SAMPLE READING LIST: American Hard-boiled and Noir Crime Fiction, 1920-1960


Invented by Poe and advanced by British predecessors, the classical models of detection fiction were at odds with trends in 19' century American fiction such as the dime novel detective stories and the muckraking city novels. Retaining the air of Gothic mystery and horror tales or modifying imagery from Frontier myth, these non classical forms were the origins of hard-boiled, and later noir, fiction in the U.S. There is a lot of overlap between "hard-boiled" and "noir," and the distinction is partly based on formal differences and partly on conditions of historical origin. On the question of historical origin, I understand "hard-boiled" to originate in the twenties, while "noir" follows in the thirties, developing out of Cornell Woolrich and elements of Dashiell Hammettt and James Cain. Noir encompasses a wider, more flexible range ofplots, types, and themes than the hardboiled detective story, and is the inspiration for the film noir in the post WW2, Cold War period. In addition to the hard-boiled and noir writers, the list also includes one work by Ed McBain, adapter of the police procedural (French origins), which becomes the next dominant form in the American crime fiction tradition.

Of particular interest will be the exchange between these writers and those of American high Modernism. Certain of these writers, such as Hammettt, Cain, and Chandler, will be considered vernacular modernists, and the paradigms of the crime melodramas will be considered for the way they have been used by both canonical and vernacular modernists to address issues of inequality (racial, sexual, and economic), the belatedness of narrative to event, the impact of Freudian psychoanalysis on literary form, and changing images of American manhood.

Above all, the novels and stories in this field will be understood as examples of craft art, meaning that their authors developed and modified popular formulas to address genuine social and aesthetic problems. Hence the close reading bias of this field, for these works too often have been discussed in mass (as treats purely escapist entertainment), rather than receiving intense, focused analysis. In this respect, the film noir has received much more advanced critical treatment than its literary sources; my work here is intended as a corrective to this lack.



The Heroics of the Hardboiled and Noir Protagonists (the private detective; the working class police investigator; the sympathetic, or underdog, criminal; the psychopath); directly related here is the way the various hero types define themselves vis a vis Good Girls, Fatal Girls, Good Bad Girls, and Perverts.

Selected texts:
— Private Dicks: "The False Burton Combs"; The Maltese Falcon; Farewell My Lovely; Kiss Me Deadly
— Working Class Police Investigator: The Mugger
— The Underdog Criminal: The Asphalt Jungle
— Psychopath (male and female versions): The Bride Wore Black; The Killer Inside Me.

Many commentators have said that the prose style and voice of the hard-boiled writers is an insistently masculine one. What do we identify as masculine about the aspects of style and voice in the hardboiled novels? This question is inseparable from the issue of class, since these novels criticize the rich and upper middle classes for possessing style without integrity; they are consistently portrayed as effeminate and pretentious, their polite hypocrisy veiling that they are subject to lusts and violent drives like everyone else. Over and against this mannered, femininized style, the hard-boiled writers assert a voice that is supposed to be grounded in a tough, disenchanted world of authentic experience. What turns of speech, figurative language, and forms of humor compose this voice? a voice that sometimes denies that it's stylized.

Selected texts:
— Hemingway: "The Killers"
— Cain: Postman Always Rings Twice
— Hammett: Red Harvest
— Chandler: The Long Goodbye (his most elegant), The Little Sister (for its humor)
— MacDonald: The Moving Target
— Himes: A Rage in Harlem (for addition of black slang vernacular)

The impact of Freudianism on the narrative logic, methods of detection, and understanding of criminality in the fictions.

Selected texts:
— Cain: Double Indemnity
— Hammett: The Dain Curse
— Woolrich: "Rear Window"
— MacDonald: The Moving Target
— Highsmith: Strangers on a Train

— Gresham: Nightmare Alley
— Faulkner: Sanctuary

The mutual interaction of the crime novels and high modernist American writers.

Hemingway: "The Killers"
Faulkner: Sanctuary
(Keep in mind Gatsby, though it's not a focal text here)
Hammett: The Maltese Falcon
Chandler: any one of the novels listed above
McCoy: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

The theme of the Dark City.

Woolrich: "The Death of Me"
Chandler: Farewell, My Lovely
Faulkner: Sanctuary
Gresham: Nightmare Alley
Burnett: The Asphalt Jungle
McBain: The Mugger



— Carroll John Daly, "The False Burton Combs" (`22)
— Ernest Hemingway, "The Killers" (`27)
— Cornell Woolrich, "Rear Window" (`42), "The Death of Me" (`35), The Bride Wore Black (`40)
— Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse(`28), Red Harvest (`29), The Maltese Falcon(`30)
— James Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (`34), Double Indemnity (`36)
— Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely (`40), The Little Sister (`48), The Long Goodbye (`53)
— William Faulkner, Sanctuary (`31)
— Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (`50)
— W. R. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle (`42)
— Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem (`56)
— Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses Don't They? (`35)
— William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley (`46)
— Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (`52)
— Ross MacDonald, The Moving Target (`49)
— Ed McBain, The Mugger (`56)
— Mickey Spillane, Kiss Me Deadly (`52)



Discussions of 19th-century American literary precursors to the hard-boiled school:
— Richard Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation (1992),
— David S. Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance (1988)
— Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel (1960)

— Frank MacShane's, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976)
— Diane Johnson, Dashiell Hammett: A Life (1983)

— Ron Goulart, The Dime Detectives (1988)

— Tom Naremore, "Modernism and Blood Melodrama" in More Than Night (1998)

1. On Psychoanalysis and Narrative Form
— Steven Marcus, "Freud and Dora: Story, History, Case History" in Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis (1987)
— Frederick Hoflman, Freudianism and the Literary Mind (1957)
2. On "the Psychopath"
— Hervey M. Cleckley, "Psychopathic States," American Handbook of Psychiatry, v. 1 (1959)

1. Narrative form
— The Art of the Mystery Story (1946) [a collection of essays]
— Frank Kermode, "Recognition and Deception" and "Secrets and Narrative Sequence" in The Art of Telling (1983)
— D. A. Miller, The Novel and The Police (1992)
— Franco Moretti, "Clues" in Signs Taken for Wonders (1988)
— Peter Messent, "From Private Eye to Police Procedural The Logic of Contemporary Crime Fiction" in Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel (1997)
2. Style
— Raymond Chandler, "Notes on the Mystery Novel," "The Simple Art of Murder"
— Nathaniel West, "Notes on Violence"
— [hard-boiled poetry as a stylistic development in American letters]
— H. L. Mencken, "American Slang" The American Language, v 1
— Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature (1966)
— Harry Levine, "Observation on the Style of Ernest Hemingway" and Sean O' Faolain, "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" in Hemingway, ed. Robert Weeks (1962)

— Georg Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life" in The Sociology of Georg Simmel
— Carl Shorske, "The Idea of the City in European Thought: Voltaire to Spengler" (1979)
— Walter Benjamin, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," "One Way Street," "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century," Illuminations
— Terry Curtis Fox, "City Nights," Film Comment 20:6 (October 1994)
— Mike Davis, "Sunshine or Noir?" City of Quartz.

— Sally R. Munt, "Masculinity and Masquerade or `Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?' Mainstream Women Crime Writers" In Murder by the Book? Feminism and the Crime Novel (1994)
— Kathleen Gregory Klein, The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre (1995), principally ch. 6 "The Hard-boiled Private Eye and Her Classical Competition"
— George Stade, "Perverse Reflections in a Private Eye"
— Patrick O'Donnell, "Engendering Paranoia in Contemporary Narrative," boundary 2, 19/1 (1992):179-204