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By Peter Swirski


The Montréal Review, June 2016


SWIRSKI, Peter. (2016). American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow Literature as Art. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 3319301071 (hardcover). 230 pp.


Myths (set of ten cards) (1981) by Andy Warhol (1928–1987). Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery, New York


In the second decade of the third millennium fast divisions between high art and popular entertainment are dissolving—and fast. On the one hand, popular fiction is increasingly recognized not only as a crucial component of democratizing populism but, on occasion at least, also as art. The case in point may be the 2013 induction of Tarzan of the Apes into the Library of America, which, in contrast to the comics wars of the 1950s, was not accompanied by an orgy of book burning and hysterical appeals to Washington for their nationwide prohibition.

On the other hand, high art is increasingly recognized as being in some ways as derivative as genre entertainment, with which it is always contrasted. Both the classical and the modern elites avail themselves of genre formulas no less than popular entertainers do. From the ancient epics to the classic opera, from the stream-of-consciousness novel to the nouveau roman, the conventions (and anti-conventions) of these genres are identifiable even as they are occasionally transformed. In this they are no different from popular genres, which also allow creators to express their individuality within established norms and forms. So much for the polarization of high art as a paragon of individuality and genre art as a paragon of sterility.

Historically, the study of literature has long struggled for credibility as an academic discipline. Although professed at Cambridge since the 1860s, it was not ratified as a degree course until the mid-1920s, facing an uphill battle for legitimacy since. In this light, it is not so much of a surprise that literary studies would quickly assimilate the highbrow–lowbrow dichotomy in order to position itself as a guardian of art and, ultimately, of value. In the process it would perpetuate a number of myths, beginning with that highbrows create to make an artistic splash and lowbrows merely to make a stash, down to perhaps the biggest myth of all that we can reliably tell art from schmart.

Not to look far, in “Hamlet and His Problems” (1919) T.S. Eliot argued to the full extent of his elitist erudition that Shakespeare’s flagship drama was an all-round flop. To make his own and others’ judgments of taste look even more capricious, he then completely reversed himself in his 1940 Yeats memorial lecture. Now a highbrows’ highbrow (and soon-to-be Nobel Prize laureate), Eliot pronounced Hamlet to be a work of genius after all. The point here is not whether he was right in 1919 or in 1940, but that he was either right or wrong. If he was right, his and by extension others’ judgments of taste are unreliable. If he was wrong, they are equally unreliable. Ergo, they are unreliable.

Skeptics might contend that classics do not become classics owing to any one normative opinion, even if that opinion belongs to a highbrow authority. Masterpieces acquire their status over time, they will argue, proving their relevance to generations. Quite apart from what this says about contemporary “classics,” the historical contingency of the value—which is to say the utility—of our timeless masterpieces is a matter of historical record. Belying claims to their transcendence, the boom-and-bust cycle of Shakespeare’s literary stock over centuries of shifting aesthetic paradigms is no more a secret than the frailty of the claims to aesthetic immanence made on behalf of Mona Lisa.

By the same token, relevance to generations would elevate the TV Guide to the status of a literary classic, a proposition unlikely to be entertained by the eliterati with sanguinity. Relevance to the masses has never carried much sway in the normative judgements of the elites, who have consistently abjured popularity as a yardstick of literary value. In the absence of any other kind of empirical baseline, this leaves us back at the mercy of fallible judgments of taste.

If a gradual (not to say grudging) retreat from absolutism in matters of aesthetic value is a sign of the times, so is a gradual retreat from a knee-jerk polarization of art and entertainment. More and more often entertainment of yesterday—typically less threatening to the aesthetic order of today—is accepted as culturally and even artistically significant. More and more often popular culture, from Alpha Books to the Zettabyte Problem and everything in between, is acknowledged as the universal cultural denominator even at the institutional levels. In May 2015, even the highbrow TLS grudgingly allowed that critics looking to explain high culture turn more and more “to all that is ‘lowbrow,’ pulp, genre or commercial.”


American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow Literature as Art.

Excerpted from:

Chapter 1. Nobrow: Contents and Discontents

The Most Ossified Popular Genre of All

Almost half of all the books ever printed and almost half of all the wordsmiths who have ever put pen to paper have come onto the scene after the death of Raymond Chandler.

