Trollope to make his claim. This framing is helpful when thinking about how detective stories which invoke imperialism, such as The Moonstone and “The Speckled Band” regulate the boundaries of the home and nation in order to differentiate England and the domestic sphere from the colonies. When I talk to my students about these ideas, I sometimes assign excerpts from Miller and Foucault, or give a thorough primer on their theories before asking students to engage with them in the context of the novels and stories we are reading. Some of these ideas are also addressed in the recommended chapter from Yumna Siddiqi, below.
- Smith, Andrew. Gothic Literature, Edinburgh University Press, 2013.
Because gothicism arises so often when reading early detective stories, students asked me for information about its definition, development, and contexts. The introduction to this overview of topics and histories within gothic literature has a section on “Gothic Histories” which explores the various contextual meanings of the Gothic. These include the original, racially-inflected meaning (referencing “barbaric” German tribes), as well as gothicism’s preoccupations with the Other, the unexplained/able (and its push back against Enlightenment rationality, so key for understanding and troubling its relationship to detection), and with transgression. Understanding how gothicism and detection take different approaches to these questions with which they are both preoccupied helps us ask interesting questions and trouble generic boundaries.
England & India
- Tomaiuolo, Saverio. “Sensation Fiction, Empire, and the Indian Mutiny.” The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Tomaiuolo’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction gives important context for understanding depictions of India and Indian colonists in sensation and early detective fiction. The chapter gives an overview of English reactions to reporting on what has variously been termed the Indian/Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, the Indian/Sepoy Rebellion/Mutiny, and the First War of Independence. Of its many titles (there are more than those mentioned above!), I tend to use either The Indian Rebellion or the First War of Independence, to give the event and the rebels the proper respect and to honor their anti-colonial intent. I explain this choice to my students when providing context.
The chapter referenced here only glosses The Moonstone, but it does delve into analysis of two other sensation novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, one of which (Lady Audley’s Secret, 1862) is an example of an early detective novel. This can be used to help students understand how to analyze novels which do not directly deal with an event, but for which the event is contextually important.
- Siddiqi, Yumna. Anxieties of Empire and the Fiction of Intrigue. Columbia University Press, 2008.
Siddiqi’s book is useful in several ways: the introduction frames connections between “fiction of intrigue” (a broader definition than detective fiction, which is useful for thinking within the category of genre), imperialism, and surveillance, order, and control. In her chapter “Sherlock Holmes and the Cesspool of Empire,” Siddiqi demonstrates a pattern in Sherlock Holmes stories of characters which “contaminate” the home sphere after returning from abroad. I have assigned this chapter as reading for students before, and it has generally been well-received as an approachable, convincing, and interesting new perspective on Sherlock Holmes, which students had not before considered.
- Daston, Lorraine & Peter Galison. Objectivity. Princeton University Press, 2007.
One of the most prevalent ideas I have run into when teaching the course from which this cluster is drawn is the notion that detectives are inherently good because they uncover an objective truth. In this text, Daston and Galison trace the rise of the episteme of objectivity in the nineteenth century. Their history is incredibly helpful in demonstrating that objectivity is itself constructed. It is also a useful reminder that, while truth-seekers including scientists and detectives may arrive at a correct conclusion (e.g., identify the plant, apprehend the criminal), the assumptions and biases which accompany their production of knowledge remain consequential. This text is quite dense, but if students are interested in the history of science and objectivity, they may find the first chapter an interesting introduction.
Mexico, Race, & Empire
- Alberto, Lourdes. “Nations, Nationalisms, and Indígenas: The ‘Indian’ in the Chicano Revolutionary Imaginary.” Critical Ethnic Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2016, pp. 107-127.
Lourdes’s essay covers Indigenismo in early-mid-century Mexico & in the Chicano movement. Different forms of indigeneity have been treated differently in Mexico since colonization, and especially since the 20th century Indigenismo movement (which privileges ancient Aztec culture over still-existent Mayan populations in a nationalist myth-making move). This history is something many US students are unfamiliar with, and because Noemi’s Mestiza identity plays a significant role in the text, it’s important to be aware of and cover when teaching this novel, especially considering its concern with race and the relationships between whiteness and indigeneity within the broader umbrellas of colonialism and Latine identity.
