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Hard-Boiled [Hardcover]

Erin Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

May 12 2000
In the 1920s a distinctively American detective fiction emerged from the pages of pulp magazines. The "hard-boiled" stories published in Black Mask, Dime Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly, and Clues featured a new kind of hero and soon challenged the popularity of the British mysteries that held readers in thrall on both sides of the Atlantic. In Hard-Boiled Erin A. Smith examines the culture that produced and supported this form of detective story through the 1940s. Relying on pulp magazine advertising, the memoirs of writers and publishers, Depression-era studies of adult reading habits, social and labor history, Smith offers an innovative account of how these popular stories were generated and read. She shows that although the work of pulp fiction authors like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner have become "classics" of popular culture, the hard-boiled genre was dominated by hack writers paid by the word, not self-styled artists. Pulp magazine editors and writers emphasized a gritty realism in the new genre. Unlike the highly rational and respectable British protagonists (Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, for instance), tough-talking American private eyes relied as much on their fists as their brains as they made their way through tangled plot lines. Casting working-class readers of pulp fiction as "poachers," Smith argues that they understood these stories as parables about Taylorism, work and manhood; as guides to navigating consumer culture; as sites for managing anxieties about working women. Engaged in re-creating white, male privilege for the modern, heterosocial world, pulp detective fiction shaped readers into consumers by selling them what they wanted to hear - stories about manly artisan-heroes who resisted encroaching commodity culture and the female consumers who came with it. Commenting on the genre's staying power, Smith considers contemporary detective fiction by women, minority and gay and lesbian writers. Author note: Erin A. Smith is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Literature at the University of Texas.

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"Picking up a classic 'hard-boiled' detective novel by Dashiell Hammet or Raymond Chandler--or even modern-day Sara Paretsky--is an entirely different experience after reading Smith's fascinating book. Now the pages of these novels and their close cousins, the pulp magazines, have become rich canvases for working out struggles over readers' class and consumer identities." --Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University "Not until Erin Smith's innovative study have we had such a fully-grounded look at the imagined community of working-class fraternity, masculinity, and consumerism through which pulp audiences interpreted the 'fast-talking' heroes of hard-boiled detective fiction. A lively, engaging book that ranges from the linguistics to the sartorial dimensions of the genre, from labor to cultural capital, from advertising copy to literary theory." --Christopher P. Wilson, author of Cap Knowledge: Police Power and Cultural Narrative in Twentieth Century America "Hard-Boiled [is] a valuable contribution to the study of American literature between the wars." --Modern Fiction Studies

From the Publisher

An examination of the culture that produced and supported pulp-fiction

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5.0 out of 5 stars A MUST FOR THOUGHTFUL FANS OF THE MYSTERY GENRE June 27 2000
By James
Format:Paperback
In "Hard Boiled," Erin A Smith's study of detective fiction, she quotes a review of a book of ghost stories, written by an academic: "There is nothing of the usual professor's dullness about them." The same could be said of her witty, provocative book.
What began life as a doctoral dissertation about the so-called hard-boiled detective novels of the first half of this century (Hammett, Chandler, et. al.) has been turned into an entertaining, thoughtful look at who read potboilers and what they learned from them. Smith argues pursuasively that hard-boiled readers, most of them male and blue collar, unwittingly picked up lessons about culture, masculinity, even how to dress and talk to women, from the books they bought at the drug store because they cost a dime and had pictures of loose women on the cover.
For me, the best chapter is the one in which Smith compares a hard-boiled novel to a British let's-have-tea-on-the-lawn-shall-we? mystery. Both novels are set on trains, but they have little else in common and Smith's discussion of the class, sociological and stylistic differences between the two books almost convinced this lover of both kinds of mysteries that the hard-boiled ones are more fun (almost; I'll still take my murder in the drawing room, preferably with a snoopy old biddy in the house next door, just dying to solve it).
Smith is an engaging writer (her dry description of the almost impenetrable plot of "The Big Sleep" is hilarious and cogent), whose wit, enthusiasm and gift for spotting the revelatory detail is on every page of "Hard-Boiled." Her descriptions of the novels and stories she discusses are so vivid that you understand what they're about, even if you haven't read them.
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A MUST FOR THOUGHTFUL FANS OF THE MYSTERY GENRE June 27 2000
By James - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In "Hard Boiled," Erin A Smith's study of detective fiction, she quotes a review of a book of ghost stories, written by an academic: "There is nothing of the usual professor's dullness about them." The same could be said of her witty, provocative book.
What began life as a doctoral dissertation about the so-called hard-boiled detective novels of the first half of this century (Hammett, Chandler, et. al.) has been turned into an entertaining, thoughtful look at who read potboilers and what they learned from them. Smith argues pursuasively that hard-boiled readers, most of them male and blue collar, unwittingly picked up lessons about culture, masculinity, even how to dress and talk to women, from the books they bought at the drug store because they cost a dime and had pictures of loose women on the cover.
For me, the best chapter is the one in which Smith compares a hard-boiled novel to a British let's-have-tea-on-the-lawn-shall-we? mystery. Both novels are set on trains, but they have little else in common and Smith's discussion of the class, sociological and stylistic differences between the two books almost convinced this lover of both kinds of mysteries that the hard-boiled ones are more fun (almost; I'll still take my murder in the drawing room, preferably with a snoopy old biddy in the house next door, just dying to solve it).
Smith is an engaging writer (her dry description of the almost impenetrable plot of "The Big Sleep" is hilarious and cogent), whose wit, enthusiasm and gift for spotting the revelatory detail is on every page of "Hard-Boiled." Her descriptions of the novels and stories she discusses are so vivid that you understand what they're about, even if you haven't read them. And her grasp of the technique of writing pulp fiction is so strong that some of the writers, especially "Perry Mason" creator Erle Stanley Gardner, emerge as characters (somebody really needs to write a book about him, based on the evidence here).
Near the end of "Hard-Boiled," Smith suggests how that genre of fiction continues to influence today's writers, who are broadening the scope of mysteries to investigate gender, race. Obviously, it's a genre that deserves more study and Smith's work is a convincing, eminently readable place to start.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Soft-Centered! Jan. 7 2010
By Red Rivere - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Erin A Smith's "Hard-boiled" is a study of working-class readers and their relationship with the pulp magazines, like Black Mask, that gave rise to the "hard-boiled" crime novels of such authors as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain (though the latter important writer is not mentioned by Smith). This is a worthy endeavor, but sadly Smith's book is undermined by her apparent lack of knowledge of the detective fiction genre she repeatedly criticizes (or caricatures) and by her sometimes strained attempts to make the fiction she analyzes fit her theory that there were deep class and gender cleavages between the readerships of hard-boiled fiction and classical English detective fiction.

