restricted access The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler (review)
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Reviewed by
William Marling. The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996. 306 pp.

William Marling has written critical studies of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s novels; however, with The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler, he offers a challenging reconsideration of the complexity and artistic achievement of these three writers. Often lumped together, as Edmund Wilson did years ago as “the boys in the [End Page 840] back room,” for their hard-boiled depictions of life in the 1930s and 40s, Marling argues that their narrative achievements have less to do with attitude than with complex and often subtle responses to the zeitgeist of their day.

In his first chapter, Marling establishes a narrative paradigm to which he returns in analyses of individual novels. He argues that 1927 was a pivotal date in the nation’s history for a host of reasons, not the least of which was that it set the stage for the stock market crash, and the ensuing reaction to the extremes of the Roaring Twenties made prodigal tales especially potent and popular reading. Marling reviews the research on this narrative form, noting the values represented by each member of the prodigal triangle—profligate son, forgiving father, and responsible elder brother. He argues that these stories “may be divided generally into those showing improvement and those showing deterioration” and asserts that “the fabula of prodigality is at base about the social reservoir of energy: who owns it, how it is accumulated, who maintains it, and who gets to spend it.” He then reviews the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and the first sound film, The Jazz Singer, to demonstrate the fabula’s flexibility and overwhelming attractiveness to audiences.

The book’s second chapter links the popularity of noir fiction to a constellation of discrete social events. Relying on Roman Jakobson’s distinctions between metonymy and synecdoche, Marling notes that metonymy operates as “a name of a part [that] substitutes for the whole . . . [and] is an extrinsic and mechanistic mode of figuration.” On the other hand synecdoche “names a part that symbolizes some quality of the whole. Jakobson said it was integrative, emphasizing intrinsic and organic qualities.” In the economic growth of the 1920s, “metonymic qualities became allied to ‘progress’ and to narratives about it.”

Relying on a stunning array of historical data—changes in work habits, styles of automobiles, architecture, and appliances, the use of new materials in manufacturing—Marling demonstrates dramatic changes in the nature and quality of American life. Such changes emphasized speed, efficiency, and constant mutability. Marling furthermore charts the shifts in aesthetic design from Victorian rococo to the smooth lines of art nouveau which also connoted a movement from synecdochical to metonymic appearance. He does an exemplary job of revealing the ways in which these alterations in cultural phenomena suggest major shifts in fundamental values. [End Page 841]

In each of the three central chapters, Marling blends biography, a defining social incident, and analyses of two novels by each of his subjects. With Dashiell Hammett he emphasizes the effect the Fatty Arbuckle case, which Hammett investigated as a Pinkerton agent, had upon the novelist. For Hammett the fabula of the prodigal “was about the tension between individuals who have and spend, apart from talent and ability, and the self-enforced social conformity of the working class that formed the audience . . . .” In The Red Harvest he discovered a style that approximated the sleek, new design of life, and the conventions of the fabula are fairly easy to detect. The Maltese Falcon reveals signs of Hammett’s experience as a writer of advertising copy, and the work hinges on the elaboration of the fabula as well as on a discussion of an intricate dichotomy of smooth and rough images.

The treatment of James M. Cain centers on his background as a journalist, the effect of the heavily publicized Synder-Gray murder trial in 1927, and the social backlash against the economic and sexual profligacy of the 1920s. The Postman Always Rings Twice (a title actually taken verbatim from testimony in the Snyder-Gray trial) inverts the conventions of the fabula such that the woman...