Dreams for Dead Bodies: Blackness, Labor, and the Corpus of American Detective Fiction by M. Michelle Robinson
Robinson’s Dreams for Dead Bodies offers an amended history of US detective fiction from the 1830s to the 1930s as an interracial genre that arose in conjunction with changing social structures of labor, economics, and industrialization. Setting itself apart from a growing body of scholarship on detective fiction’s relationship to literary modernism, Dreams devotes significant attention to nineteenth-century developments and the narrative devices of detective fiction, contending that “American authors seized these devices to represent a sociology of racialized labor, to challenge public fictions of racial separation, and to gauge prospects for interracial sociability” (202). Robinson chooses texts at the margins of detective fiction, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe” (1834), which she calls a kind of protodetective or metadetective story, in order to uncover a meaningful dialogue between detective and literary fiction based on generic mechanisms, principally backward construction, metonymy, and metaphor. More than uncovering how the genesis of US detective fiction is entwined with the emergence of cultural and literary modernity in the US, Dreams investigates the role of historical forces in shaping both. Though at times the complex—or “sideways” (23), as Robinson calls it—methodology is overwhelming, altogether the book convincingly illustrates that US literature of this period was critically engaged with the formal devices of detective fiction and that this genre’s origins are inextricably tied to the prospect of interracial sociability.
Chapter 1 marks out the major arguments of Dreams, and it is its analysis of Mark Twain’s unfinished novel No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger (1902–08) around which the other chapters coalesce. Robinson treats No. 44 as an exploration of how detective and literary fiction might contend with industrial-age questions of race, free will, and work: “Taking the detective genre’s tools as its own, it dramatizes how labor impinges on textuality while precipitating racial difference” (30). Linking the manuscript to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century dime novels, Robinson thoroughly historicizes the connections she identifies between detective literature, industrialization, labor disputes, and racial competition in the workforce. Accordingly, Twain’s temporal misalignments and heterochrony work to articulate racialized confrontations between labor and industry. Robinson concludes that Twain’s posthumously published novel uses racial disguise, allegory, and narrative retraction as well as tactics from the dime novel such as visual indeterminacy to address turn-of-the-century concerns about race, industrialization, and political consent. [End Page 187]
The next two chapters move backward to the early nineteenth century. Chapter 2 provides an insightful consideration of narrative retroversion in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839) and Hawthorne’s “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe” as a tool for representing antebellum US socioeconomic systems. Narrative retroversion is one of the central devices of classic detective fiction because the detective must reconstruct what happened in the past in order to solve the crime in the present. Poe and Hawthorne, then, not only “formulate and explore the limits and possibilities” of this device (63) but in so doing also address questions of race, “since race differentiation forged in and fortified by the antebellum industrial order is formalized, coalescing in the activity of narrative retroversion” (64). Dreams offers a particularly persuasive reading of “The Man That Was Used Up” in the context of the ongoing history of frontier violence, linking Native American resistance with black revolt. Chapter 3 looks at Poe’s “The Gold Bug” (1843) and Robert M. Bird’s Sheppard Lee: Written by Himself (1836). Initially, the argument that metonymy and metaphor are devices used to explore the asymmetrical power relations between former slaves and masters in antebellum interracial sociabilities does not seem to necessarily rely on a relationship to the detective genre; however, by reading these texts through Poe’s first ratiocinative story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), and its investment in questions of possession, Robinson shows how Bird and Poe use mystery and detection to interrogate the history of interracial dependency in antebellum America. In “The Gold Bug,” for instance, Jupiter’s manumission and lack of documentation become central to the way Dreams links metonymic kinship and metaphoric relation: “Poe’s ex-slave who remains a slave is evidence of the repressed returned, anticipating a cycle of indebtedness that would characterize the relations of blacks and whites in America following emancipation” (109). Thus it is through epistemological investigation that these texts interrogate questions of enslavement and self-determination in the antebellum US social economy.
Chapter 4 revisits the turn of the century, exploring racial passing and temporality in Pauline Hopkins’s Hagar’s Daughter (1901–02) and William H. Holcombe’s A Mystery of New Orleans (1890). Robinson argues that these works use generic tropes to contest the post-Reconstruction reunion culture and the racial caste system that underpins it. In pairing Hopkins and Holcombe, Robinson brings to the fore not just generic similarities such as forensic skepticism but also the epistemological stakes for interracial sociability at the end of the century. Hagar’s Daughter suggests “that a quasi-empirical model of crime solving is not sufficient to penetrate ‘a passing plot’ or unmask disguise,” and relies instead on a method of detection [End Page 188] “anchored in the shifting signifiers of respectability and uplift” (137), while Mystery substitutes “a theory of metaphysical testimony” for forensics (158). Robinson’s reading makes clear that detective fiction is not a depoliticized or inherently conservative genre and raises interesting questions for how other passing narratives might be read in relation to mystery and detection.
Robinson turns to Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) and Chester Himes’s The Big Gold Dream (1960) in the last two sections of the book. Chapter 5 is situated in the 1930s, the hard-boiled school’s heyday and an important period for both detective fiction and literary modernism. Though US detective fiction from this period is often read in relationship to white masculinity, Robinson instead highlights Fisher’s use of generic devices to explore interracial sociability. Fisher’s novel is a black modernist text that makes use of detective fiction’s mechanisms, such as the locked room, to affirm the racial heterogeneity of detective fiction. In closing, Robinson turns to the work of Himes, whose detective novels of the 1950s and 1960s provide insight into the genre’s development after the hard-boiled era. Appropriately, Dreams considers Himes’s work in relation to the literary past that Himes reworks and the racial past that resonates throughout Himes’s Harlem detective series. The Big Gold Dream relies on narrative reconstruction to refer readers to a history of race in the US that is “situated just beyond the horizon of the narrative” (213). By integrating literary and detective fiction, Dreams disinters the underlying interracial and economic contents of detective fiction’s conventions and convincingly demonstrates that in order to understand the development of literature and race relations in this era, we must also know something about detective fiction and its devices.