v27 #3 Collecting to the Core

by | Aug 19, 2015 | 0 comments

American Crime Fiction

by Dr. Michael Adams  (Librarian, Mina Rees Library, City University of New York Graduate Center;  American Literature Editor, Resources for College Libraries)

Column Editor:  Anne Doherty  (Resources for College Libraries Project Editor, CHOICE/ACRL)

Column Editor’s Note:  The “Collecting to the Core” column highlights monographic works that are essential to the academic library within a particular discipline, inspired by the Resources for College Libraries bibliography (online at http://www.rclweb.net).  In each essay, subject specialists introduce and explain the classic titles and topics that continue to remain relevant to the undergraduate curriculum and library collection.  Disciplinary trends may shift, but some classics never go out of style. — AD


It is not news to students of American literature that crime fiction, like science fiction, has slowly risen from the popular fiction ghetto to be recognized as worthy of serious study.  Numerous colleges and universities offer regular courses in crime fiction.  Many others offer such courses as special topics and within the umbrella of popular culture.  For example, the University of California at Los Angeles has courses in American popular literature and detective fiction, and the Ohio State University has a minor in popular culture studies.  Some crime writers have even made their way into the canon.  The University of South Carolina offered a course last spring in modern American literature that, in addition to James Baldwin, Vladimir Nabokov, and Sylvia Plath, included Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith.

There is a growing number of critical works to support this interest, especially since much of American crime fiction emphasizes urban culture and differences of class, race, and gender.  American crime fiction can be appreciated for its social and political context, as well as for its aesthetics, as more novels and short stories are written by women, African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and gay and lesbian writers.  The protagonists of crime fiction, whether police or criminals, often see themselves as outsiders, and when they are not white men, this outsider status is only intensified.

Critical studies of American crime fiction were slow to develop, but a few early books remain valuable.  Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story traces the history and development of detective fiction in the United States, England, and the Continent.1  Haycraft shows how nineteenth-century mysteries grew out of similar literature in the marketplace and how Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery stories established the pattern for much of the crime fiction that followed.  He makes a strong case for why American crime fiction began to surpass that created by British writers beginning in the 1920s.  There is also a bibliographic essay concerning the earliest critical writings about crime fiction, many of which might have been difficult to track down without Haycraft’s trailblazing research.

Despite its title, Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, a collection of original essays edited by novelist David Madden, goes beyond Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Horace McCoy to their heirs, such as John D. MacDonald and Jim Thompson.2  The impressive, then and now, contributors include Joyce Carol Oates on James M. Cain, R. V. Cassill on Thompson’s The Killer inside Me, and Irving Malin on the metaphysical in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.  In addition to tracing the development of hard-boiled fiction, these lively essays, especially Oates’s, look at how these writers evaluate American values and how some, Chandler particularly, are better stylists than many more obviously literary figures.

John G. Cawelti’s Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture is considered groundbreaking for its serious treatment of popular fiction.3  Cawelti includes chapters on the formula of the classical detective story, with particular attention to Poe, and the hard-boiled detective story, with emphasis on Hammett, Chandler, and Mickey Spillane.  He sees hard-boiled fiction as a departure from the classical detective story, in that protagonists behave as both investigators and judges.  Such characters come to believe that their moral visions, however cloudy, are superior to those of society.  While many scholars dismiss the notoriously ham-fisted Spillane, Cawelti sees similarities between the moral certainty of the writer’s Mike Hammer character and the didactic temperance novels of the nineteenth century.  He argues that Spillane’s popularity derives not just from his use of sex and violence but also from a mythical simplicity akin to folktale.  Cawelti elaborates upon many of these points in his later essay collection Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture.4

More recently, there have been a growing number of critical studies of American crime fiction by and about women and minorities.  In The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre, Kathleen Gregory Klein offers a chronological treatment of her subject from 1864 to 1987.5  She places the development of crime fiction by and about women in context with considerable statistics and commentary about the changing roles of women in society in both the United States and Great Britain.  Klein departs from many such studies by including female detectives created by male writers, who often emphasized their sexual allure at the expense of their detecting skills.  Female detective protagonists did not, for the most part, begin to be well written until the 1970s.  Klein details how the formulas of crime fiction initially made it resistant to feminism.  She argues that the characters created by such writers as Marcia Muller must compromise between their ideologies and their careers.  Sara Paretsky tries to escape this trap by using crimes and villains associated with institutions or systems excluding or oppressing women.

The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction, by Stephen Soitos, is not a comprehensive look at this topic but a consideration of how certain motifs developed from the early twentieth century through the 1970s, concentrating on works by six writers.6  Soitos makes a convincing case that Pauline Hopkins, J. E. Bruce, Rudolph Fisher, Chester Himes, Ishmael Reed, and Clarence Major combined classical and hard-boiled detective traditions with African American folk culture and vernaculars to examine race, class, and gender within established conventions.  Soitos sees crime fiction as a dynamic device for implementing cultural worldviews.  He considers the importance of the Harlem Renaissance to the creation of these works and demonstrates what the writers learned from Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha ChristieSoitos’s study is useful for showing how crime fiction is created out of various cultural strands and how it can be used for social criticism.