Smith posits a conflict between hard-boiled pulp fiction that appealed to the masculine working class and the so-called "genteel" and "feminine" "slick" fiction of "elite publications such as Atlantic Monthly." There is something to this--Raymond Chandler often denounced the slicks for falseness and sentimentality--but, Smith pushes the argument too far and betrays inadequate understanding of the fiction of the period, often shooting at the wrong targets.

Oddly, Smith never mentions two of the most prominent writers of slicks-serialized detective fiction, the bestselling American authors Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart, whose tales invariably included the sort of they-lived-happily-ever-after romance that Chandler despised (though so, for that matter, did female writer Edith Wharton, who nevertheless still published in the slicks). Instead Smith sets up Chandler's polemic against English detective fiction, the 1944 essay "The Simple Art of Murder," as the prime example of the aesthetic "war of words" between slicks and pulps. In short, English detective fiction erroneously is made by Smith to stand in the place of the slicks.

Smith seems to think that most British detective novelists of the period either were women or men who, ahem!, wrote like women, whatever that may mean ("emotion" and "private life" are "remarkably feminine currencies" we learn); and that these were the writers who dominated the slicks. Not so! Britisher Freeman Wills Crofts, for example, was a popular between-the-wars detective novelist who was a former railway engineer (an occupation Smith seems to think marks one as a reader of pulp fiction). Crofts' tales are filled with unbreakable alibis and timetables and struck many as pretty dry stuff. Crofts' series detective, Inspector French, is a plain cop, not an aristocrat like Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey. He often was viewed at the time as a writer who appealed primarily to men. Even Raymond Chandler liked him (as he did another dry English detective novelist, R. Austin Freeman, creator of the scientific detective Dr. Thorndyke)! The readership of Crofts (and Freeman), then, probably included fewer genteel women and more non-elite mechanically-minded men, which doesn't fit Smith's analysis at all.

Many small errors reveal Smith's unfamiliarity with the genre that she, following Chandler's "Simple Art," derides for "ridiculous plots" and "impossible gentility." Smith constantly refers to Britain's "Detection Club" as the "London Detection Club" and calls it a professional organization, though one of its members noted of the group at the time that "the Detection Club is in no sense a trade union" but was, rather, a social entity. Smith lists Josephine Tey as among the best-selling and most critically acclaimed British detective fiction writers of the period, despite the facts that Tey only published two detective novels before Chandler's "Simple Art" appeared (one under a pseudonym) and became much better known as a genre writer after 1945. Smith similarly lists Gladys Mitchell and Patrica Wentworth as such, though the former was not a bestseller and not much published in the US and the latter wrote exclusively thrillers before 1940 (neither Tey nor Wentworth were members of the Detection Club).

Smith notes that Chandler's "Simple Art" essay was published in "Atlantic Monthly," a magazine she earlier listed as the prime example of an elite "slick." If the slicks and pulps were these diametrically opposed camps, why was a supposed slick publishing an attack on slick fiction? This obvious incongruity seems lost on Smith. In fact, many elites embraced hard-boiled fiction. Hammett's Maltese Falcon was a huge seller and Chandler's books sold well by the standards of the genre in hardback. Presumably it was better-off readers who were buying these hardcover copies.

Smith argues that all hard-boiled novels were badly plotted and that this turned off elite readers but not working class readers, who presumably were not mentally equipped to handle ratiocination. In a ludicrous passage--see page 82--Smith, determinedly applying Marxist economic determinism, likens reading a hard-boiled novel to working on an assembly line: working class readers could enjoy individual scenes in a hard-boiled book without understanding the overall plot, you see, because for them reading was like making a car part on the assembly line without having any idea what the finished car would look like.

To support this thesis Smith relies mainly on the infamously messily-plotted Chandler novel, The Big Sleep (her ironic plot summary here is the best part of the book). But Chandler wrote several excellently plotted novels, including Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window and The Lady in the Lake. The same can be said of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key and The Thin Man, as well as many of his Continental Op stories. These are indeed work of detection, just like the works of Freeman Wills Crofts or Agatha Christie, with mysteries solved and explanations offered. When one finishes reading them, one actually does see a completed car, figuratively speaking.

Overall, "Hard-boiled" is fatally marred by its author's effort to segregate readership of various works so neatly: feminine over here, masculine over there, working-class over here, genteel over there. This is analysis imposed by theory, rather than arising naturally from fact. The real picture is much more complicated than "Hard-boiled" would have us believe.
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