Print project proposal: Shifting subjects in popular mystery fiction

Reading Jockers’ Macroanalysis and seeing how the author analyzed a large corpus of Irish literature in order to draw conclusions about Irish authors, the production of Irish literature, its themes, and other related topics inspired me to consider a similar project with my own particular literary interest area.  I refer to mystery fiction.  In 2017, I read 50 mystery novels—spanning in publication dates from 1868 to 2017, but centered during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in the 1920s and 30s—and engaged in some light analysis of the text that Jockers would characterize as “close reading.”  While it was an interesting way to draw conclusions about mystery fiction, it was neither an efficient one (as it did take me all year) nor a truly representative one (as I chose to read books I felt I’d like and ignored those I felt I wouldn’t like).

Macroanalysis inspired me to consider other tools for analyzing the world of mystery fiction.  My previous analysis blended the quantitative (how many characters died?) with the qualitative (how good was the book, rated on a five-star scale?) to come up with subjective qualitative conclusions.  (Seven out of 11 books to which I gave five-star reviews had 0 or 1 deaths; therefore, most great mystery novels are not bloodbaths.) 

But with digital macroanalytic tools, wider questions with deeper implications become available for our consideration and study.  For instance: What crimes have interested readers throughout time?  Within the past few years, we’ve seen two major patterns appear in popular mystery writing: true crime (such as Serial and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark) and psychological thrillers (such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train).  What patterns have emerged at other periods in history?

This is a huge question that would require a lot of work to answer, even with macroanalytic tools. The two main obstacles to this study are pretty major: first, the literary mystery corpus is unmanageably vast, and second, as Jockers discusses toward the end of his book, copyright laws block us from accessing that corpus easily. 

In order to combat the problem of an impracticably large corpus, I propose a more manageable project focusing solely on Agatha Christie’s novels.  A remarkably prolific author, Christie published 66 novels under her own name between 1920 and 1976 and achieved an exceptionally wide readership—as the back of all recently published Christie novels will remind you, her novels have been more widely published than any works other than Shakespeare and the Bible.  Although Christie cannot hope to represent the entire mystery fiction genre, if one author must be chosen as a representative, she seems the best suited to the task.

The copyright issue is a considerable stumbling block here: with some exceptions, the full text of Christie’s novels has not been digitized.  Her first three books are available through Project Gutenberg, and a few others can be read in plain text through the Internet Archive’s Open Library, but owing to the state of copyright laws, the books that are available in these digitized formats are generally Christie’s earliest, which is unhelpful to a project that seeks to track change over time.  To bypass this issue, I propose to focus my study on summaries.  Although a mystery novel’s summary will naturally not include everything that happens in the book, it will generally identify the crime that drives the story, which is the subject of my inquiry.  Synopses are included in ONIX metadata and, especially for constantly reprinted books like Christie’s works, multiple summaries for each book proliferate online on any number of sites, from WorldCat to publisher pages, Goodreads, and more.

After compiling these summaries, I propose to use MALLET’s topic modeling capabilities to examine the trends and patterns that show up in the summaries of Christie’s novels throughout time.  Wordle could also be a useful tool, at least for determining which individual words appear most often in summaries. Given the enduring popularity and wide readership enjoyed by Christie’s works, such an analysis will offer a window into the types of mystery and crime stories that have captured the public’s attention over a period of five decades.

As with all other types of media, the books that people read reflect information about their culture and the society they live in.  Mystery fiction in particular offers a fascinating look into people’s fears, their concerns about their society, and the threats they perceive in the world around them. My hope is that studying the literary mystery corpus will suggest some insights into the culture of Christie’s readership.

Let’s hang out some more with Omeka

If you haven’t already seen Alex’s post on Omeka, read hers first! Alex provides a great practical overview of the site and a guide for how to get started with Omeka.net. However, it’s hard to overstate just how much you can do with the platform, so as a supplement to her post, I’ll be sharing a little more information on how the site works and some examples of impressive Omeka sites.

First, I wanted to note that Omeka.net, which is free to use and, as Alex demonstrated, eminently easy to set up, isn’t the only version of Omeka. Omeka.org, or Omeka Classic, is basically the fancier, more sophisticated version, which requires you to set up your own server. (From what I’ve been told, I believe you can get yourself into the full version of Omeka Classic here at AU, but I humbly opt to refer you to AU’s IT people if you’re interested in finding out how.)