            Despite perennial announcements of the death of the book, in the second decade of the third millennium the volume of the printed word virtually defies understanding. The number of new books published each year around the world exceeds three million. In 2013 more than a million and a quarter titles, old and new, were published in the United States alone—about five times more than a little over a decade before. A cross-check of publishers’ lists suggests that between four and five hundred genre paperbacks land every month on America’s bookstands.

            By now Google has digitized approximately fifteen million of the conservative estimates of a hundred and fifty million books published in the world since the invention of the Gutenberg press. The actual number could be as high as 250 million: a quarter billion individual titles, plus millions more added year in, year out. In 2011 the British Library teamed up with Google to put another quarter million of uncopyrighted books, some forty million pages in total, online. With the Internet colossus footing the bill, other libraries are lining up to get in on the action.

            Any way you count it, this explosion of the printed word adds up to the fact that almost half of all the books ever printed and almost half of all the wordsmiths who have ever put pen to paper have come onto the scene after the death of Raymond Chandler. Put differently, almost half of all the writers who have ever lived are living still. Factor in the population growth and the lengthening of the average lifespan and this fraction is bound to grow asymptotically until the day when nearly all writers in history will be creating in the eternal present.

            Like it or not, we live in the age of infoglut and infogluttony. The problem with that for the literary tastemakers and gatekeepers is that, although the proportion of what is culturally valuable to the total may not have changed over the ages (and how would you know?), multiplying both a millionfold has the effect of obscuring the former as effectively as if it was not there at all. It may take a long time, but you can be sure to find a proverbial good book in a thousand. But you will never find a million good books in a billion.

            These days, with ever more titles in circulation and buyers spoiled for choice, it takes a lot more than a knack for telling a story to stand out as a storyteller. Even established names in the business, from John Grisham to the Bone-Farm forensic anthropologist Jefferson Bass, who previously relied on public-relations departments of their publishing houses, now hire their own promo teams to help them and their brand stand out from the crowd. The only thing that has not changed is that big name endorsements still work as authordisiacs, just like they have done since the beginning of time.

            When Barack Obama bought an armful of books on his holidays at Martha’s Vineyard in 2011, they included a selection of country noirs by Daniel Woodrell, who has been flying off the shelves since. Obama’s Democratic predecessor, that consummate populist and intellectual Bill Clinton, also enjoyed his mysteries, even as he curried presidential gravitas by joking about his cheap-thrills addiction. Still, two thumbs up from a fan in the Oval Office turned Walter Mosley and his Negro private investigator, Easy Rawlins, into instant celebrities.

            Another symptom of the infoglut is that branding now trumps the actual contents of a book or a book review. For recognized authors the system still works, after a fashion. Plaudits in the New York Times Book Review or the Los Angeles Times Book Review still tend to pump up sales, whereas pans tend to bring them down. For everyone else it is pure Alice in Wonderland. Two thumbs up or two thumbs down? Both will give you legs. And while there is nothing new in the old saw that any publicity is good publicity, the extent to which the literary system fights a rearguard battle against the inundation of print is.

            Though it does not make the headlines, this state of affairs has dramatic repercussions for publishers, critics, and readers at large. Data I have collected on all continents save Africa and Antarctica suggest that even avid bookworms rarely average reading more than a book a week. Erring on the side of caution and assuming double that plus optimal conditions—no rest, no re-reads, no memory loss—you still end up with only about 100 books a year, or 7,000 in a lifetime. This is the upper value on the literary database on which taste-makers can base their judgments. In reality, it is of course much smaller.

          A few thousand against a quarter billion sounds pretty pathetic, even when you factor in that a sizeable portion of the total is nonfiction (not that nonfiction cannot be acclaimed as artsy—witness the Nobel Prizes for Literature in 1950, 1953, and 2015). And it is at this point that cultural conservatives traditionally execute a methodological sleight-of-hand to stave off the problem. Can’t read all that is out there? Don’t need to. All you need to do is convince yourself that it is formulaic and cheap, and 98 percent of literature can be tossed out of the window.

          The argument is simple—almost aphoristic: once you’ve read one genre paperback, you’ve read them all. Naturally, this line of reasoning would be accurate if books were like electrons, every one identical and invariant to the examining eye. It is true, after all, that once you have seen one electron, you have seen them all. Poke it and probe it till Judgment Day and it will still show the same face as today. But books are not like that. What from the Ivory Tower looks like a homogeneous mass, from up close reveals distinctions as profound as those professed on behalf of the literary classics.

