Review of Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-Boiled History by Susanna Lee

Bill LeFurgy
Takoma Park, MD, USA

Lee, Susanna. (2020). Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-Boiled History. Johns Hopkins University Press. 224 pages, $27.00

Susanna Lee’s Detectives in the Shadows is an incisive, entertaining jaunt through the hard-boiled genre from its pulp-fiction origins to the present. Lee, Professor and Chair of the Department of French and Francophone Studies at Georgetown University, has previously written about crime fiction, the decline of moral authority, and the impact of secularism on the novel. Her new book explores how American detective fiction intersects with the changing moods of the nation and provides keen insight into how fiction impacts collective consciousness. The work is thus an important addition to media and cultural studies.

Detectives in the Shadows is part of a recent surge in analytical writing about detective fiction. Other examples include Hard-Boiled Masculinities, by Christopher Breu, University of Minnesota Press, 2000; Gumshoe America Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism, by Sean McCann, Duke University Press, 2000; Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them: Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir, by John T. Irwin, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008; Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories, by Leonard Cassuto, Columbia University Press, 2009; and Hard-Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles, by Jon Lewis, University of California Press, 2017. The topic’s popularity is due to its visceral appeal, enduring cultural resonance, and its utility as a showcase for probing social trends and issues.

The hard-boiled genre emerged in America during the 1920s principally through the writings of John Carroll Daly and Dashiell Hammett. Later authors such as Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Robert Parker extended and deepened the style. Along the way, the genre came to encapsulate popular notions of personal autonomy, disillusionment, and the need for tough, unsentimental heroes who were not afraid to step on the toes of others to solve problems. The original hard-boiled protagonist was a cis white man, often “manly” to the point of camp. Women first appeared in these stories as victims or femme fatales. Character depictions evolved in the face of social change, which makes detective fiction an ideal body of evidence for analyzing the prevalent representations of gender roles over time.

The traditional hard-boiled trope with tough guys and duplicitous dames remained immensely popular for many years, despite criticism of its narrow and distorted characterizations of both men and women. In 1944 Saul Bellow complained in his novel Dangling Man:

This is an era of hard-boiled-dom . . . Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them . . . Most serious matters are closed to the hard-boiled. They are unpracticed in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring (p. 7).

Hard-boiled-dom eventually adapted to the times and continued to thrive with an intriguing mix of parody, appropriation, and reinterpretation. Some revitalized examples include the Shaft films of the 1970s that feature an African-American detective who fights racism while solving cases; Sandra Scoppettone’s 1990s novels with lesbian PI Laura Laurano; and Inherent Vice, a Thomas Pynchon story made into a 2014 film that offers as investigator a tuned-out hippie stoner who would have trouble punching his way out of a paper bag.

The hard-boiled genre remains popular today because it taps into the emotions and complexities of modern life that resonate with ordinary people. In these stories, the protagonists face off against powerful and corrupt individuals and institutions, much as an ordinary person might cope with a difficult boss or an uncaring employer. And just as the hard-boiled detective walks mean streets without being mean, a common soul can imagine contending with malicious forces while still remaining a good person.

Lee expands upon this motif by claiming that the hard-boiled narrative “serves as a dark mirror for America’s worst impulses, while also offering a nuanced portrait of response and morality that actual history frequently fails to bear out” (p. 1). The stories present heroes who “kill your enemies for you,” allowing readers to channel their resentment, aggression, and boredom toward the imaginary dispatch of “enemies,” such as an annoying neighbor. The book presents examples of how pulp-fiction fantasies have passed over into macho political discourse using models such as Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign and Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs.” Such slogans cast their speakers as tough (white) men unafraid to battle a bunch of bad (minority) guys on behalf of a worried (white) nation.