- Dalton, David S. Mestizo Modernity : Race, Technology, and the Body in Post-Revolutionary Mexico. University of Florida Press, 2018.
Dalton gives further context to the creation of the idea of Mestizaje as a unifying racial myth meant to unite Mexico in the period following the revolution of the early 20th century. Dalton links this specific idea of the Mestizo in the Mexican cultural imagination to earlier attempts to grapple with race and indigeneity, as well as to the notions of modernity and progress. Dalton’s exploration of how Mestizaje was officially elevated is particularly interesting to consider alongside the eugenics of the English family (ironically, also the Daltons) in Mexican Gothic.
- Reeder, Jessie. The Forms of Informal Empire: Britain, Latin America, and Nineteenth Century Literature. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.
This text provides a helpful framework for understanding Mexico’s position in relation to England in the nineteenth century. While Mexico was never an English colony, its influence was still felt through what Reeder calls “Informal Empire,” a term which describes how trade and economic relations came to exert colonial power without formal incorporation into the British Empire. While Mexican Gothic takes place in the 1950s, the family at the mystery’s center are English, and came to Mexico to make their fortune through silver mining. Their history of exploitative labor practices and relationship with the locals become important to the story.
Reeder notes that while the term “Informal Empire” seems to draw a distinction between types of empire (in/formal), imperialism operates along a spectrum and presents itself differently in individual, local contexts; I find this a useful idea for connecting the texts, and particularly in shifting from texts which consider England’s colonial relationship to India in the 19th century to the aftermath of its relationship with Mexico in the 20th.
Discussion Questions, Key Passages, In-Class Activities
Activity: “Webs of Detection”
The title and the activity itself are meant to playfully evoke the “Charlie Conspiracy” meme, drawn from an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
In small groups (two or three students), select a trope which appears in some form in at least two of the texts (e.g., helpless woman, outsider detective, corrupting object of empire) and consider how each of the texts deploys the trope differently in relation to the question of empire. For example, Sherlock Holmes as an outsider detective enforces imperial logics by protecting white womanhood; Noemi as an outsider detective challenges imperialism by questioning eugenics; Ezra Jenkins demonstrates an ambivalent relationship by evoking sympathy, yet ultimately dying (ambivalent relationships will provoke the most debate).
What are the various effects of using this trope? Collect tropes on the board (with titles of the accordant texts written under each), and ask that each group explain their findings, backing their categorization up with evidence. Ask whether the other students in the class agree, and if they disagree, ask for evidence to the contrary. When tropes (or texts) intersect, draw a line between them, creating a web on the board, so that students can visualize the interactions between tropes and texts, and how each takes a different approach to the genre.
It can be helpful to use colored chalk to distinguish between how each text relates to the different tropes (say, positive relationship to empire = green chalk; negative = red; ambivalent = purple). In trying to categorize each text through its deployment of tropes, students can both see how each trope may be deployed differently, and also debate moments when the text may be more ambiguous than it at first seems.
Topics for Discussion
Below are included a few topics for discussion, and potential questions, passages, and themes which I have found spark lively conversation and get at some of the key issues I want students to think about. I have organized these by topic, and then by relevant text.
Intersectionality: Femininity, Race, and Detection
- Mexican Gothic:
- How does Noemi’s gender influence her detection? How does Noemi use her femininity? How is it used against her?
- Consider Noemi and Catalina together to think about how race inflects gender in this novel.
- Feminine rage: “And it struck her all of a sudden this fact that she had missed, which should have been obvious from the very beginning: that the frightening and twisted gloom that surrounded them was the manifestation of all the suffering that had been inflicted on this woman” (Moreno-Garcia, 289).
- How does the novel’s treatment of women comment on the roles allowed women? Consider this depiction of rage in contrast, for example, to Rachel Verinder’s silent suffering in The Moonstone.
