Progressive Nostalgia: The Post-War Crime Fiction of Paul William Ryan
Cohen, Victor, Journal of Narrative Theory
"To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way it really was' . . . It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger . . . Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious."
-Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (emphasis original).
At the end of WWII, Paul William Ryan, a well-known columnist, reporter and poet for the West Coast mainstream and Communist press, began writing a series of hard-boiled crime novels. Under the pseudonym "Robert Finnegan," Ryan published three books, all of which follow maverick reporter Dan Banion through a series of adventures which ultimately reveal the threat of fascism in post-WWII America. At first glance, this might seem a curiously anachronistic literary project. Unlike the antifascist 1930s spy novels of Eric Ambler, or the more novelistic anti-fascist work of James Farrell, Albert Maltz or Sinclair Lewis, Ryan's work not only post-dates the Allied victory in WWII, but is bounded by the confines of hard-boiled detective fiction, a genre not often seen as the logical site for forthright pohtical analysis. Though the first novel is set in the months preceding the United States' involvement in the war (The Bandaged Nude 1946), the second and third books unfold in the war's immediate aftermath (The Lying Ladies 1947, and Many a Monster 1948, respectively). Taken together as a project, these books show that Ryan was not so much formulating an analysis of post-WWII social relations, but keeping alive the memory and ambition of the progressive politics of the pre-war era in direct opposition to the emerging reactionary political "common sense" of the Cold War.
We might be tempted to view Ryan's crime fiction as a turn away from politics on his part, since these texts seem to mark such a drastic change in form, audience and content from the rest of his work. However, in this essay I look at the ways in which Ryan used these stories to create a counter-hegemonic political sensibility that used the language of anti-fascism as a means to signal to his audience the range of, and validity to, the progressive and radical politics of the 1930s. These stories help show how Ryan resisted the formation of a post-war popular culture of anticommunism, and aid us in tracing out how the radical literary and cultural projects of the "red decade" were carried on by a member of the radical left in the post-WWII era. Of course, Ryan's crime novels pose difficult questions about the potential for committed writing to exist within the regime of mass culture, even as they challenge us to look more closely at the relationship between political practice and mass-produced reading pleasure. Likewise, to account for Ryan's "Robert Finnegan" crime novels, we must take into account their status as artifacts of the anti-fascist culture and rhetoric of the Popular Front, in particular because they came into existence after that movement had ended.
Thus, I am using Ryan's crime fiction to do several interrelated tasks. On the one hand, his writing helps complicate the landscape of the post-war crime novel, which is generally viewed through the rise of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series, one of the most reactionary, violent, and profitable hard-boiled serials ever created. Though we have become more than comfortable with the idea that mass-produced popular culture (such as the hard-boiled crime genre) addresses political issues as a fundamental aspect of its ability to be popular, seldom do we think of these artifacts (or their writers) as part of a progressive social movement. In part, this is because the regime of mass culture has often worked against exactly this situation, but in part, this is the result of not having access to the fiction of writers like Ryan, whose work is long out of print. …