Which Way Did He Go? The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross MacDonald

Which Way Did He Go? The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross MacDonald

Which Way Did He Go? The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross MacDonald

Which Way Did He Go? The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross MacDonald

Excerpt

This book is about heroes. Tough, hardboiled, individualistic, cynical, sometimes sneering, and always courageous. They belong to America's popular literature, emerging some time after World War I and flourishing throughout World War II. After World War II, some of them tried, not very convincingly, to hold onto their old ways, some of them modified their behavior, and some of them went beserk with violence and rage at the changed conditions of life.

The chapters that follow focus on the heroes of four authors—Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross Macdonald—who reveal and typify many of the underlying principles of popular fiction and who are, I believe, representative of shifting social and cultural attitudes.

The usual detective hero belongs to the world of popular culture as opposed to the world of high art. He is largely a creature of the mass media who nourishes the daydreams of his readers. But this in itself does not separate him from the realm of high art.

High art, in form or content, subverts ordinary perceptions of reality and hints at alternate interpretations of experience. Popular culture, on the other hand, tends to reinforce one's private fantasies and yet to reconfirm social and moral attitudes as well. Thus popular culture succeeds by producing an uneasy competition between an individual's unconscious wishes and the public's sense of acceptable values. For example, a love story written for a slick magazine in the 1930s might deal with a young woman's resistance to the sexual allure of an older or wealthy or married man. Her self-discipline, we are told, is justified because soon a virile, younger fellow will come along and ask for her hand. Clearly, the demands of the libido and society are in conflict in our hypothetical but not untypical story, and popular culture usually comes down hard on the side of society. But what the story also implies is that the heroine's physical needs will be better satisfied after marriage.

To take another example, in the traditional western, we are sometimes asked to believe that it was necessary to tame unruly nature and anarchic outlaws in order to advance American democracy and civilization. But the . . .

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