            Although few intellectuals would state their case so forthrightly, especially nowadays when eclecticism and syncretism rule the day, sooner or later the latent bias comes to the fore. Philosopher and art critic Dennis Dutton typifies this scratch-a-progressivist-and-watch-a-purist-bleed attitude when, laying his aesthetic cards on the table in The Art Instinct (2009), he declares that “high art traditions demand individuality”. The suppressed premise? The unvariegated masses of pulp fiction do not and can, therefore, be dismissed en masse. Dutton holds these truths to be so self-evident that he does not even argue in their defense, content to advance them as a fiat instead.

            Except that popular art prizes individuality no less than high art. No need to look further than arguably the most ossified popular genre of all: crime mystery. It does not take a connoisseur to individuate the urbane quirkiness of Donald Westlake, the gradient-defying villains of Elmore Leonard, the liposuctioned aesthetic of James Ellroy, the post-comradely flavour of Martin Cruz Smith, the jigsaw forensics of Kathy Reichs, the kosher-deli comedy of Kinky Friedman, the Möbius-twisted mindgames of Jeffrey Deaver, the public conscience of Ruth Rendell, the Creole gumbo of James Lee Burke, the new Bostonians of Dennis Lehane—and so on, and so forth.

            Conceding that crime fiction fosters individuality would make Dutton’s argument (tautologically) true at the cost of abandoning his distinction between genre fiction and high art. But his list of literary greats—Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Austen, Dostoyevsky—shows that he is locked up there with Rapunzel in a high tower, lording over a forest of literary entertainment. People make art to please one another, he concedes a little later on. “There is a cool objectivity, however, about the greatest works of art: the worlds they create have little direct regard for our insistent wants and needs; still less do they show any intention on the part of their creators to ingratiate themselves with us” (241).

            So this is how to differentiate art from shmart. If it disregards human wants and needs, it is a timeless masterpiece. If it ingratiatingly aim to please, it is not. Where does it leave Shakespeare whose Prospero hedges in the Epilogue to The Tempest that the players’ aim was merely to please, echoing the end of Twelfth Night where Feste sings of striving “to please you every day”? In fact, if art funnels something universal in terms of our biological wants and needs—and Dutton’s Darwinist theses leave no doubt that such is the case—then great art must do so as well, which in his terms would mean that it is mere entertainment.

Of the Standard of Taste

Literary critics can reliably say a number of things about a work of literature, except whether it is good.

            The charge that popular fiction is unindividuated and formulaic is true only to the same extent that it is true of highbrow fiction. After all, what is unindividuated and at what level of comparison? All monasteries are alike by dint of being monasteries, yet if you look more closely, no two are identical and most are not even similar. Likewise, no two mysteries are identical, even if all are alike, once you look at them the right way. What is Macbeth, after all, if not Crime and Punishment meets “The Tell-Tale Heart”? What is The Great Gatsby if not The Godfather meets The Count of Monte Christo? What is Tough Guys Don’t Dance if not Kiss Me, Deadly meets Naked Lunch?

            Crime writers create within an established aesthetic that attracts readers by advertising the type of game to be played for their pleasure. A clear analogy with sport stems from the fact that, although in football or basketball the rules of the games are also known ahead of time, fans flock to them all the same just because no one can tell in advance how a particular engagement will play out. Unlike sport, of course, writers can tweak the rules of the game in search of the optimal mix of convention and invention. In this, genre fiction is once again no different from high art, which also prizes formula and (self-) imitation, although under the guise of style.

            The annual Bad Hemingway and Faux Faulkner contests could never work—and could never be such riots—without readily identifiable formulas to spoof. Taking advantage of the fact that without formula there is no style, the rules are very simple. Entrants submit one-page samples of Papa’s or Pappy’s style and the most least masterful among them wins the honours. Crime ace Joseph Wambaugh was only one of the countless parodists who over the years had run amok with the Nobelists to the appreciative groans from the judges and kibitzers delighted to see styles reverse-engineered and reputations taken down a notch.

            When it comes to genre art and to importing highbrow notions of taste where they do not belong, few missteps, however, can rival that of Ruth Bunzel’s in her classic ethnographic study of North American pottery of the Hopi nation. Hopi women—only women decorate pottery —are known for their sophisticated aesthetic, the central component of which is their veneration of originality. With ill-masked disdain, Bunzel reported, however, that their painted designs were essentially identical, often differing in elements so minute as to be almost negligible.