Lee offers a compelling analysis of how the hard-boiled ethos came into play during the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In a 1976 Playboy interview, Carter sounded distinctly mild-manner when, as president, he would rule out overthrowing a foreign government. Without a trace of irony or cleverness, Carter also confessed to “looking at a lot of women with lust” and said he “committed adultery in my heart many times.” This ran directly counter to the original hard-boiled code, which Bellow noted years earlier prioritized toughness over candor and sincerity. As a result, Carter’s double-digit lead over Gerald Ford in the polls evaporated. Fortunately for Carter, Ford also violated the tough-guy code when he denied that the Soviets dominated Eastern Europe. As president, Carter projected a do-gooder image that, according to Lee, came across via mass media as either impersonal or incompetent. “Americans didn’t want Mr. Rogers in a cardigan in the White House,” Lee writes. “They wanted a media savvy character who would ‘kill their enemies for them’” (p. 116). What voters wanted, of course, was Reagan, who served up imaginary enemies such as “welfare queens” and, by extension, racial minorities in general. Reagan also used two-fisted lingo, such as telling supporters of tax increases to “go ahead and make my day” and calling the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” Lee notes that Reagan drew on the same strategy the original hard-boiled writers employed: “he got his audience accustomed to thinking about enemies and focused on crisis” (p. 120).

Another area where Lee provides sharp commentary is the evolution of women in the hard-boiled narrative. From the 1920s through the 1970s, women were often presented as variously weak, vulnerable, deceitful, and deadly. A favorite plot device involved the violent murders of young and beautiful females. Lee provides a substantive argument for the changing role of women in the genre, starting with Robert B. Parker’s protagonist Spencer, who interacts at length with psychologist Susan Silverman. Silverman talks about feminism and urges him to consider a female point of view. Lee credits Parker for setting a hard-boiled character in the “real world, complete with emotional attachments and changing social mores,” even though many of his readers disapproved because they wanted “a refuge for male traditionalism, a place where they could maintain their economic, political, and social dominance” (p. 101).

Authors such as Sara Peretsky have written books featuring hard-boiled female detectives who dish out violence and are also on the receiving end of it. But according to Lee, these protagonists “are never quite as believable as their male counterparts . . . in book after book, they are never raped or killed, which is in itself unrealistic” (p. 150). Gender does not define these characters, but Lee points out that “women’s bodies are vulnerable in ways that men’s aren’t . . . the violence men perpetrate against women is . . . worse than what men do to each other. Women exist under a constant threat of violence and vulnerability from men. Everyone, men and women, knows this” (p. 150). Sadly, a wealth of experience confirms these statements. This is not to say fictional hard-nosed females don’t make for terrific stories. As Lee notes, tough female characters are often much more believable as people and cites Sigourney Weaver in the Alien and Linda Hamilton in the Terminator movies. But Lee also believes that to be credible, female detectives must dodge the worst of male violence through conceit. She provides the example of Jessica Jones, protagonist of the eponymous television show. Jones is a realistic, tough-minded woman but also has superhero strength that allows her to vanquish a parade of men who try to hurt her.

Detective in the Shadows is a quick and compelling read, but its brevity comes at the cost of condensing the hard-boiled landscape and skimping on its origins. Lee does cover the major authors, such as Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane, well but she devotes less attention to others, such as Ross McDonald, Chester Himes, and Jim Thompson. Not mentioned at all are Megan Abbott, James M. Cain, David Goodis, John D. MacDonald, M. Ruth Myers, and Cornell Woolrich. And while Lee credits Edgar Allan Poe, James Fennimore Cooper, and Arthur Conan Doyle as inspirations for the genre, she might have dug deeper and discussed Jack London and Stephen Crane. Some mention of early silent films is also in order, particularly those of Tom Mix and Douglas Fairbanks, who played tough, macho characters who thwart evil-doers. And, given Lee’s interest in how women are portrayed in hard-boiled narratives, it is surprising that she is silent about the origins of the femme fatale, which sprang to life in Oscar Wilde’s 1894 English-translated play Salome, featuring a scheming princess who demands the head of the man she loves. This enormously popular character led to the creation of the “vampire” (or vamp) played on screen by Theda Bara in pre-1920 silent films such as She-Devil, The Siren’s Song, and, naturally, Salome.

Overall, Detectives in the Shadows is an accessible, well-reasoned work that is valuable as an introduction to the hard-boiled genre and a guide to the style’s impact on popular culture.

Author Bio

Bill LeFurgy is retired from the Library of Congress, where he led a national program to preserve digital cultural heritage. He is the author of two historical mystery novels, Into the Suffering City and Murder in the Haunted Chamber, set in early twentieth-century Baltimore, Maryland. He received an M.A. in United States History from the University of Maryland and a B.A. in History from McGill University.

Published March 2023