Omeka.net is essentially the light version of Omeka Classic, the free version of Spotify to Omeka Classic’s Spotify Premium. Or rather: Omeka.net would be the free version of Spotify if the free version of Spotify didn’t make you listen to ads but instead only had, like, Fear of Music, and none of the other Talking Heads albums. It’s not that Fear of Music isn’t a great album (“I Zimbra” is very much on it!), but it’s only a portion of the wider Talking Heads discography, and also, the Stop Making Sense version of “Life During Wartime” is dramatically superior. Also, in this scenario, the user interface of the free version of Spotify is just a little bit worse. If this extended Talking Heads simile isn’t working for you, I refer you to this helpful post on Omeka from Anthony Bushong and David Kim at the UCLA Center for Digital Humanities, specifically the “Omeka.net or Omeka.org?” section. If the simile did work for you but you have more specific questions, this table, linked on the UTA Libraries page on Omeka, gets deep into the nitty-gritty of what you can do with which version.

(Parenthetically: There is a third version, Omeka S, which would be like if you owned every Talking Heads album and then decided to build Spotify yourself. As an Omeka team member diplomatically puts it on an FAQ page, “Omeka S sites must be built from scratch and so may take more planning than an Omeka Classic site.” We’re going to be very realistic with ourselves here for the moment and focus only on Omeka.net and Omeka Classic. That said, I don’t mean to hold you back—if you’re feeling froggy, you can jump into the Omeka S sandbox, and I will encourage you from afar!)

It’s important to keep these variations in versions in mind as you go through the Omeka Directory that Alex linked to, because many of the websites listed note the plugins used, and not all of those plugins will be available to you if you’re on Omeka.net!

You should absolutely take some time to browse through that directory and check out what other users have made, but in the interest of whetting your proverbial appetite for web content, I’ll share some here that I found especially interesting or impressive.

A Shoebox of Norwegian Letters
This small, clean, and simple archive of letters is a clear example of the sort of functional, professional-looking website you can make with Omeka. It’s easy to navigate, apparently has 248 items in its collection, and completely serves its purpose in archiving these documents.

Sample page from "A Shoebox of Norwegian Letters"
An example of an item page for a letter in the collection.
"Classicizing Philadelphia" home page

Classicizing Philadelphia
Here’s another simple example of what an Omeka site can look like—I’ll point out that the site’s domain ends with “.omeka.net,” which seems to imply that this is an example of the free version of the service at work. The site features collections of items that draw attention to Greek and Roman heritage as it presents in Philadelphia, as well as small online exhibits offering a more guided look at the topic.

Exhibit page from "Classicizing Philadelphia"
An example of an exhibit page on the Classicizing Philadelphia site.
Bracero History Archive home page

Bracero History Archive
Now we’re beginning to get a bit fancier—here’s an award winner! The Bracero History Archive site presents its archive in two languages, allows contributions to its archive, and offers teaching resources. According to the Omeka Directory, this site uses (among others) a specific Contribution plugin, which “allows collecting items from visitors.” It’s also just a nice-looking piece of web design, a point that shouldn’t be overlooked!

Object page for a Bracero History Archive item
A look at the image archive page on the Bracero History Archive.
Klimt and the Vienna Secession home page

“This Kiss to the Whole World”: Klimt and the Vienna Secession
If you’re making a website about the Secession Building and Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, making the site ugly would be probably the worst crime you could commit, and making it uninformative would be the second worst. Fortunately, this Omeka site skillfully avoids both of these potential pitfalls. The collections are easy to view in depth, and the site has room for both interpretive text and rich visuals, all while keeping things organized.

Klimt and the Vienna Secession document
A document open for viewing on the Beethoven exhibit page. Visitors can click through and explore the book on their own. The entry for this site in the Omeka Directory doesn’t include a list of plugins used, but there are several options for embedding PDFs, images, et cetera that could be on display here.

Klimt and the Vienna Secession timeline
An extremely neat feature: the timeline. Stylish, useful, and well-organized.
The Story of the Beautiful home page

The Story of the Beautiful: Freer, Whistler, & Their Points of Contact
This is probably one of the most advanced Omeka sites I’ve found, and their entry on the Omeka Directory suggests why that may be. Whereas many sites just list two or three plugins used, this site on Whistler’s Peacock Room cites 11: “CreativeCommonsChooser, CSV Import, Docs Viewer, Dropbox, Freer Metadata (adapted from Dublin Core Extended), IntenseDebate, Item Relations, My Omeka (modified), SimpleContactForm, Simple Pages (heavily used), Social Bookmarking.” The fact that two of these are noted as having been modified or adapted suggests that some of the people who worked on this website may have had some more expertise than most Omeka users, but the site is a testament to the platform’s power.

The Story of the Beautiful room view
Two pages on the Peacock Room site allow visitors to “visit the room”—by clicking, dragging, zooming in, and zooming out, visitors can simulate the experience of visiting the room in two cities during two periods in its lifespan.
Lincoln at 200 home page

Lincoln at 200
Of all the sites I’ve viewed—and there have been many!—Lincoln at 200 remains one of the most consistently impressive to me because of how skillfully it structures its exhibits. The Omeka Directory is replete with many great examples of archival repositories, but Lincoln at 200 indicates Omeka’s potential as a platform for building a well-organized digital exhibition.