            Decrying the sterility of the art and of the art-makers’ aesthetics, the critic failed to take into account the tradition—that is, the genre—in which the potters worked. Within that genre, the hallmark of originality is the use of variations on inherited elements. It is as if Bunzel decried Wyatt’s variations on the Petrarchan sonnet, or Drayton’s variations on Wyatt’s, or Surrey’s variations on Drayton’s, or Sidney’s variations on Surrey’s, or Shakespeare’s variations on Sidney’s as sterile. Or, for that matter, Leroux’s variations in Le Mystère De La Chambre Jaune on Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”, and the rich tradition of variations on the locked-room mystery in the century hence.

            Indeed, if you believe Christopher Booker, the infinite variety of literary storylines hides just seven fundamental plots, albeit in a myriad variants, varieties, and variations. As if to highlight the arbitrariness of all such literary structuralism, after advancing the fundamental seven—rags to riches, voyage and return, tragic overreach, rebirth, comic chaos and happy ending, quest narrative, overcoming the monster—Booker added two more ‘fundamental’ categories: mystery/crime and rebellion (never mind that both are quests to overcome the monster).

            Another place where this typology bites the dust is the advent of high modernism or postmodernism with its turn toward autotelism and self-deconstruction, manifest in the focus on the act of telling at the expense of the tale. But once you get past the procrustean schematics, the wealth of literary examples, which range over aboriginal yarns, beast fables and fairy tales, epics from the antiquity, operatic librettos, epistolary novels, Wilkie Collins thrillers, Victorian multi-deckers, and Bollywood blockbusters, clearly exhibit similarities that cut across literary kinds, genres, and not least, brows. So much for high art as a paragon of individuality and for genre art as a paragon of sterility.

            Story formulas—structures of incidents, as Aristotle called them —hook us afresh because of our interest in the fundamental patterns of human existence. Essentially unchanged since the beginning of history, these insistent wants and needs account for our unflagging pleasure in consuming storylines familiar from time immemorial. This is what the Russian morphologists and formalists intuited already at the beginning of the twentieth century, even though they could not explain it without the tools of modern evolutionary literary studies (evolist).

            Today we know that the answer lies is our universal propensity for thinking in stories—so universal, that it forms an inalienable part of our nature and, as such, an inalienable part of both our emotional and intellectual lives. Percipient as ever, back in 1757 David Hume himself appealed to human universals in a bid to tackle the greatest problem in aesthetics and art: the phenomenology of taste. The general principles, he announced in “Of the Standard of Taste”, are uniform in all human beings. Recognizing, naturally, that people are actually given to strident disagreements in aesthetic judgments, he concluded that we must be prone to errors.

            Although on his account these errors are systematic in nature, they cannot be innate, since that would contradict his major premise of the principles of good taste being distributed uniformly at birth. All misjudgements of taste must, therefore, be attributed to the coarsening of our natural faculties, either due to disuse or ill-use. This neoplatonic position resurfaces in Hume’s remark that inadequate knowledge can distort judgment (sample bias can lead to error), even as he conspicuously neglects to specify what counts as adequate knowledge or even as adequate database.

            Recognizing that he has painted himself into a corner, Hume executes a stunning U-turn by admitting that different consumers exhibit different humours, and thus contradicting his first premise of uniformity. He then drives another nail into his coffin by admitting the effects of manners and opinions of the age and country on taste, which is another way of admitting that de gustibus non est disputandum. In short, for all his analytical efforts, even as great a thinker as Hume is of no help in elucidating how judgments of taste can reliably transfer from one reader to another—the starting point for the ‘read one, read them all’ school of criticism.

            Not much has changed during the intervening two centuries and a half. The highbrows’ dismissals of the unread mass of popular fiction always come down to the same methodological sleight-of-hand: how do you know that pulp fiction is formulaic if you have not read it? And how do you know that it is pulpy in the first place? Reliance on other’s judgment of taste could be justified only to the extent that there existed phenomenologically transferrable methods of literary comparison and rating. In their absence, one reader’s trash will always remain another’s treasure, and literary axiology always a matter of personal—which is to say, subjective—taste.

