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.