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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A fun exercise for sure, but doesn't it kind of undermine the whole "mystery as Literature" aspect by asking the students to focus only on constructing a plot? It's cool to take a break, change it up and make the last thing the students do be kind of fun, especially if you don't think a final exam over the course discussion is really necessary (which I'm guessing is the case since you said everyone understands the "big subjects"), but if the point of the class is to show how the mystery genre counts as Literature, and then you end the class by telling the students to come up with their own murder plot, then haven't you lost something with this class? Wouldn't it be more beneficial to have them apply the the stuff they've learned to something new, on their own? Like, say, apply what they've learned to a mystery of their choice that hasn't been discussed. It just seems to me that what you asked them to do for their final could be done by anyone, whether they had taken your class or not.

Of course, I'm only advocating this because I'm no longer a student; I would much prefer your test if I was in your class. Maybe I'm just over-thinking it. I know at least part of it is, looking back on my own college education, I wish some of my teachers had been more demanding.
Thanks, Thomas. Yeah, the students were happy for the opportunity to vent, if nothing else. Surprising (to me, at least) the amount of rage beneath the wholesome exteriors, particularly the young women. A shockingly murderous lot.
Thanks for the helpful suggestions, John. But no, the point is not to demonstrate that "the mystery genre counts as Literature." I want them to think about mysteries as they would any other literary work, with the same sets of issues in mind--particularly in regards to ethical questions--but also to look at the books from a writerly perspective and to develop a sense for the technical and imaginative challenges the author faces. When you're teaching the class, of course, you can do it your way.
You said, "I want them to ... develop a sense for the technical and imaginative challenges the author faces. "

Great point. My standard comment about TV crime drama has long been, "I could do better than that." My attempts at writing have almost cured me of that. I still gripe when they get the science wrong, but have learned how much work it is to put a story together and make everything work -- and I wrie short stories.

Great exam. Wish I had taken one like it.
D. C., this is precisely why I try not to be openly critical of other crime writers. "Surely I can do better than this dreck" -- ha! (she says, having just started the third re-write of her first novel)...
Great final exam, Jon. I definitely think paying attention to the kind of details you asked for is critical to a good murder mystery. I can suspend a lot of disbelief if characters and writing are good, but when the details have that "real" feel to them, it makes the book so much more compelling.

As far as disposing of the body, I've always enjoyed stories where disposal is either done publicly for a specific purpose, or it's irrelevant. The focus is on avoiding capture, minimal forensics, airtight alibis, etc.
I would walk to the middle of the bridge between campus and downtown. Then I'd dump the body over the side and hope for the best. If the river is frozen over (or if I thought the body would be found anyway), I'd leave it next to the drunks passed out on the bridge. Then I'd take their drunk, passed out hands in my sober, gloved digits and place them all over the body.

It worked for that one drunk douche who spilled vodka/Red Bull on my Air Force Ones at the Pickle last spring. The dumb bastard actually believed I had a freshman Pop Tart back at campus who couldn't sleep until she slipped a mile four inches at a time on his meaty driveway. He never saw the pen I had in my pocket.

No one suspects pens. The higher quality ones have no problem breaking skin. No one would notice a pen in the neck if I wrote "Bitch" in red ink on his Adam's apple before I shoved the thing into his jugular. Especially if I stabbed him in front of the drunks on the bridge. They'd just take it as horseplay between a couple drunk good ol' boys.

And then I just walked on by.

Sure, people saw me that night. They could identify me if they really wanted. But they won't. No one paying attention wants to point fingers at the college professor. They want to pass their class. They want to truly understand crime fiction.

Now they do.
Plus then you get to make a bad joke about the pen being mightier than the sword.
I once read that a human being who endures two weeks straight of total sleep deprivation will theoretically keel over and die--without any hint of what caused the death at autopsy. (This supposition is based on mouse studies. The scientists who've done the autopsies actually don't know why the mouse deaths occur.)

Me, I'm Leopold, and I've got a buddy named Loeb, and we want to know what it's like to murder someone, anyone, and at the same time commit the perfect crime. We rent a remote cabin in the woods on the outskirts of our town, lure a homeless man out there, and keep him awake for two weeks, using CIA sleep deprivation techniques, especially while we sleep and go to our college classes as usual. (One such technique involves shackling a person in a standing position at the wrists and feet with the chain to the wrist shackles bolted to the ceiling and the ankle shackles bolted to the floor so that any loss of consciousness would immediately result in a shift in body weight tugging on the restraints and rousing the subject.) No one misses the homeless man, of course, no one who'd report it, and even if they did the cops would hardly suspect us of snatching him.

Our victim drops dead in 14 days or less and that night we drop the body a few miles away, back in town; it really doesn't matter where except that we want the body found by morning. The only potential evidence of foul play might be abrasions from the shackles (though we'd padded them); nonetheless, the coroner will have no choice but to rule the death as due to natural causes. We get our adrenaline rush and prove our intellectual superiority to ourselves and never get caught (assuming we avoid Jimmy Stewart like the plague).
It's not a bad premise, though I highly doubt that there is literally no evidence of two weeks of not sleeping. The problem is forensic evidence - there might be enough that a case could be made for murder even with the coroner not finding a COD.

That's what will get you nowadays - Lincoln Rhyme or Kay Scarpetta could draw the case and then the killer is in trouble.


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