Lincoln at 200 document page
Each page of the exhibitions on Lincoln at 200 features an uploaded image or an archival document like this one, which is embedded so that viewers can explore it close up, with additional links to a transcript and where visitors can find the item in the archive. The exhibit skillfully incorporates archival materials into its interpretation through the various tools available on Omeka.

Believe it or not, this very long post only shows a minuscule fraction of what Omeka sites can do! Take a long stroll through the directory, and I promise you’ll find something inspiring and probably also something intimidating. Maybe those are the same thing! If nothing else, though, Omeka seems like a tool worth getting excited about.

A cordial hello, from your pal Katherine

Woman holding a cat
Here I am with my cat, Michael. His full name is Mike Wazowski but he usually just goes by Michael. He does not like me very much, but I adore him.

Hello all! I’m Katherine McCauley, and I am happy to be here. It is always a pleasure to exercise the old blogging muscles and to have a new avenue in which to share a photo of my very good cat, Michael. Please cherish it.

My lifelong goal was always to become a notary public, but I achieved that goal a few days after turning 24 and subsequently realized that I am likely going to live for a while longer yet, so I have had to come up with some new ones. Currently, I’m in my first year of the public history program, working toward my goal of starting a career in museum education, and I am also taking steps to achieve my other goal of harvesting cranberries in a cranberry bog. I anticipate that these will keep me busy for the next couple of years, at least.

History has not always been my focus, and in fact it has only been my focus for about four months now. I have a BA in Spanish Studies from AU and a Spanish translation certificate, and until this past August I had spent significantly more time studying phonology than studying history. Certainly there has been an appreciable learning curve, but a ship in harbor is safe, etc., etc. I’m enjoying it very much.

From as far back as I can remember, I have been a person who likes things. Here is a brief list of some of the things that I like (far from exhaustive):

  • Mystery novels — I like reading in general, and in one of my less-good decisions, I decided to read 50 mystery novels in 2017. I do not recommend doing this. I did, however, survive, and miraculously I still do love a good mystery. My favorites are Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series, a good Agatha Christie (I am happy to help you figure out which are the good ones), and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
  • Bonsai — A combination of two things I love: trees, and miniature versions of normal-sized things. My favorite place in DC is and has always been the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum. Get there!
  • Cross-stitching — This is a highly pleasant hobby. I’m absolutely miserable at meditating in general, but getting into a cross-stitch flow is about as close as it gets for me. I am working on a small lighthouse piece right now, but this is my most recent finished work.
  • Saabs — I can’t really explain this. I just love Saabs. I don’t care about cars otherwise, but something about seeing a Saab, especially a Saab 900, just fills my heart with hope.
  • The scene in Twin Peaks in which Ben Horne’s brother comes back from Paris and they eat sandwiches together — Listen, folks, I don’t watch a lot of TV, but in my extraordinarily uninformed opinion, this is about as good as it gets.
  • Birds — Well, birds are also as good as it gets. Rarely does a day go by in which I am not overwhelmed by the immense beauty of one bird or another. Ravens are my favorite because they are intensely smart, like all corvids, but also extremely silly and cute in their muppet-like appearance. (Speaking of Muppets and birds, my favorite Muppet is Sam the Eagle.) I also love owls (especially great horned owls and snowy owls, and with the exception of barn owls, which are scary) and cranes and herons, and my favorite bird I will likely never see in person is the magnificent King of Saxony bird-of-paradise. I also love puffins. Speaking of which:
  • The great state of Maine — Maine : the entire U.S. :: ravens : the entire class Aves. Truly the Ben Horne and his brother eating sandwiches of states. The happiest hour I passed in 2018 was the one I spent building cairns on a beach in Vacationland. One of the unhappiest hours I passed in 2018 was the one I spent trapped inside a time vortex as I tried to escape Acadia National Park, but…water under the bridge.

All this said, I am a person who likes many things, and for most of my life I have been sharing the things that I like online as a way of connecting with people. I’ve been blogging on various sites for as long as I can remember, and I’m constantly looking for new ways to share my passions, whether through making a website about my exquisitely powerful cat Mr. Cecil (it’s called Cecilnet, you can visit it at www.cecilnet.org, and I am very proud of it), posting daily art history Instagram stories, or chronicling all of the books I read (Mysteryfest ’17 and beyond) on Goodreads.

As such, my main hope for this course is to learn how to apply this longstanding love of sharing information online to the field of history. I’m really looking forward to learning about the possibilities for sharing history online and the best practices for doing so. It’s always a thrill to become acquainted with new platforms, and I’m so excited to have the opportunity to learn how to develop real, useful digital tools for sharing my enthusiasm for history with the public.

I’m so looking forward to getting to know all of you and to learning alongside you, and I’m eager for our first class meeting. In the meantime, best wishes!