BA Art History and English Literature

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Crime and Contemporary Culture

Unit code ENGL34091
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by English and American Studies
Available as a free choice unit? No


 This course critically examines the relationship between crime and various forms of contemporary cultural production: fiction (both ‘literary’ and ‘genre’), memoir, true crime, film, television drama, documentary, podcast and critical theory. It focuses on the cultural, historical, sexual and political stories articulated, constructed and contested through narratives of crime, including: the anxieties about futurity, memory and history focalised through the figure of the abused, missing or murdered child; the ethical, aesthetic and political questions that are generated by exploring ‘true’ crimes; the ways in which social structures of race, class and whiteness are effaced and/or critiqued by contemporary narratives of crime and policing; the figuring of history as a crime to be uncovered and investigated; and the problematics of ‘closure’ and ‘resolution’. 


The aims of this course are:

- to introduce students to key texts and critical issues from late twentieth and early twenty-first-century cultural production

- to introduce students to the analysis of a range of different media and cultural forms: fiction (both ‘literary’ and ‘genre’), memoir, true crime, film, television drama, documentary, podcast and critical theory.

- to consider the formal and thematic innovations made by writers and broadcasters in the contemporary period, and to analyse the ways in which these innovations represent and respond to other contemporary texts.

- to analyse the ways in which contemporary texts interact with their cultural and historical contexts in their figurations of crime and violence: for instance, the emergence of neoliberalism, the legacies of postmodernist experimentation, the rise of digital technology and contemporary attention to child sexual abuse.

- to consider intersectional issues like gender, sexuality, and race as they affect the cultural construction of crime and the construction of cultural responses to crime and violence.

- to engage with selected theoretical and critical engagements with feminism, crime, futurity, the ethics of fiction and social deprivation.

- to develop skills of critical thought, speech, and writing in relation to the analysis of crime and cultural production.


I: Introduction

Week 1: Crime, Politics and Pleasure

  • Short excerpt from Michel Foucault, (ed.), I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century (1982)
  • Short excerpt from Lisa Downing, The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality and the Modern Killer (2013)
  • Short excerpt from Alan Sinfield, Fault-Lines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (1992)
  • Short excerpt from George Orwell, ‘Decline of the English Murder’ (1946)


II: No Future? The Symbolic Child

Week 2: Abusive History

  • Rupert Thomson, Death of a Murderer (2007)
  • Excerpt from Lee Edelman, No Future (2004)


Week 3: Cycles of abuse: nature, nurture and the social

  • Happy Valley series one (BBC, 2014)


Week 4: Who watches the watchers? Elites, corruption and conspiracy

  • Line of Duty series three (BBC, 2016)


Week 5: Re-writing the James Bulger murder

  • Denise Mina, Field of Blood (2005)
  • Boy A, dir. by John Crowley (2007)


Week 6: Reading Week


III: True Crime?

Week 7: Historicising the Yorkshire Ripper

  • Gordon Burn, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son (1984)


Week 8: Fictionalising the Yorkshire Ripper

  • David Peace, Nineteen Eighty (2001)


Week 9: Feminist Forms

  • Maggie Nelson, The Red Parts (2015)


IV: Faultlines – Class, Race and Whiteness

Week 10: Liberal trauma

  • Édouard Louis, History of Violence (2018)


Week 11: Policing the Crisis

  • Cracker: episode ‘To Be A Somebody’ (ITV, 1994)
  • Life on Mars series 2 episode 6 (BBC, 2007)
  • Short excerpt from Stuart Hall (ed.), Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978)


Week 12: New forms; old stories?

  • 'When They See Us' (dir. by Ava DuVernay, Netflix 2019)
  • 2x episodes from Serial series three (WBEZ) [Airing from September 2018]

Teaching and learning methods

 This class will have a 1 hour lecture, a 2 hour seminar (scheduled as 1 x 3 hour block), and 2x 2 hour screenings over 11 teaching weeks.


Materials including preparatory readings, exercises, lecture slides and handouts will be posted on Blackboard each week. Seminar participants will be encouraged to use Blackboard message boards and email.

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

- demonstrate a thorough familiarity with a range of contemporary Anglophone fictions and their contexts;

- demonstrate a critical understanding of how concepts of crime are constructed and contested in contemporary texts;

- apply critical theory to contemporary texts;

- demonstrate an understanding of contemporary discourses around crime in relation to late twentieth and early twenty-first-century history and politics.

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

- think critically and make critical judgments about crime and contemporary cultural production

- analyse course texts in an effective and incisive manner;

- identify and outline key problems and issues in the narration and figuration of crime and violence.

- evaluate critical arguments advanced by other writers, artists and critical theorists.

Practical skills

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

- plan and execute independent research on crime and cultural production in the contemporary period;

- make good use of library, electronic, and online resources pertaining to the course;

- speak and write clearly about the complex issues surrounding crime and cultural production.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

- retrieve, sift, organise, synthesise and critically evaluate material from a range of different sources, including library, electronic, and online resources;

- produce written work using appropriate language for an academic audience;

- produce written work that collects and integrates evidence to formulate/test a critical argument;

- make good use of word processing software;

- demonstrate the ability to improve one’s own learning through team-work, critical reflection and evaluation and 1:1 meetings with instructor. 

Assessment methods

Mid-term essay; 3000 words; 50%

Final exam; 2 hours; 50%

Study hours

Independent study hours
Independent study 0

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Christopher Vardy Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Timetable for 2019/20:

Seminar: Mon 9am - 12pm

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