The final exam I just gave my 200-level Mystery as Lit class:

Thought some of you might get a kick out of this. The students loved it, mostly.

ENGL 272 Final Exam

Generally, final exams ask students to once again grapple with the basic subject matter of the class: in our case, some of the big questions presented by the great mystery novels of the past century or so, like gender issues, matters of race and class, and the idea of justice in its infinitely variable manifestations, whether cosmic in origin or man-made. This is not that kind of final. It’s my feeling that we’ve been over (and over) our big subjects, and that, generally speaking, we get it. So I’m going to ask you to do something one is hardly ever asked to do in college (or anywhere else, for that matter): use your imaginations. This exam has only one question, in three parts. It asks that you think the unthinkable (or not: for some of you this may not be such an unusual bit of ideation).

So here’s the exercise: In an informal essay, put yourself in the shoes of the crime novelist and imagine the perfect murder. Be sure to address all three parts, described below.

a. Who would you kill? It has to be someone specific, but no names, please, and no one I could identify (and not me, for giving you this crazy exam). If you’re mad at your biology professor, you could say “a certain professor in the sciences.” If it’s an ex-boyfriend, that’s all the information I need. Keep away from public or political figures: this should be someone from your life. It’s okay to fictionalize if you need to in order to hide a real person’s identity—so, your mother could become Aunt Betty, or whatever.

b.How would you do it? You must invent a credible scenario that would allow you to commit the crime without being caught. Where would the crime take place? What weapon would you use? How would you dispose of it? How would you avoid being spotted by witnesses? What about an alibi? Try to come up with a method that’s both original and workable: nothing too sadistic, please.

c.How would you dispose of the body? One catch here: you are geographically bound to Eau Claire county: no fair transporting the body to Oregon and heaving it into the Pacific ocean.

Try to keep these as clear and concise as possible. As I said, what I’m looking for are scenarios which are both original and workable. Remember that the police are slow and methodical, undermanned and under-funded, but not altogether stupid—and they have all of the usual forensic tools at their disposal. Before you start to write, you might want to think things through, and perhaps make some notes, lists, charts—whatever it takes.

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To repeat, the researchers don't know why the deaths occur. There isn't anything yet found in these types of deaths despite a friggin' autopsy. So what meaningful forensic evidence could there be? And to what purpose, given there is no proof of murder? Not even a suggestion.
When I was talking about forensic evidence, I was talking about things like pollen that can be narrowed down to the area where the cabin is or fibers from your trunk transporting the body (there are ways to avoid that, though). You'd even have to be careful not to get DNA - a few skin cells or a single teardrop from a blowing wind that somehow got transferred might at least theoretically do it. Those are just off the top of my head.

regarding medical evidence, you already mentioned the bruises, which would at the very least be suggestive. Also the person might have major bags under his eyes and other signs consistent with not sleeping.

Now, I am not suggesting that any of the above is totally conclusive, or that the necessary investigation would occur given the lack of obvious evidence and the homeless state of the victim. It is a pretty good crime, just not a perfect one. It's certainly good enough to be convincing in fiction, although you'd need to find a motivation for the killing beyond "wanted to commit the perfect murder."
Well it's fun to run through this...

I don't think the police would do anything with what little forensic evidence they encountered, given there's been no murder as far as the corpse is concerned. And the motive for the crime is taken from real life, from Leopold and Loeb, as well as taken from Alfred Hitchcock's movie, Rope (which is where my reference to Jimmy Stewart comes in).
you're probably right that the police would do nothing. So it is a pretty good concept for the answer to that exam. Leopold and Loeb of course did not just want to commit the perfect murder, they wanted to commit the perfect crime - with the ransom, etc. And in hindsight, the three stooges could have pulled it off more effectively :)

Of course, if the police do nothing and the murderer actually pulls it off, you have to figure out how to make it a compelling story. maybe someone suspects but has no evidence, although if it is really the perfect murder, that wouldn't be the case.
I also teach a course like this, titled "Detective Fiction." We have no final exam; we have a Final Paper instead. The paper can be academic or 'creative,' that is, a short crime story. These prompts could serve well as a planning exercise for that option. I've received some pretty good stories over the years. As for the less-than-successful ones, the students say (in an attached reflection) that they learned first-hand just how difficult it is to write one of these things.
I like it.
Great idea for an exam. I've wanted to teach a crime fiction writing course for a long time, but even creative writing programs are still snobby about it.
Sounds like a cool final, Jon! I would love to see what some of your students came up with.
Jon, That is so cool! I'd love to have taken a final like this instead of the usual "Trace the development of the .... from ... to ..., citing examples."
That's evil. I mean that in a good way. Please share the results!


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