Watching the detectives: reading dime novels and hard-boiled detective stories in context. (Review Essay).
Hard-boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines. By Erin A. Smith (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000. 248 pages. $13.96/paperback).
Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science. By Ronald R. Thomas (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 341 pages. $59.95).
Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (Revised Edition). By Michael Denning (New York: Verso Press, 1998. 271 pages. $18.00/paperback).
When I began to research the literature of contractual murder in 1993, my colleagues at Johns Hopkins suggested I dig up some of the old pulp fiction magazines of the 20s, 30s and 40s, magazines like Black Mask, Detective Story and Dime Detective. They were sure I would find enough hit men in the pages of those periodicals to keep me busy for years. And I was sure they were right--hit men, con men, prostitutes, drug and gun runners, hired thugs, ex-cons, gangsters and racketeers were the foundations of pulp mystery and crime fiction; still, I didn't take their advice until I was stranded in a bookstore in a blizzard in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, almost three years later.
My reluctance to read the work of writers like Erle Stanley Gardner, Frederick Nebel and W.T. Ballard was a result of having been told by every academic I had ever encountered that it was completely worthless, not just as art, but even as schlock fiction. "They can't even do good garbage," one of my colleagues declared during one of our many discussions on the subject. And though the issue of class was never raised during any of our discussions, there was a tacit understanding that the "they" to which my colleague referred, and the people "they" wrote for, were of the lower classes, people who, according to the June 1933 issue of Vanity Fair, " ... move their lips when they read" (1)--people, according to my colleague, who did not attend Johns Hopkins. With the notable exception of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammert and Ross Macdonald, that hard-boiled trio the snooty, gate-keeping literati eventually embraced as delightfully cynical American modernists, the authors of hard-boiled detective fiction were not t o be taken seriously.
But that afternoon in 1996, as I browsed the rows of books in Johnson's Book Trader and waited for the snow to let up, the cover of Maxim Jakubowski's then-just-published noir anthology, The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, caught my eye. Now that I think about it, that's probably how many readers of magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective came to the original periodicals and why they took a chance on the stories inside. The cover of Jakubowski's mammoth book is an authentic reproduction (I'm assuming it's an authentic reproduction--there is no mention anywhere in the book of the artist's name or the periodical from which it was taken) of an old pulp magazine cover that depicts only three things: a street lamp, a Mercedes and a raven-haired woman in a red dress shooting a look over her shoulder hotter than the cigarette she's smoking. The words "Pulp Fiction" scream out, just above her ample behind, in an almost nauseating lemon-jelly yellow shadowed in red. It was so tawdry and cheap looking, I couldn't re sist. I bought the book and found a quiet place by a window to wait out the storm.
In the two hours it took for the storm to move through and the snow plows to make the roads passable, I had read nearly half of the anthology and was, with one or two exceptions, completely disappointed. While the language of the stories was wonderful--take a look at this line from "Flight to Nowhere" by Charles Williams
"Gone," the mate said, with the air of a man who has been talking to ghosts without believing in them. (16) and this exchange from Dashiell Hammett's "Too Many Have Lived": "Who is this Eli Haven? What does he do?" "He's a bad egg. He doesn't do anything. Writes poetry or something." (2)
--the stories themselves were shallow and formulaic; the characters were cardboard cut-outs that meandered from one almost-sexual encounter to another and, no matter what the plot was or where the story was set, someone inevitably ended up unconscious in an alley behind some strip bar or juke joint where guys named Sal or Eddie poured a beer no matter what the order was. The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction confirmed what I had always suspected--pulp fiction was worthless. When I got back to my apartment in Iowa City, I threw the anthology on a shelf and forgot about it.
It wasn't until I read Hard-boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines, that I took the anthology down from that shelf and started reading it again, almost seven years (and three states) later. In Hard-boiled, Erin A. Smith breaks away from the formalist and structuralist traditions ("text-based models of literary criticism") out of which most detective fiction scholarship springs and focuses instead on reconstructing the lives and reading practices of the people who read and enjoyed hard-boiled fiction--those people who, as luck would have it, were not members of the record-keeping classes: "African-Americans, recent immigrants, the poor, the working classes--those customarily denied meaningful access to advanced literacy or the means of cultural production."
