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Reviewed by:
Cynthia S. Hamilton. Western and Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction in America: High Noon to Midnight. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1987. 200 pp. $21.00.

Cynthia Hamilton's goal in Western and Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction is to analyze the "dynamics of one generic tradition, the American adventure formula." More particularly, it is a study of the development and change of two subgenres, the Western and the hard-boiled detective novels. She claims that both are variants of the basic formula, which is "built around the testing and confirmation of key American values, especially individualism, and are closely tied to the myth of the American dream." The formula has five elements: setting, hero, plot, style, and theme. There are two crucial elements in the basic formula for the subgenres under discussion: "lawlessness and the maximum opportunity for personal enrichment." Hamilton quite rightly calls for an end to the hierarchical notion of culture and the correlative belief that different methodologies should exist for studying high and popular art.

In a demonstration of such an approach, she divides the discussion into two parts. Part One (three chapters) describes the types of "relationships" essential to her method. Chapter One places the formula within an historical framework. Chapter Two (the least convincing) attempts to explain how a "layering process" is used to superimpose different generic patterns and results in "richness" or "tension." Chapter Three discusses the important connection between the marketplace and variations in the formula. Part Two includes four chapters that focus on the biographies, thematic concerns, and stylistic characteristics of four writers—Zane Grey, Frederick Faust, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler.

Evaluating this study presents certain problems. My first reaction to Hamilton's work was to reject it because it attempted to link two genres that seemed separate and unconnected. After more consideration, I began to see certain linkages in structure, characterization, and theme. It is true that all four writers do depend on a "typically American" sense of individuality and the lawlessness that seems inherent in the American character. In the same vein, Hamilton's discussion of the connections between the closing of the frontier and the popularity of adventure fiction in the late nineteenth century are insightful. Her discussion of the sources of the Western's popularity seems rather truncated because she fails to mention Smith's Virgin Land, which explores the popularity of the Western adventure in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. The individual chapters in Part Two are thorough, full of scholarly and critical insights; however, I wondered about the lack of any discussion to establish connections between the four writers' biographies, themes, and styles. This work desperately needs a concluding chapter and perhaps some mention of other writers who wrote adventures, like the prolific and popular Louis L'Amour.

Ultimately, Hamilton's study must be called successful because it does provoke serious consideration of works that seem utterly unconnected. My serious consideration leads me to make two suggestions to broaden the discussion further: 1) Hamilton's analysis would be more useful if she considered authors closer in relative popularity and output. Comparing Grey (fifty novels) to Hammett (five novels) seems strange. It might be more useful, in terms of discussing popular literature, to consider more prolific or widely popular detective writers like Erle Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane along with Grey and Faust. 2) Hamilton's [End Page 667] discussion of a particular brand of American individualism should be broadened to include the possibility of moral examination of action that seems to distinguish Hammett and Chandler from Grey and Faust. Along with lawlessness, there is also inherent in American individualism a strain of self-examination and self-development.

Larry D. Harred
University of Wisconsin, River Falls
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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 667-668
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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