- “Adventure of the Speckled Band”
- Ask students to close-read illustrations of this story, as well as passages depicting Miss Stoner and her sister, to understand the construction of white Victorian femininity.
- Image: Friedrich, Josef. She writhed as one who is in terrible pain. 1906. The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
- Contrast these depictions of the endangered white woman with the descriptions of her stepfather, and in particular his associations with India and Indian animals
- Ask students to close-read illustrations of this story, as well as passages depicting Miss Stoner and her sister, to understand the construction of white Victorian femininity.
Knowledge Creation & Crime Solving
- Consider the forms/modes of knowledge that each text privileges
- Mexican Gothic: Rather than solving the case through deductive reasoning, like Sherlock Holmes, Mexican Gothic brings in some magical/supernatural/science fictional elements. How does this affect our reading of Noemi as a detective?
- Students may be tempted to create a divide between Western reason vs Indigenous supernaturalism. If this happens, remind them that in The Moonstone, the case is solved through opium and sleepwalking. How does this challenge such a divide? Does the use of opium create other binaries (orientalism, for example)?
- The Moonstone & the case of Ezra Jenkins
- Jenkins’s characterization aligns closely with stereotypes of the tragic mulatta/o figure, as well as ideas about mixed race people being sickly and unnatural, etc.. Consider how his inclusion in (and ultimate exclusion, via death, from) the text functions.
- Jenkins is also a good entry point to thinking about which characters are able to move freely throughout the text. Contrast Jenkins and the three Brahamins to the English explorer Murthwait, and his ability to pass for Indian in the final chapter. When and how do characters (in all three texts) gain and lose mobility? How does this affect their ability to complete their goals?
Assignments and Assessments
I try to give my students options for a variety of final assessments. In addition to the option to write a traditional analytical paper, students also have the opportunity to write their own piece of short detective fiction, or to partner with a classmate to create a short podcast. Below, I describe the two non-traditional project options in more detail.
I ask that students write a period piece, so that they must incorporate research and immerse themselves in the time period. I also ask that they include an artists’ statement, in which they place their story in a legacy of detective fiction. They must clarify the stylistic influences on their work, and ask themselves how their work is adhering to and challenging genre conventions. The point of this assignment is not to produce good creative writing (though sometimes that is a pleasant side effect!). Rather, it requires that students consider which aspects of the genre matter to them, and how conventions can uphold (and, conversely, challenge) familiar power structures. They must be intentional about their choices, and justify them using knowledge and analysis of the course materials.
For this assignment, students may work together in pairs to create a 15-20 minute podcast episode delving into some theme related to detection or detective fiction, surveillance, policing, prosecution, or imprisonment. This option relates to the broader themes of the course from which this unit is drawn, rather than specifically to 19th century detective fiction and empire. However, I can imagine adapting it to a narrower scope. Podcasts offer students the option to explore a topic without making a formal argument, though they do need to conduct research to ensure their discussion is well-informed. This format also lends itself well to making connections between contemporary culture and the past, such as exploring issues related to the resurgence of popularity for true crime.
Emma Soberano is a doctoral candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. Her research and teaching tackle race, ecology, epistemology, and empire in British literature of the long Nineteenth Century, as well as the afterlives of empire in neo-Victorian literature. Her research has appeared in Victorian Studies, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, and her poetry in swamp pink (formerly Crazyhorse). She currently serves as Instructional Design Coordinator for the National Center for Institutional Diversity.
Tile/Header Image Caption
Simões da Fonseca, Gastão. Premieres Aventures de Sherlock Holmes. Drawing, 1913. Arthur Conon Doyle Encylopedia. The work is out of copyright and therefore in the public domain.
Page/Lesson Plan Citation (MLA)
Emma Soberano, dev. “Detection and the Logics of Empire.” Barbara Barrow, Renée Fox, Cherrie Kwok, Diana Rose Newby, Matthew Poland, Jessie Reeder, Oishani Sengupta, collab. peer revs.; Ryan D. Fong, les. plan clust. dev./copyed. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2024, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/lesson_plans/detection_and_empire.html.