            Literary critics can reliably say a number of things about a work of literature, except whether it is good. T.S. Eliot had the presence of mind to laud The Great Gatsby even when the book sold just a quarter of the 75,000 copies that Fitzgerald predicted it would. This was the same Eliot who, as the commissioning editor for Faber, dismissed Orwell’s soon-to-be-classic Animal Farm as jejune and worthless. In fact, the most reliable thing that can be said about our pantheon is that, in some ways, it is a house of cards. Stochastic regularities make it certain that some of the big names in the canon got there mostly by luck and that others who deserved it—those known and unknown—did not.

            Every field of study shows bias in favour of reporting statistically significant results (and underreporting corrections to the original faulty findings). In the sciences, this bias typically disappears when repeated studies fail because the original spike was a random outlier. In matters of taste we do not have anything like such a self-correcting mechanism. The point is not necessarily that Fitzgerald was for the most part a ho-hum novelist or Hemingway an intellectual lightweight. But to shrug off the randomness inherent in the infoglut problem is to shrug off that there were—must have been—other Fitzgeralds and Hemingways lost in the same random shuffle of literary history that ossified into the canon.


Beachbooks for Intellectuals

Studies of crime fiction have made big strides in legitimacy since the days of Father Knox and, at the other end, T.S. Eliot—a highbrows’ highbrow, an enemy of mass culture, and a closet devotee of Sherlock Holmes.

            Rather than constitute a cultural menace, mass-market fiction plays an integral role in society as a popular entertainment and, on occasion, as art. As such, it deserves to be examined in its own right, free of elitist preconceptions on the one hand and of anti-canonical backlash on the other. Most genre fiction is no more than the only thing it ever tries to be: gripping but ephemeral entertainment with no aspirations to bowl over the literati. But to appreciate how much some genre bestsellers have in common with the classics and how much some of our classics owe to genreflecting we need to better appreciate their nobrow design.

            Studies of crime fiction have made big strides in legitimacy since the days of Father Knox and, at the other end, T.S. Eliot—a highbrows’ highbrow, an enemy of mass culture, and a closet devotee of Sherlock Holmes. Often working against the critical grain, they have brought the native variety of crime story up from the basement while documenting the raw power of its storytelling and the lingering darkness of its social vision. Building on these critical foundations, American Crime Fiction takes a step further by arguing for viewing American crime fiction as a form of art—nobrow art, to be exact.

            The masses of readers of murder mysteries do not argue much for their tastes—they know they are not going anywhere. What is there to argue about, anyway? To accept the terms of the culture wars is to accept that literature falls into two categories. One is said to be good for you but is at best an acquired taste, like Brussels sprouts, whereas the other tastes good but can only make you sorry in the end, like New York cheesecake. Put differently, highbrow is snobbish while lowbrow is slobbish, and never the twain shall meet. Tell it to the nobrows who, combining highbrow tropes with mass-market appeal, bring together authors and readers who believe that there is nothing oxymoronic about genre art.

            It would be wrong, however, to associate this crossover aesthetic with our century and millennium. As an identifiable cultural formation, nobrow has been around since the early years of the twentieth century, not coincidentally the time when the entire phrenology-based partition gained in notoriety in the wake of Van Wyck Brooks’s essay “Highbrow and Lowbrow” (1915). Pointedly, even as he acknowledged the appeal of the thesis and antithesis, Brooks was suspicious of both, arguing for their nobrow synthesis:

One admits the charm of both extremes, the one so fantastically above, the other so fantastically below the level of right reason—to have any kind of relish for muddled humanity is necessarily to feel the charm in both extremes. But where is all that is real, where is personality and all its works, if it is not essentially somewhere, somehow, in some not very vague way, between?

            Still, for much of the twentieth century attempts to leave behind the aesthetic straitjacket of elites-versus-masses have been fraught with risks. As neither lite diversion nor heavy-duty art, instead of being seen as the best of both worlds nobrow has often ended up being shunned by both, largely vindicating the satirical wisdom that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Given that absence of evidence is often cited as a critical evidence of absence, it is an essential part of my project to historicize the aesthetic that openly straddles the high-low binary in search of pulps with gravitas.

                Whether they end up being feted or filleted, all the crime writers who star in my book work hard to split the difference between the mass consumer and the discerning connoisseur. Spinning testosterone-dripping action in literate and on occasion even literary prose, they contest the stereotype of whodunit blockbusters by engaging not only in political polemics or for that matter economic statistics but, at other times, in self-parody and even deconstructive jouissance. Keeping one eye on the commercial and the other on the artistic payoffs, they exemplify the power of vernacular art that resonates with mass audiences.

