UMaine professor makes a case for the detective novel
the Photo Illustration:
Professor Jeff Evans:
"They wanted escapism, but they wanted it in a problem-solving
medium that made them feel better about the society in which they
lived. Sherlock Holmes' cerebral rationality could no longer do that
for them, but Raymond Chandler's detective, Phillip Marlowe, for
instance, could absolutely do that for them by putting himself on
the line, not caring about money or reward, withstanding abuse and
sticking to his moral code."
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There is one thing that is most
important, in all the dark mystery of tonight, and that is how that ugly
little auburn-haired red-eyed man, with his torn ear and his sharp
dog-pointed teeth, with his twisted corkscrew legs and his truncated
height, and all the other extraordinary details about him, could have
got away and vanished so completely from the face of the countryside
after killing Inis St. Erme.
From The Red Right Hand, by Joel
During its heyday, from 1920–50, the
hard-boiled detective novel dominated American pop culture. In its grit,
it rivaled the outlaw toughness of the Western, which influenced it. In
its darkness, it echoed the Gothic, which deepened it.
Like jazz, it was distinctly American, an exciting, fresh style of
writing that reflected the brash rhythms of a new frontier — the city.
It was urban and racy, the dialogue snapped, sex underscored the sleaze,
blood soaked the pavements.
It was everywhere — on best-seller lists and magazine racks, on radio
shows and at the movies. It influenced the noir movement of the 1940s
and ‘50s, such as with John Huston's The Maltese Falcon and Alfred
Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, and it found some pulp magazine writers
each pounding out more than 1.5 million words a year just to keep up
with the demand.
Its invention was a necessity. With Prohibition killing a national high,
crime on the rise and people out of work due to the Depression, the
American dream essentially went belly up. Those who had been on a binge
in the ‘20s were faced with the bleak reality that they were broke and
might not become rich after all. That knowledge led to a national gloom
that proved the perfect caldron for the invention of a new art form, one
that would allow people to escape their frustration through urban
What they wanted was complex. Those who were suddenly out of work
resented the big-time crooks of the day who were becoming wealthy and
powerful through crime; they wanted them dead for it.
At the same time, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger
— all small-time crooks compared to Al Capone — had become national folk
heroes. It was a time of such upheaval, readers could no longer identify
with the quaint, respectable British detective fiction that featured
such mannered sleuths as Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.
What they wanted was someone unmannered and tough, an honest hero who
would physically take to the streets and get rid of these bums with
their fists and their brains. They wanted action and they wanted heat,
not crimes being solved cerebrally in the comfort of a drawing room.
So who was such a person?
According to University of Maine Associate Professor of English Jeff
Evans, an expert in the hard-boiled genre, this new detective was "a
lone wolf gunslinger with a sense of justice who enforced the law
himself. He was a rebel, the person who turned against established
society and tried to articulate a whole new set of freedoms. He was an
outsider. In him are characteristics we wanted to see in the culture."
Never respected as literature until such writers as Dashiell Hammett,
Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald pushed it into prominence with their
unique style and worldview, the genre was born in the wealth of pulp
fiction magazines of the day, including such entertaining rags as Black
Mask, Dime Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly and Clues.
It was considered a cheaper style of writing because of its daring
content and fringe characters, and because of the quality of the paper
on which it was printed. Whereas the respected magazines of the day —
Smart Set, Scribner's, Saturday Evening Post — were printed on high-end,
glossy stock, this new brand of detective fiction was published on
low-end pulp. Still, it is vital and important. It offers a window into
the past, and its influence resonates even today in the works of such
popular writers as Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, Patricia Cornwell,
Michael Connelly and John Sandford.
According to Evans, the genre connected with readers of the day because
of its mistrust in the institutions that failed to serve us, such as
government and law, and because it recognized there no longer was a
frontier. This was, after all, an era in which Dodge City had become a
city, not just an outpost, and the American landscape was forever
"The country was all used up," Evans says. "The edge of the frontier was
California and the detective needed to confront the city. What he found
was a mask, a veneer of society and civilization that concealed great
complication. Politics, wealth and social status all came to bear on the
problems he had to solve."
With the pressures of the Depression, Prohibition and World War II
weighing down the population, people were thrown out of their ordinary
sets of beliefs and faiths.
"They wanted escapism," Evans says, "but they wanted it in a
problem-solving medium that made them feel better about the society in
which they lived. Sherlock Holmes' cerebral rationality could no longer
do that for them, but Raymond Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, for
instance, could absolutely do that for them by putting himself on the
line, not caring about money or reward, withstanding abuse and sticking
to his moral code."
American society viewed evil as an ongoing reality, uncoiling just
beneath the surface, and the real reason our country and its systems no
For the hard-boiled detective, solving a case is parallel to a kind of
knightly ordeal, Evans says, a gauntlet of tortures. "If there is
nothing else to believe in, you believe in the profession and you try to
advance that," he says. "It's what I like about the genre. Beneath the
professionalism is a moral code these detectives stick to. That might be
what endeared people to the reading. There is a clear sense of direction
and action these characters take."
The direction the genre took went beyond magazines and books. It rippled
across popular mediums, connecting with radio audiences in the detective
serials of the day, and especially in Hollywood with the gangster films
of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
One of the most influential films of the genre is the 1946 Howard Hawks'
classic, The Big Sleep, a baffling yet entertaining movie based on
Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel of the same name.
The movie stars Humphrey Bogart as Chandler's great hero, Philip
Marlowe, a private dick who is on the side of justice, even though he
doesn't see much justice around him. The film is crafted in the noir
style, a direct descendant of the hard-boiled genre that gets to its
base elements of mistrust, such as in its cynical examination of women
and romantic love.
"The treatment of women in the genre isn't very good, as you would
suspect," says Evans. "They are portrayed as temptresses and
seductresses, or they are the good woman, the housekeeper, the home
crafter, someone playing a subservient role who needed to be rescued.
When they behaved as men, they would either be seen as comic, evil or
However, Evans says, as the genre evolved — and as the male protagonist,
such as Jack Nicholson's character in Chinatown, became more
problematized — the female character often broke out of stereotypes and
became more complex and capable, such as the character Susan Silverman
in Robert B. Parker's novels.
In his classes, Evans teaches the literary canon, but he presses against
it by complementing it with other books. He joins other scholars in
believing that the canon should be broadened to reflect the genres it
ignores, such as this brand of fiction.
"What I've done is to insinuate Chandler into the traditional American
novel," he says. "For instance, Chandler's novel, The Long Goodbye, is
essentially a version of The Great Gatsby. It's fascinating to teach
This semester, he will teach an advanced topics in film course that will
juxtapose American noir fiction with its counterpart in film. He also
teaches Hammett in a graduate-level course on 20th-century American
"Hammett was writing during the same time as Hemingway," Evans says,
"but he hasn't enjoyed the same critical acclaim. You can teach him for
his style and vision. He was one of the first writers who melded a style
with a modern worldview, which shaped a whole generation of popular
"That kind of influence can't go ignored."
by Chris Smith
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.