Academic journal article British and American Studies

A Mysterious Woman Enters a Grumpy Detective's Office: Why Is Hard-Boiled Genre Still Entertaining Us?

Academic journal article British and American Studies

A Mysterious Woman Enters a Grumpy Detective's Office: Why Is Hard-Boiled Genre Still Entertaining Us?

Article excerpt

1.Introduction: The first class of American detectives

The hard-boiled genre has always been underrated as escapist and it is indeed to a high degree, although it might be useful to ponder a little bit on Raymond Chandler's observation in "The Simple Art of Murder" (Chandler 1977: 232) that "All reading for pleasure is escape..." One knows the traditional repertoire: fedoras and trench coats, the femme fatale, the lights of cars probing the rainy nights, tires screeching on asphalt, the red tips of cigarettes glowing in the dark, narrow alleys where anything can happen, the mansions of the rich with a dubious past, the heist gone wrong, the landlady or the landlord ready to turn in the lodgers in exchange for a generous tip, the hateful hoodlum descending from a black sedan, the political crook and his unstable offspring, corrupted cops who hope for the detective's immediate undoing. Why should all these be looked down on as easy gain? Perhaps the reputation of hard-boiled fiction owes much to its blooming in the pulp magazines during the era of the sophisticated modernist novel. Hard-boiled seems to be a sum of conventions and clichés, although it is precisely apparent strict rules that ensure literary flexibility. Whereas European detective fiction gratifies the reader with elaborate patterns, clues intellectually chosen and the whole "whodunit" paraphernalia, the hard-boiled literature is not mainly about the case. It is not always about detectives either. It conjures up a morally charged atmosphere and a particular American aesthetic. Praising the detective story in a 70s lecture, Jorge Luis Borges (1999: 499) deplored the contemporary American genre considering it too realist, too brutal and sexually charged, lacking the rationalistic finesse of classic masters such as Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton or E.A. Poe. But he was wrong. Borges did not understand that hard-boiled marked a completely different turn in crime fiction. A private eye's job is never done, at least from an ethic point of view. Perhaps violence should be considered the most constant feature indeed, yet each one of the great hard-boiled writers rethinks the genre afresh, coping with literary influences both from inside and from outside of detective literature and adapting slang, daily habits, landscape, ethnic mélange, architecture and so on to his or her own designs. Hard-boiled fiction assesses American mores at a certain time. However one should not pass over its romantic vein condescendingly.

Hard-boiled is "a big city genre in setting and attitude" (Irwin 2006: 200). William Faulkner was very fond of detective fiction and always wanted to master it - not only novels such as Intruder in the Dust or Sanctuary prove this, but also his friendship with Dashiell Hammett and his screenwriting for the Howard Hawks' adaptation of Chandler's The Big Sleep - yet Faulkner's universe is much too rural (Irwin 2006: 200; Bloom 2015: 418). The private eye is the American heir of the flâneur, the romantic stroller of grand urban spaces. Walter Benjamin opposed the flâneur to the busy crowd. He or she is "out of place", an anomaly among workers, busy pedestrians, cinema goers, carriages, and cars. The flâneur needs "elbow room" where everybody else is jostling in a hurry and seeks leisure time where there is none anymore (Benjamin 2007:172-174). Surprisingly, the first American detective is French - Auguste Dupin, Poe's invention. Dupin investigates the Parisian crime world maybe because, as Borges (1999: 495-496) put it, Poe was not interested in the real way a shamus from New York would do his inquest, and a fictional stranger from overseas served his uncanny endings best. However, Poe's most important contribution to hard-boiled genre is not the detective - Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe are the very opposite of Dupin -, but his definition of what John T. Irwin (2006: 186-187) calls "the area of motive", the suggestion of a perverse principle "in the human psyche bent on vexing the self by making it perform acts the conscious mind identifies as being in the self s worst interests". …

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