Entertaining, enterprising, and exuberantly eclectic, the prose poets of America’s hoods in the ‘hood hang a big question mark on the entire highbrow-lowbrow dialectic, proving that in some cases there is little virtue in separating literature into art and bestsellers (which is not the same as saying that all mysteries are art or that all sleepers are not). My interest in them lies, in fact, in direct proportion to their hybrid of high aesthetics and popular appeal—in short, to their nobrow quotient.

            Addressing American crime fiction as an artform that expresses and reflects the socioesthetic values and preoccupations of its authors and readers, I investigate the many ways in which such authorship and readership are a matter of informed literary choice rather than cultural brainwashing or degenerate moral and aesthetic standards. Asking, in effect, a series of questions about American crime fiction as art, I thus use a selection of notable novels by notable American writers to shed light on the historical hazards and cultural rewards of trafficking between popular forms and high-end aesthetics.

            Fixated though they often are on lurid violence, cut-rate sleaze, and homicidal psychopathology, American crime mysteries deserve to be approached as artistically ambitious and ideologically complex on their own terms. Starting from this premise, American Crime Fiction weaves together the cultural history of an iconic American genre and, mutans mutandis, the cultural history of the country with which it is indissolubly linked. In the process it stakes a claim for distinguishing nobrow as a creative strategy and as a literary formation that puts art back in entertainment and the other way round—which is to say, as a form of artertainment.

            Crime fiction dominates the literary market today, making up a quarter of all the books bought in the United States. My bet is, however, that crime fiction—represented in the chapters below by the classic and self-parodic hardboiled, the legal, police, and urban procedural, and the mob story—is not untypical of the creative moves of other American genres, from romances and westerns to sci-fi, spy-fi, horror, fantasy, technothrillers, and what not. In short, I take crime fiction to be a representative species of what their fan, George Orwell, almost apologetically called good bad books, but which I prefer to call beachbooks for intellectuals.

Sex, Money, and Revenge

Like other types of contemporary fiction, crime novels provide complex articulations of prevailing national concerns, social fears, and fantasies.

            Historically, much as American literature has tried to dissociate itself from the untutored productions of the street, the hash house, and the courthouse, it has always ended up being defined by them. Be that as it may, despite a growing interest in crime fiction as a social and even ideological force and a liberalization of attitudes toward genre fiction  in general, both continue to be viewed askance in some quarters. In 2008 Pulitzer winner and on-and-off crime novelist Michel Chabon could not hide his dismay:

Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people learn to mistrust or even revile it… Intelligent people must keep a certain distance from its productions. They must handle the things that entertain them with gloves of irony and postmodern tongs.

            Of course, an argument could be made—and is made by means of this book—that crime fiction is the realistic and even the naturalistic literature of our times, having invaded and perhaps even conquered some of the territory traditionally occupied by the psychological novel. To be sure, murder mysteries on the whole tend to fixate on behaviours that shade into psychopathology. But among genre paperbacks that model the layers of motive behind the homicidal Big Three (sex, money, and revenge), some conjure up complex life histories that rival the canon in psychological and social nuance.

            Approaching crime novels as a variety of realistic fiction helps explain some of the psychological foundation of “immense popularity with all sorts of people of the novel about murder or crime or mystery”, as Raymond Chandler put it back in 1948. In an eloquent testimony to this popularity, a recent bibliography of crime novels from the years 1749-1900—way before the advent of the pulps, cylinder presses, and mass-market paperbacks—lists upward of eighty thousand titles, not counting short stories in more than 4,500 collections. There is also the Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction which, limited only to the postwar decades, comes in at more than half-a-thousand pages of magnifying-glass print.

            At the other end of the spectrum, acclaimed artists who turn their hands to fictional crime are also as common as bread in a prison meatloaf. Even more than Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, one might mention Akira Kurosawa whose ironically titled film High and Low (1963) adapted one of Ed McBain’s police procedurals, King’s Ransom (1959), with Tokyo subbing as the suburban tangle of New York City. Indeed, from Eudora Welty to Ludwig Wittgenstein, the roster of big names big on crime fiction makes a virtual Who’s Who of twentieth-century artists and intellectuals.