One of the few works of pure American Studies that I have as yet encountered, Hard-boiled is a work of interdisciplinary scholarship that is informed by "three overlapping fields of [scholarly inquiry]: the history of the book, working-class studies, and feminist cultural studies." (8) By examining closely the themes of the fiction published in magazines like Black Mask, the columns written by the editors, the letters written by the readers, the advertisements that ran next to (and were in constant conversation with) the stories, the records left by librarians of the period and interwar labor history, Ms. Smith makes a convincing argument that the readers of pulp fiction in the 20s, 30s and 40s were "primarily ... white, male, often immigrant, and working-class." (16) These readers, according to Smith, were concerned with finding and keeping jobs that provided them with as much autonomy and money as possible, with asserting their manliness and keeping women in their traditional places--they used the stories p ublished in the pulp magazines to find ways to quell their anxieties. As Smith states at the end of her introduction:
Pulp fiction for working-class readers was less about crime and the process of detection than about the hard-boiled private eye's struggles for autonomy at work, his skill at reading class and social position from details of dress and decor, his manly physical and rhetorical prowess, and his tortured relations with women. (17)
Hard-boiled makes clear that pulp fiction, perhaps more than any other kind of literature, is tied inextricably to a specific time and place and that the cultural and literary contexts of the stories are as important to an understanding and appreciation of the stories, as any discussion of plot or character. As Smith points out at the end of her second chapter, "The Adman on the Shop Floor":
Black Mask ads and fiction were presented as almost seamlessly connected. Ads urged readers to become skilled, well-paid workers; hard-boiled heroes knocked heads with clients and agency owners over their workplace autonomy. Ads urged readers to remake themselves into real men; Black Mask fiction gave them role models. Ads focused readers' attention on the wrinkles in their clothes, the errors in their speech, and the vulgarity of their manners; the magazine's heroes offered instruction in reading how class, gender, and power relationships were embodied in dress and bearing. (72)
I found the stories in Jakubowski's Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction so disappointing because they were taken completely out of context. One of the great paradoxes of pulp fiction is that even though you are reading the same story in the year 2000 that was originally read in 1923, you aren't really reading the same story. Pulp fiction was used by those who read it to (re)negotiate the rapidly changing world in which they found themselves. Reading these stories in a time of relative stability when men no longer define their masculinity primarily by physical prowess, when workers have grown accustomed to a lack of workplace autonomy and when women are an accepted part of the work-a-day world--and especially reading them from an academic remove!--makes any recreation of the original reading experience virtually impossible. Having the context restored does, however, allow for a deeper appreciation than is possible otherwise and, while it might be impossible to experience the stories as they were originally experience d, Smith proves that one can achieve at least some understanding of that experience.
Side Note: 43% of Jakubowski's mammoth book isn't technically pulp fiction. As Smith rightly points out, pulp fiction died in the early fifties; the stories Jakubowski includes that were written in the hard-boiled style in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s might have been inspired by the earlier work, but they are in no way the same--the cultural work they would have done would have been completely different than that done by early-twentieth-century hard-boiled detective fiction. And you can skip his introduction--it's wrong on the facts and weak on everything else.
It's obvious that Smith has done her homework. She is completely familiar with the entire genre of early-twentieth-century hard-boiled detective fiction as well as with the contemporary African-American, feminist, gay and lesbian detective fiction to which those first authors gave rise. She even explores some of the possible reasons why a genre characterized by misogyny and homophobia seems to be of particular interest to contemporary women and minority writers. Moreover, she supports her arguments with meticulous research in the areas of American Literature, History, Cultural Studies, Philosophy, Sociology and Anthropology. She cites (intelligently) everyone from David R. Roediger, John Kasson and Kathy Peiss to T.S. Eliot, Michel de Certeau and Pierre Bourdieu. However, one of her resources is cited far more often than any of the others: Michael Denning and his book Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America.
I don't want to diminish Erin A. Smith's achievement by saying that Hardboiled couldn't have been written without Mechanic Accents, but it's obvious that Smith took her cues from the material in Denning's third and fourth chapters, chapters entitled" 'The Unknown Public': Dime Novels and Working Class Readers" and "The Uses of Literacy: Class, Culture, and Dime Novel Controversies," respectively. This is not to say that she is unoriginal, far from it, only that Denning is her largest and most obvious inspiration--hardly surprising when you consider that Mechanic Accents set the industry standard in 1987 for the kind of inquiry in which she is engaged. When it comes to looking at how popular literature functions in society as well as its relationship to society, Mechanic Accents is like the Grand Canyon: it doesn't matter if you love it or you hate it, it's a huge landmark that you can't pretend doesn't exist.