Themes explored by Klein and Soitos have also been examined in several studies aimed at looking at women, minorities, and crime fiction within a larger context.  One of the most comprehensive studies is Stephen Knight’s Crime Fiction, 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity.7  Knight disputes the general assumption that Hammett and Chandler invented a new form of crime fiction, since violence is prominent in the dime novels of the nineteenth century, tough dialogue is notable in Jack Boyle’s Boston Blackie stories (first collected in 1919), and a tone of world-weariness appears earlier in the works of Mary Roberts Rinehart and S. S. Van DineKnight’s acute observations include how fictional detectives rarely actually detect, solving crimes by instincts instead, concerned more about fulfilling their personal ethics than righting wrongs.  For him the rise of the police procedural in the 1960s and 1970s made it easier for writers to address matters of class, race, and gender.  Knight praises the contributions of critically neglected early women crime writers, such as Leigh Brackett and Dorothy B. Hughes.  He sees the development of tough female characters by the likes of Muller, Paretsky, and Sue Grafton as the major renovation of the genre in the last decades of the twentieth century.  In analyzing the works of African American writers, Knight finds interesting parallels in the ways society’s corruption is treated by both Walter Mosley and James Ellroy. Knight often finds thematic and stylistic connections others have ignored.

Another in-depth study is Contemporary American Crime Fiction, by Johannes Bertens, who teaches at Utrecht University, and Theo d’Haen of Leiden University.8  Their uniquely European perspective on American crime fiction of the 1990s, most of whose practitioners continue to flourish, concentrates on how writers reimagined established conventions and further evaluates the quality of fiction.  In praising the power, innovation, and irreverence of female crime writers, Bertens and d’Haen find that their protagonists are more concerned with the personal than the political while still signifying the evolving status of women in the crime world.  Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder are compared, with the latter found more interesting because the character is more flawed and fluid.  Likewise, they find Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon appealing for her insecurity and vulnerability balanced with independence.  Bertens and d’Haen are particularly perceptive in explaining how Ellroy finds that crime writing is the only way to describe contemporary America.  They praise writers such as Ken Tanaka, Michael Nava, and John Morgan Wilson for their treatment of characters marginalized by society.  One of the best sections is their analysis of Robert Skinner’s Skin Deep, Blood Red, which looks at the novelist’s use of the hard-boiled tradition to examine racial issues.  Contemporary American Crime Fiction stands out in its openness to all approaches to crime fiction and its refusal to try to squeeze writers into preconceived categories.

Criticism of American crime fiction has attracted some excellent writing that eschews the jargon of much academic discourse.  One work especially accessible for undergraduates, in addition to being insightful and comprehensive, is Lee Horsley’s The Noir Thriller.9  Horsley, an American who has spent her entire career in England, deals with films and British writers but concentrates on American crime fiction.  Horsley’s analysis constantly situates the fiction under discussion within a larger social and cultural framework.  She links the dark underbelly of American life exposed in noir thrillers with the modernist pessimism associated with such works as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  Crime fiction is distinctive for depicting alienated characters and their struggles to deal with an often hostile environment.  Horsley’s comprehensiveness is displayed by her attention to early minor writers such as Benjamin Appel, Paul Cain, and Carroll John Daly, who usually appear only as names in lists in other critical works.  She is also good at explaining why Cain, McCoy, and many others were first more appreciated by European readers.  Horsley argues that the small-town milieu in much crime fiction from the 1940s and 1950s makes it easy for writers to explore social, racial, and gender prejudices and the smug morality of midcentury America, as Highsmith and Thompson turn murder into a form of social criticism.  Horsley is perceptive in demonstrating how femmes fatales of this period are stronger characters than their film noir counterparts, especially in the fiction of Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis, who also offers a white liberal perspective on racial issues.  Horsley shows how the noir thriller adapts to social change, adding consumerism as a target by the 1980s, and how in feminist crime fiction protagonists create their identities by solving crimes.  The Noir Thriller is remarkable in crime fiction criticism for the breadth and depth of Horsley’s analyses.  She seems to have read more and thought more deeply about her subject than any other scholar.

Horsley also co-edited, with Charles J. Rzepka, an excellent collection of essays about American and British crime fiction and films.  A Companion to Crime Fiction includes scholarly essays on such topics as literary theory and crime fiction, feminist crime fiction, and postmodern and metaphysical detection, as well as essays on individual figures from Poe to Mosley.10  Two of the most interesting contributions are “Crime Fiction and the Literary Canon,” by Joel Black, and “Historical Crime and Detection,” by Ray B. Browne.  Such essays supplement and update the material in the earlier studies above.  Alongside the fiction itself, the works of criticism discussed here should be considered essential to all collections at academic institutions where crime fiction or popular American literature is taught.


  1. Haycraft, Howard. Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1941.*
  2. Madden, David, ed. Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.*
  3. Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1976.*
  4. Cawelti, John G. Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.*
  5. Klein, Kathleen Gregory. The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988.*
  6. Soitos, Stephen. The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.*
  7. Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction, 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.*
  8. Bertens, Johannes, and Theo d’Haen. Contemporary American Crime Fiction. New York: Palgrave, 2001.*
  9. Horsley, Lee. The Noir Thriller. New York: Palgrave, 2001.*
  10. Rzepka, Charles, and Lee Horsley. A Companion to Crime Fiction. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2010.*

*Editor’s note: An asterisk (*) denotes a title selected for Resources for College Libraries.



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