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  • Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories
  • Jonathan P. Eburne
Cassuto, Leonard. Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories. New York: Columbia UP, 2009. xii + 327 pp.

To identify Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930) as a romance is to make a generic claim. Hammett's detective novel does not merely resemble early modern romance literature; it constitutes a literal adaptation of the genre, the titular falcon designating a lost crusades-era artifact that was intended, we are told, as a tribute to be presented by the knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem to the emperor, Charles V, for the right to occupy Malta. Hammett's The Dain Curse (1929) is no less self-consciously an adaptation—or a pastiche—of gothic haunted house stories; Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train (1950) pursues an alternative mode of haunting that revisits the works of William Godwin, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allan Poe. The hard-boiled writer Carroll John Daly wrote a novel called The Hidden Hand (1929) that, if hardly a direct revision of the E. D. E. N. Southworth novel first serialized in 1859, still represents a meditation on questions of fate and influence that guided the fortunes—both economic and sentimental—of Southworth's protagonist Capitola Black.

Leonoard Cassuto's Hard-Boiled Sentimentality proceeds from such observations, offering a long overdue examination of the literary genealogy of hard-boiled crime writing in the United States. The sense in which we understand such writing as "genre fiction" has, Cassuto implies, been unnecessarily restricted: hard-boiled crime stories represent less a genre unto themselves than an emergent fictional form that borrowed from and revisited other, earlier genres. This is a compelling idea, and Cassuto's study opens up exciting new ways to engage with continuities in US literary history beyond the institutional tendency to divide the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet Cassuto's book is not interested in literary genealogy alone; rather, Hard-Boiled Sentimentality is concerned with the broader "secret history" of US crime writing, which has to do with the extent to which this writing codifies and adapts historical experience. Hard-boiled writing, Cassuto explains, emerges at the juncture of two "spheres" or "belief-systems" that conditioned nineteenth-century fiction and twentieth-century life alike (8)—namely, the allegedly feminine sphere of domesticity, sentimentality, and the family; and the allegedly masculine sphere of public life, economics, and politics. Scholars of nineteenth-century US literature in recent years have debunked the ontological and historical legitimacy of this restricted model; Cassuto, however, presents two arguments in favor of maintaining it, at least provisionally. The first is to suggest [End Page 154] that the notion of "separate spheres" bore "ideological power" that should not be underestimated. "The model of separate spheres," he contends, "guided (and continues to guide) many assumptions about the form of family life in the United States, and thus influenced (and continues to influence) national, social, and political debate" (70). For Cassuto, such ideological assumptions are no less real for consisting principally of speech acts; the notion that public discourse exercises measurable historical power and influence is fundamental to his approach to literary history.

For indeed, Cassuto's second argument in favor of maintaining the separate spheres of domestic and public experience lies in measuring the significance of hard-boiled writing for its ability to occupy the boundary between these two spheres. As he writes, "I want to suggest that the stereotypically masculine hard-boiled crime fiction and stereotypically feminine, evangelical, and domestic sentimental fiction are two branches off the same middle-class tree" (2). One might argue, of course, that both sentimental and hard-boiled writing often had far more than middle-class interests at stake; yet Cassuto's principal interest lies in tracing the development and permutations of this connection rather than in interrogating the constitution of the branches themselves.

Like the work of Walter Benn Michaels and the scholars of hard-boiled writing to whom Cassuto often alludes—Sean McCann, Michael Szalay, and Geoffrey O'Brien—Cassuto's Hard-Boiled Sentimentality participates in a mode of ideological critique that understands...


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