Gumshoe America

Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism

Gumshoe America

New Americanists

More about this series

Book Pages: 384 Illustrations: Published: December 2000

Author: Sean McCann

American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

In Gumshoe America Sean McCann offers a bold new account of the hard-boiled crime story and its literary and political significance. Illuminating a previously unnoticed set of concerns at the heart of the fiction, he contends that mid-twentieth-century American crime writers used the genre to confront and wrestle with many of the paradoxes and disappointments of New Deal liberalism. For these authors, the same contradictions inherent in liberal democracy were present within the changing literary marketplace of the mid-twentieth-century United States: the competing claims of the elite versus the popular, the demands of market capitalism versus conceptions of quality, and the individual versus a homogenized society.
Gumshoe America traces the way those problems surfaced in hard-boiled crime
fiction from the1920s through the 1960s. Beginning by using a forum on the KKK in the pulp magazine Black Mask to describe both the economic and political culture of pulp fiction in the early twenties, McCann locates the origins of the hard-boiled crime story in the genre’s conflict with the racist antiliberalism prominent at the time. Turning his focus to Dashiell Hammett’s career, McCann shows how Hammett’s writings in the late 1920s and early 1930s moved detective fiction away from its founding fables of social compact to the cultural alienation triggered by a burgeoning administrative state. He then examines how Raymond Chandler’s fiction, unlike Hammett’s, idealized sentimental fraternity, echoing the communitarian appeals of the late New Deal. Two of the first crime writers to publish original fiction in paperback—Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford—are examined next in juxtaposition to the popularity enjoyed by their contemporaries Mickey Spillane and Ross Macdonald. The stories of the former two, claims McCann, portray the decline of the New Deal and the emergence of the rights-based liberalism of the postwar years and reveal new attitudes toward government: individual alienation, frustration with bureaucratic institutions, and dissatisfaction with the growing vision of America as a meritocracy. Before concluding, McCann turns to the work of Chester Himes, who, in producing revolutionary hard-boiled novels, used the genre to explore the changing political significance of race that accompanied the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s and the 1960s.
Combining a striking reinterpretation of the hard-boiled crime story with a fresh view of the political complications and cultural legacies of the New Deal, Gumshoe America will interest students and fans of the genre, and scholars of American history, culture, and government.


“[C]ontribute[s] to our evolving understanding of modernism as a complex set of strategies for comprehending the brave new world of the early twentieth century. . . . [N]uanced, well-researched, and ultimately persuasive reading. . . . [An] ambitious and ultimately successful book, McCann strengthen[s] our increasingly sophisticated and variegated understanding of American modernisms in their cultural contexts. Just as importantly, [he] provide[s] an intellectual brief for [his] theoretically informed method of richly contextualized readings and show the gains scholars of most periods might realize by approaching their archives through this methodological avenue.” — Michael Thurston , American Literature

“[D]emonstrate[s] how the fragmentation and anxiety informing the arts in the early Cold War era were part of a larger crisis in nationality and politics. . . . [A]dvance[s] our understanding of the perplexing cultural patterns that divided postwar America from earlier eras.” — Lary May , American Historical Review

“A bold reinterpretation of what many critics still consider a minor genre . . . . In addition to drawing pathbreaking connections between the political vision and market position of hard-boiled writers, Gumshoe America offers a nuanced interpretation of pulp fiction’s thorny racial dynamics . . . .The strength of McCann’s study is that it provides a new, richly-textured political and cultural framework within which to read pulp fiction’s formal mechanisms.” — Joseph Entin , Novel

“For fans of detective fiction, this book offers a way of soothing their consciences about their guilty pleasure—the cheap novels they have been reading on the sly all these years turn out to have something to teach us about American history. And those interested in American history will find that McCann has offered a new angle on understanding one of its most troubled and complex periods.” — Virginia Quarterly Review

"[E]xcellent . . . . [C]onvincing . . . . [G]reatly enrich[s] our understanding of the New Deal’s literary legacy . . . ." — Lawrence J. Oliver , Journal of American History

"Sean McCann's Gumshoe America is a perceptive application of the literary approach to the study of politics. . . . McCann's book is a serious contribution to this mode of political and historical analysis. . . . Gumshoe America would be of interest to any student of literature, politics, or history, whether a general reader or an academic. In this very original work, McCann has clearly explained how politics and literature in America tap into the same theoretical and cultural foundation." — Joseph C. Bertolini , Perspectives on Political Science

“McCann brilliantly shows how depictions of detectives and deadbeats were at one and the same time struggles over the terms of New Deal liberalism/postwar Keynesianism and inquiries into the cultural office of popular narrative. Gumshoe America ought to earn McCann a visible and enduring place as a premier scholar of popular American writing and an exponent of original ideas about literary value, U.S. cultural politics, and the ruses of representation in a variety of American cultural locations.” — Eric Lott, author of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class

“Sean McCann’s Gumshoe America is a major new interpretation of a pivotal period in American social and cultural history—and also a pleasure to read. McCann blends sophisticated analysis of national politics, an understanding of cultural and political theory, detailed archival research in the concrete details of pulp literary production, and subtle critical analysis of literary texts.” — Richard Slotkin, author of Gunfighter Nation

“The secret history of American crime fiction doubles back to the 1920s and 1930s American left. The noir novelists of Sean McCann’s shrewd and disturbing Gumshoe America devised a fierce, experimental pop-Modernism, an intransigent anti-popular strain within popular culture. McCann writes passionately, argumentatively, authoritatively, alert to both accomplishment and loss. Probably no prior study of American crime fiction is more entangled in the claims and contradictions of community, race, class, and politics.” — Robert Polito, author of Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson


Availability: In stock
Price: $29.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Sean McCann is Assistant Professor of English at Wesleyan University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Uncivil Society: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Idea of a Democratic Culture 1

1. Constructing Race Williams: The Klan and the Making of Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction 39

2. "Mystic Rigmarole": Dashiell Hammett and the Realist Critique of Liberalism 87

3. The Pulp Writer as Vanishing American: Raymond Chandler's Decentralist Imagination 140

4. Letdown Artists: Paperback Noir and the Procedural Republic 198

5. Tangibles: Chester Himes and the Slow Death of New Deal Populism 251

Conclusion: Beyond Us, Yet Ourselves 306

Notes 309

Bibliography 349

Index 365
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Honorable Mention, 2001 John Hope Franklin Award

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2594-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2580-2
Publicity material