In 1936, six mystery writers collaborated on a screenplay entitled, The President’s Mystery. The idea for this collaboration came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, an avid fan of mystery novels. Elliot Roosevelt, son of Franklin and Eleanor, was an author of sixteen mysteries, each with the subtitle, An Eleanor Roosevelt Mystery. In these books, the first lady plays a detective solving murders that occurred in the capital.
In this lesson, students will learn about mystery writers throughout history as well as the evolution of the style of writing utilized by mystery writers.
Access to a public library and/or access to the Internet.
1. Begin the class by either listening to a CD of The Shadow radio program (available at public libraries) or reading a pulp magazine story of The Shadow (available on the Internet).
2. After listening to the show or reading the story have a discussion using the following questions:
- What was the mystery about?
- How did the writer keep the audience interested?
- Who was the hero?
- Who was the villain?
- What surprises were in the story?
- Why do we like surprises?
3. Explain to students that learning is simply solving mysteries and solving mysteries is discovering surprises.
4. Explain to students that the tradition of mystery stories can be traced back as far as Ancient Greece; audiences in Ancient Greece watched mystery dramas produced by Sophocles and Euripides.
5. Divide the class into three groups and give each group the list below of famous mystery writers. Tell the students that as a group they are to research the lives of the authors, read reviews of the authors’ writings, and read at least one story of each author. Explain to students that this amount of research and reading requires collaboration and cooperation of a group. Tell students that they should divide the reading between group members and report back to the group their findings once a week. Also tell students that they must all become experts on the authors below in order to complete the task that you will give them in six weeks.
- Edgar Allen Poe
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- Agatha Christie
- Dorothy Sayers
- Lee and Dannay
- Sammuel Dashiell Hammet
- Earl Derr Biggers
- Erie Stanley Gardner
- Leslie Charteris
- Evan Hunter (Ed McBain)
- Carolyn Keene
6. At the first group meeting allow students the freedom to make decisions on dividing tasks. If they need advice, the following steps could be used for group meetings and individual tasks:
- Week one: divide authors between group members and each student research the life of his or her assigned author.
- Week two: Report back to the group regarding findings about the authors’ lives, continue reading about authors’ lives, and select and begin reading one of the author’s stories.
- Week three: Report back to the group regarding findings and continue reading story.
- Week four: Report back to the group the plot and characters of the mystery being read and complete reading story.
- Week five: Report back to the group the conclusion of the story and begin reading reviews of the author.
- Week six: Report back findings of reviews.
7. Once a week, give students class time to report their findings back to the group. Advise the groups to keep minutes of these meetings and that these minutes will help them solve the mystery you are going to give them.
8. In the seventh week, notify students that the mystery they must solve is creating a play that would convey their findings to an audience.
9. In the original groups, have students discuss the following questions:
- Who are the main characters? Will the authors tell the story of the history of mysteries? Will the characters of the stories tell the story of the history of mysteries?
- What was the evolution of the mystery story and how might this be conveyed to an audience in the form of a play? For example, the Sherlock Homes story introduced science into the mystery story. A component of the play could be a discussion between Sherlock Holmes and Watson on the importance of science in a mystery. Edgar Allan Poe could be described as the father of the modern mystery. Should he be the narrator of the play?
- Should the play be a mystery story, a drama with monologues, a comedy?
- What should be the plot of this story?
10. Once each group has answered the above questions, have the class as a whole discuss what each group decided and why. Encourage students to debate their decisions and then come to a conclusion regarding what is best.
11. Once the class has made these decisions, write the play either as a class, in small groups, or individually.
Extending the Lesson:
To extend this lesson, invite parents and community members to class and have the students perform the play written. If more than one play is written in groups or individually, have the class vote on which play to perform.
Sources & Resources:
Biggers. Earl Derr. Charlie Chan: 5 Complete Novels. New York: Random House Value Publishing, 1981.
Charteris, Leslie. Saint: 5 Complete Novels. New York: Random House Value Publishing, 1983.
Christie, Agatha. Masterpieces in Miniature: The Detectives: Stories by Agatha Christie. New York: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2005.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Complete Sherlock Holmes. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1906.
Evans, Richard Paul. The Christmas Box Collection: The Christmas Box/Timepiece/ The Letter. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Hammet, Dashiell. Dashiell Hammet: Complete Novels: Red Harvest/The Dain Curse/The Maltese Falcon/The Glass Key/The Thin Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1928.
Hillerman, Tony and Herbert, rosemary. The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Keene, Carolyn. The Best of Nancy Drew Classic Collection. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.
King, Rufus, Elin, Stanley, Coxe, George Harmon, Pentecost, Hugh, Lockridge, Francis, Lockridge, Richard, Gilbert, Michael, Armstrong, Charlotte, Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Ellery Queen’s 15th Mystery Annual. New York: Random House, 1960.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Evanston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: DoubleDay, 1966.
Sayers, Dorothy. Dorothy Sayers: The Complete Stories. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1972.
History of Mysteries:
Edgar Allen Poe:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:
Lee and Damay:
Earl Derr Biggers:
Erie Stanley Gardner:
Evan Hunter (Ed McBain):
This lesson was written by Debra L. Clark, Kent State University.