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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 348-354
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The Ambivalent Detective
Greg Forter. Murdering Masculinities: Fantasies of Gender and Violence in the American Crime Novel. New York: New York UP, 2000. x + 268 pp.
Sean McCann. Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. viii + 370 pp.
The year 2000 was a good one for the gumshoe, a year in which the detective's ambivalence became his strength. Two major studies on American crime novels from the 1920s through the 1960s, both published in 2000, begin from the observation that the genre has been far from coherent in its responses to central tensions within American culture. In starting from this point, each study makes a strong case for why even those who have not been readers of the crime novel should be. But these two books could not be more different, despite the fact that they focus most of their attention, with a few exceptions, on the same writers—Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, and James Cain. (Forter adds Faulkner to the list; McCann adds several others including Mickey Spillane, Ross Macdonald, Charles Willeford, Carroll John Daly, and Raymond Chandler.) The distinctions between the books suggest not only the difference methodology and theory make—Forter's approach is psychoanalytic, McCann's philosophical and historicist—but also the literary depth and range to be found in a genre whose practitioners, as McCann [End Page 348] brilliantly shows, were often ambivalent about both their literary aspirations and their popular following.
Of course Forter and McCann are not the first to take the crime novel seriously. Though Forter's notes cite more psychoanalysis than literary criticism, his citations, together with McCann's comprehensive bibliography, mark a trail of criticism from the 1980s through the present that reconstructs the history of pulp and paperback detective fiction and interprets the genre's significance for literature, literary theory, and American cultural history. What Forter adds to the existing body of criticism is a thorough-going psychoanalytic reading that shows how hard-boiled detective fiction critiques the normative masculinity of its own protagonists. McCann contributes a critical narrative that accounts for the relationship between individual writers' careers—with all the subtle (or not so subtle) shifts and contradictions a career can contain—and the changing tides of liberalism from the New Deal through the early sixties. Both critics aim to characterize a genre: Forter, by excavating in a few novels what, by his account, the genre typically represses; McCann, by tracking a set of paradoxes implicit in numerous examples of crime fiction over the course of several decades.
Forter mines the aspect of these novels that has always been obvious: their apparent celebration of masculinity. This is not to say, though, that Forter's analysis gives us an obvious reading of how masculinity functions in the crime novel. On the contrary, Forter works hard in his psychoanalytically complex readings to reveal the contradiction and ambivalence inherent in these novels' presentations of masculinity. I say "presentations" rather than "representations" because Forter underlines his commitment to reading both the style and the content of these novels as indicative, or demonstrative, of the masculinity each writer imagines. Each chapter details a central figure or image and how it is worked out in a particular novel: the corpse in Hammett's The Glass Key, smell in Cain's Serenade, vomit in Faulkner's Sanctuary, the voice in Thompson's Pop. 1280, and excrement in Himes's Blind Man With a Pistol. What these figures have in common, for Forter, is their psychic capacity to challenge the bounded self of the masculine protagonist. Though, as Forter points out, these figures are often feminized and rejected, they are also identified with masculinity in a register that Forter calls the "generic unconscious." The novels Forter chooses to discuss embody (for him) the possibility that this most normative of masculine genres actually contains within it the psychic resources through which such masculinity can be reinvented.
At their best, Forter's readings pick up on the...