But for all of their similarities, there are several major differences between the two books. For example, in Mechanic Accents, Michael Denning examines, painstakingly, the nineteenth-century "popular narratives ... that are lumped under the term 'dime novel'," which he identifies as appearing in three formats between the 1840s and the 1890s--story papers, dime novels and cheap libraries (10)--and characterizes as" ... the American equivalent of the French feuilleton or the British 'penny dreadful'." An understanding of the place those narratives occupied "in the cultures of American working people" (2) is what Denning is after--as opposed to Smith, who is seeking as thorough an understanding as is possible of how hard-boiled detective narratives were used by working-class men in the 1920s, 30s and 40s to (re)negotiate their world. In other words, Hard-boiled is a book concerned with the "reconstruction of the reading practices of one set of marginal readers--the white, working-class men who encountered hard- boiled detective fiction in pulp magazines between 1923 and the collapse of the pulp-magazine market in the early 1950s" (16) (if you believe Jakubowski, which you should not, the pulp market never collapsed), whereas Mechanic Accents is a book concerned with finding the answers to "two principal questions: what can be learned about these popular narratives, their production and consumption, and their place and function within working class cultures; and, what can be learned from them, as symbolic actions, about working class culture and ideology." (3) Denning wants to know what we can learn about nineteenth-century culture from studying dime novel narratives; Smith wants to know what the readers of early-twentieth-century hard-boiled detective stories learned about their culture by reading what they read.
Moreover, Mechanic Accents is a far more traditional work of scholarship than is Hard-boiled--and I mean that pejoratively. Denning, for all his brilliance, writes the kind of flat, lifeless, prose one expects to hear read in a nearly-empty lecture hall by a doddering, half-blind, English professor who speaks only in the frowning monotone of a man who has been divorced for ten years and has yet to realize his wife is gone. Every line in Mechanic Accents drips with the superiority Denning obviously feels toward his subject matter--he might write about dime novels, but you can tell he wouldn't be caught dead reading one. Smith, on the other hand, loves hard-boiled detective fiction and it's obvious that she reveled in the chance to spend a considerable amount of time immersed in it. Her prose is lively and passionate, funny and poignant--in short, she can write as well as she can think, which is unusual for someone in her field. Just look at the excerpts below, one taken randomly from each book:
This sense of the social situation of sensational fiction reading is very important; though reading is probably always one of the more private and individual activities, and no doubt many dime novels were read and savored as something private and one's own, the reading of popular fiction in nineteenth-century working-class cultures does have social, familial and communal aspects.
(Mechanic Accents, 69)
The running gag in Chandler's The High Window is Marlowe's sense of solidarity with a statue of a little black boy in livery in his client's front yard. "He looked a little sad," Marlowe says, "as if he had been waiting there a long time and was getting discouraged." After an ill-tempered housekeeper has taken his card and slammed the door in his face, Marlowe muses: "I thought that maybe I ought to have gone to the back door." He pats the "little Negro" on the head with the words, "Brother, you and me both." Race here is less a matter of skin color than a power relationship. Marlowe is "black" in this scenario because he is a poorly paid hireling of a wealthy white woman.
And here's something interesting: as far as bodies of evidence go, Smith casts her net far wider than Denning does and yet Denning's subject matter is far broader than Smith's. Most of Denning's sources are secondary and Conservative--you find in his bibliography the names you would expect to find in a work of left-leaning interdisciplinary history (and I do mean "interdisciplinary history," not American Studies--the difference between the two becomes clear when you read Mechanic Accents and Hard-boiled against each other): Henry Nash Smith, Alan Trachtenberg, Karl Marx. But I should mention that where these books differ in their bodies of evidence is not nearly as interesting, or as mysterious, as where they are alike. Aside from the fact that they both dip into the rather predictable wells of Kathy Peiss and Fredric Jameson, they also share a citation of Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. What the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller has to do with twentieth -century hard-boiled detective fiction and nineteenth-century dime novels is beyond me.