            Naturally, in the age of infoglut no one can hope to take under the literary microscope more than a small subset of any popular genre at any given time. The problems of selectivity and representativeness loom even larger in the case of crime fiction, hands-down the biggest player on the American (and probably global) literary market today. Determined to write a book and not an encyclopedia, just because no one reads those, I thus sacrifice the extraneous in order to focus on the central storyline: the nobrow artistry of crime fiction in particular, and genre fiction in general.

            The complex interplay between lowbrow and highbrow elements in twentieth-century crime fiction and the concomitant emergence of the nobrow aesthetic is crucial, in my opinion, to the understanding not only of this quintessentially American genre but of American literature at large. My method is thus to work back and forth between text and context, using books to illuminate the social and cultural history of the country, and the other way round. In this sense my project aligns with those of other crime fiction scholars who have brought history, race, and class to the fore in an effort to reconceive the genre along those lines. Trials of being immigrant, nonwhite, or poor in America give us good purchase on the genre through the ways in which it deals, or for that matter fails to deal, with these historically disfranchised groups.

            When they make an appearance in the chapters below, however, they do so in the context of complex articulations of popular art striving to leave a mark on its historical present. Tracing the cultural history of the making of twentieth-century genre art, American Crime Fiction traces how the plasticity and elasticity of a genre frequently disparaged as a paradigm of banality allowed some of its practitioners to forge a distinct—because nobrow—form of art out of a cross-cultural palette of sources and influences. No less important, it traces how the writers themselves understood what they were doing in precisely these terms, taking equal pride in mastering the formula and in ditching it in the interest of telling an even better story.

            These strategic premises dictate the tactical moves made in the book. For one, my interest in the adaptations of the nobrow aesthetic requires that, instead of dwelling on the classic hardboiled novel and the tart noir, as many previous investigators do, I cast my net wider. Beginning with—what else?—Hammett and the ur-hardboiled Red Harvest, I subsequently direct the spotlight on the metamorphoses in Grisham, the highbrow appropriations by Faulkner and Hemingway, the self-ironic deconstructions by Chandler, and the evolution into the police procedural, the urban procedural, and the mob story.

            As importantly, the writers and the books I selected for in-depth analysis dovetail into a panoramic survey of the twentieth century and of what we have of the twenty-first. Hammett’s literary career marked a milestone in the early 1920s with the release of the first Continental Op story, followed by the end of the decade with Red Harvest. Faulkner’s Sanctuary straddles the late 1920s and the early 1930s, during which it morphed from a modernist art novel into a nobrow bestseller. To Have and Have Not, Hemingway’s stab at crossing a proletarian novel with a hardboiled thrills takes us into the late 1930s, by which time Chandler was writing for Black Mask.

            Chandler’s career comes to an end almost exactly three decades later with his experimental and self-parodic Playback. By then, McBain has already launched the 87th Precinct series of urban procedurals that would eventually span half a century. In the 1980s he was joined by the wonderboy of legal procedurals, John Grisham, who continues to churn out bestsellers to this day. McBain himself passed away in 2005, three years before Nelson DeMille released his ‘take two’, The Gate House, on his original ‘take two’, The Gold Coast, which in a cunning playback of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, takes us full-circle back to the mobsters of the Jazz Age.

            Like other types of contemporary fiction, crime novels provide complex articulations of prevailing national concerns, social fears, and fantasies. But, to their credit, they never forget that their job is not to autopsy America’s collective psyche or its social ills but to tell a good story to candy-assed urbanites who, as a rule, never come face to face with violent crime outside the pages of the books they consume with   so much passion. Out of the timeless menu of lawless racketeers, two-timing femmes, and larger than life truth-seekers they spin fantasies that, like those spun by the bards of yore, grip you by the throat and don’t let go—unless it is to get another fix.


Peter Swirski is a Canadian scholar and literary and cultural critic, listed in Canadian Who’s Who. He has published extensively on contemporary American literature and culture, including popular fiction and popular culture. His work has also attracted media attention, with TV appearances in China, Europe, Russia, and the United States, and on the BBC World Service with an audience of 200 million worldwide. In the summer of 2013 he was an invited guest at the Hong Kong International Book Fair and in 2015 a keynoter at the Millennium Documentary Film Festival in Brussels. He can be reached at either swirskip@umsl.edu or swirskip@mail.sysu.edu.cn.


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