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Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them

Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir

John T. Irwin

Publication Year: 2006

Early in the twentieth century a new character type emerged in the crime novels of American writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler: the “hard-boiled” detective, most famously exemplified by Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Unlike the analytical detectives of nineteenth-century fiction, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Inspector Dupin, the new detectives encountered cases not as intricate logical puzzles but as stark challenges of manhood. In the stories of these characters and their criminal opposites, John T. Irwin explores the tension within ideas of American masculinity between subordination and independence and, for the man who becomes “his own boss,” the conflict between professional codes and personal desires. He shows how, within different works of hard-boiled fiction, the professional either overcomes the personal or is overcome by it, ending in ruinous relationships or in solitary integrity, and how within the genre all notions of manly independence are ultimately revealed to be illusions subordinate to fate itself. Tracing the stylistic development of the genre, Irwin demonstrates the particular influence of the novel of manners, especially the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He goes on to argue that, from the time of World War II, when hard-boiled fiction began to appear on the screen in film noir just as women entered the workforce in large numbers, many of its themes came to extend to female empowerment. Finally, he discusses how these themes persist in contemporary dramatic series on television, representing the conflicted lives of Americans into the twenty-first century.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

In the preface to my previous book of literary criticism, The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story, I explained that it was the first of a three-book project whose other two planned volumes would be titled “Apollinaire Lived in Paris. I Live in Cleveland, Ohio”: Approaches to the Poetry of Hart Crane and An Almost Theatrical Distance: Figuration and...

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pp. xi-xii

The first thing that a reader starting this book should be aware of is that, in spite of its subtitle, it is not a general overview of an entire fiction genre and its authors nor of an entire film genre and its auteurs. Rather, this book is a selective study of works by five seminal writers of the 1930s and ’40s who established the themes and narrative structures of hard-boiled fiction and initiated the genre’s popularity with...

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1 “Where Their Best Interest Lies”: Hammett's The Maltese Falcon

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pp. 1-30

Over the last ten or fifteen years I have reread Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon at least once, sometimes twice, a year and accompanied each rereading with a viewing of John Huston’s film version. Some readers may dismiss this annual rereading of the same book as either boring or silly, or merely obsessive- compulsive. I hope to find on examination that it’s neither boring...

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2 Being Boss: Chandler's The Big Sleep

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pp. 31-68

Like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler turned to the writing of detective fiction to support himself when his previous line of work as a salaried employee of a business ran out. Hammett had joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency as an operative in 1915 at the age of twenty, worked for them until the summer of 1918, when he was inducted into the army, and then rejoined...

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3 Beating the Boss: Cain's Double Indemnity

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pp. 69-96

The two writers most frequently associated with James M. Cain in any discussion of hard-boiled fiction are, of course, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and indeed the three men’s lives and careers have much in common. Like Hammett, Cain was born and raised in Maryland, served in the U.S. Army during World War I, and contracted pulmonary tuberculosis as a...

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4 Who’s the Boss?: W. R. Burnett's High Sierra

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pp. 97-122

If Hammett’s and Chandler’s best detective fiction has as its underlying theme the main character’s becoming or staying his own boss and Cain’s best has as its the main character’s trying to beat or outwit his employer, then W. R. Burnett’s High Sierra (1940) situates itself in relation to these works by addressing the question of who’s actually the boss and whether...

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5 Deadline at Midnight: Cornell Woolrich's Night Has a Thousand Eyes

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pp. 123-170

Though critics often group Cornell Woolrich with hard-boiled writers like Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and Burnett, Woolrich’s fiction is characterized by a quality present only by turns in the others’ work. Woolrich is primarily a writer of suspense fiction, his trademark the creation of psychological terror so pervasive and paralyzing it seems almost more destructive...

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6 A Puzzle of Character

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pp. 171-206

A look back over the books and authors we’ve discussed so far reveals several patterns in the development of hard-boiled fiction in the 1930s and ’40s. As we noted, the genre began with the work of detective-story writers in the twenties (most notably Dashiell Hammett) and reached a high point in Hammett’s career with the 1930 publication of The Maltese Falcon, a work...

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7 Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir

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pp. 207-239

In examining the films made in the 1940s from the hard-boiled novels we’ve discussed—movies representing some of the best examples of film noir—I intend to avoid for the most part the sorts of well-worked-over arguments the analysis of this subject typically generates: as, for example, whether film noir is a movie genre like the Western, the musical, or the gangster...

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8 Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir, Continued

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pp. 240-272

When Paramount Pictures contacted Chandler in 1943 to ask if he’d be interested in collaborating on the screenplay of Cain’s Double Indemnity with the film’s director Billy Wilder, Chandler got his chance, for his first venture in screenwriting, to work on adapting a book embodying his sense that the detective story and the love story “cannot exist . . . in the same book—one might...

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pp. 273-275

We’ve come a certain distance together since my questioning of an obsessive annual rereading of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon began this study, a starting point that ultimately led into an examination of a twentieth-century popular (not to say pulp) fiction genre whose origin was in a different kind of detective story, one that would eventually give birth to a novel of manners with a detective or crime interest. What began essentially...


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pp. 277-282


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pp. 283-290

E-ISBN-13: 9780801889387
E-ISBN-10: 0801889383
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801890802
Print-ISBN-10: 0801890802

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2006