- Constructing Race Williams: The Klan and the Making of Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction
In an emergency Americans will enforce their own law—not merely their statutes but also fundamental laws that they believe essential for their own or the national good—and . . . they will use lamposts if it should become necessary.—Stanley Frost, The Challenge of the Klan
The flash of my gun showed me nothing. It never does, though it’s easy to think you’ve seen things.—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
From its first appearances in the pulp magazines of the 1920s, hard-boiled crime fiction emphasized its populist credentials. These were stories, the genre’s writers and fans claimed, with a privileged purchase on “real life” and a fundamental antipathy to genteel fantasy. Against the “bunk” of oversophistication, they promised to deliver the stark truths of contemporary society—“ugly, vicious, sordid, and cruel.” And, at their most grandiose, they linked this antiliterary sensibility to a complaint against social corruption. Revealing unpleasant reality was not just pulp sensationalism, the fiction’s writers and editors implied; it was part of a moral struggle against dishonesty. The fiction thus railed against social decline—indicting “graft,” denouncing “parasites,” and complaining against “unjust . . . wealth” and “tainted power.” As one influential editor implied when he claimed that his [End Page 677] fiction offered a “public service” to its readers, the champions of the genre were rarely content to see it as a form of entertainment alone. Hard-boiled crime fiction, they suggested, offered a popular critique of a decadent society. 1
In short, as many commentators have since noted, the hard-boiled detective story created a pulp version of the populist jeremiad. 2 What has been less apparent about this anti-elitist fiction, though, is the way it developed in close proximity to a non-fictional variety of nativist populism. During the early 1920s, as the hard-boiled genre emerged in Black Mask magazine, the recently revived Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in American society by championing a social fantasy that closely resembled the mythology implicit in hard-boiled crime fiction. Like the heroes of Black Mask’s “new type of detective story,” Klan ideologues during the 1920s railed against class parasites and social decadence. Like the jaundiced private detective, they, too, spotted the signs of corruption in urban vice and moral decline. And, like the hard-boiled heroes, Klansmen imagined that the only effective response to social ills was a form of vigilante justice that imposed order on the confusions of an urbanizing society. The common ground was apparent in the title of an early Dashiell Hammett story, “Women, Politics, and Murder.” In both Klan ideology and hard-boiled crime fiction, the American city was riven by illicit sexuality, corruption, and crime—closely linked forms of social disarray that demanded the control of vigilant men. 3
Such notions have, of course, a long lineage in the traditions of American populism, and their common presence in pulp fiction and the rhetoric of the Klan might seem merely coincidental were it not for a suggestive accident of publishing history. 4 During the latter part of 1923, at the same time in which hard-boiled crime fiction was gaining prominence in the magazine, Black Mask also featured an ongoing discussion about the Ku Klux Klan and its place in the moral regeneration of American society. Indeed, the first successful hard-boiled private detective, Carroll John Daly’s tellingly named Race Williams, made his debut in a special issue of Black Mask dedicated to a fictional debate over the Klan—a dispute that Williams entered as an enemy of the Invisible Empire. For the next six months, as Daly and Dashiell Hammett’s stories gained popularity in the magazine, Black Mask continued to run a “Klan Forum” in which its readers debated the KKK and its relation to “Americanism.” This unusual event created a small [End Page 678] sensation in the magazine, and it coincided with important changes in Black Mask’s tone and direction. But its most important effect came in the way it placed the magazine’s “new type of detective fiction” in direct contact with Klan ideology at the...