What is also beyond me is how Ronald R. Thomas, Professor of English and Vice President of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, could have written a book about nineteenth and early-twentieth-century detective fiction in what appears to be complete ignorance of the copious scholarship that has been done in the field. Apparently, I was wrong when I said that Michael Denning and his work are huge landmarks that are impossible to ignore--Thomas's Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science ignores it completely as it does almost everyone and everything else--that's odd when you consider that it takes as its focus the same two time periods and subject matter as Mechanic Accents and Hard-boiled. One would expect, as Detective Fiction was published in 2000, to see a certain amount of overlap of its sources with the sources of the previous two. Not so. Thomas goes to Poe and Doyle, Hemingway and Hawthorne. When he does cite scholars, he cites primarily literary scholars: people like John T. Irwin, whose b ook, The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story, did for the analytical detective story what Denning's Mechanic Accents did for the nineteenth-century dime novel. However, I should point out that Mechanic Accents, though dry, is still an extremely viable text--The Mystery to a Solution, for all of its insights, is impenetrable.
But perhaps Thomas's decision to search for sources in the literature section of the library is as it should be. Detective Fiction, though it focuses on "certain forensic devices [that] enable the body to function both as text and as politics in [detective fiction]," (3) is far more a work of literary criticism than either Denning's Mechanic Accents or Smith's Hard-boiled. Instead of looking at what the fiction can tell us about the culture--what Denning and Smith do--Thomas looks at what the culture can tell us about the fiction. From the introduction:
Like the inquiry of the [fictional] detective, this book begins ... with the strategies of interpretation and authentication the detective brings to bear on the body of the criminal and victim alike. I attend in particular to the authority the literary detective claims for himself through the "devices" by which he discovers the truth and defines an identity, calling attention to the way those technologies relate to broader questions of subjectivity and cultural authority at decisive moments in the evolution of the genre in nineteenth-century England and America. (3)
Thomas attempts to make his argument be examining what he terms "three critical points in the history of the literary detective" (5): the invention of the form by Edgar Allen Poe with his three C. August Dupin stories, "Murders in the Rue Morgue," The Purloined Letter" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (2); the perfection of the form by Arthur Conan Doyle with his Sherlock Holmes stories; and the rejection of the "golden age" in the works of Hammett and Chandler in the 1920s and 30s. And as methodologies go, that's not a bad one. The problem is that he tends to make audacious assertions (see second endnote, below) and leaps of logic and reason that he never adequately supports. In short, Thomas is looking in the right place, considering the questions he wants to answer; unfortunately, he is not looking in the right way--either that or he isn't looking hard enough.
Though Detective Fiction, by itself, would not be of much use or interest to anyone but a literary scholar--and is certainly destined to become little more than one of those arcane sources tweed-clad graduate students use to support their improbable theories--it gains something like credibility when read in conjunction with Denning and Smith. Thomas's argument, that breakthroughs in forensic science in the nineteenth century like "fingerprint technology, forensic profiling [and] crime photography" (4) turned the human body into a text that could be read and were then used by writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe to transform the mysteries of the individual body into compelling representations of the body politic, is not a frivolous one; however, had I not had the benefit of reading Mechanic Accents and Hard-boiled, two excellent examples of scholarship based on broad bodies of evidence, I doubt I would have been as open to it. Put another way: Denning and Smith prove that this kind of scholarshi p can be done well (whether it is an examination of the culture via its productions or an examination of a culture's productions via the culture that produced them makes no difference), so when Thomas makes his attempt, I can at least go along with him in theory.
Of the three books, Erin A. Smith's Hard-boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines is easily the most compelling, if not the most important. Michael Denning's Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America still holds that title and probably always will. It is still the last word in this particular area of inquiry. Ronald R. Thomas's Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science is an oddity more than anything else--what few good ideas there are in the book are not adequately supported and come off as spontaneous declarations apropos of nothing. I doubt it will do much harm, but I can't imagine that it will contribute to his or any other field in any significant way. As for Maxim Jakubowski, his Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction was the first book in what has become a trend. With pulp fiction being published in anthologies (read: decontextualized) more than ever (a random sampling of some of the more widely distributed offerings include: American Pulp, Edited by Ed Gorman; The Vinta ge Book of Classic Crime, Edited by Michael Dibdin and Hard-boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, Edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian), books like Smith's and Denning's become important not only to scholars but also to readers interested in having more than just a passably enjoyable reading experience.
(1.) As quoted in Hard-boiled, by Erin A. Smith, 18.
(2.) Thomas also considers several other of Poe's tales to be detective stories, among them, "The Tell-Tale Heart." While I understand the point he is trying to make, that the heart in that particular tale gives the killer away in much the same way that the heart rate and blood pressure of a criminal will give him or her away when he or she is questioned while hooked up to a lie detector, to refer to the lie detector as a "bizarre mechanical incarnation" (21) of Poe's tale is more than just a little bit of a stretch.