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  • Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them: Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir
  • Adrienne Foreman (bio)
John T. Irwin . Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them: Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. xii + 290pp. $25.00 (paper).

After the publication of his award winning work The Mystery to a Solution:Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story, John T. Irwin took a detour from his three-book project of which it was a part to write about hard-boiled detective fiction and its relationship with film noir. Because of Irwin's interest in complicating existentialist readings of hard-boiled detective fiction, the work focuses on white male feelings about power, position, and the professional and personal. As in his previous work, the attention paid to multiple areas of knowledge—theory, psychoanalysis, biography, history—is one of the best aspects of Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them, which offers an insightful analysis of hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir.

By closely examining five influential hard-boiled texts, Irwin explores how "the struggle of the twentieth-century working American to become or stay his own boss" is central to hard-boiled detective fiction (xi). Starting with Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon, Irwin establishes and complicates the struggle between the personal and the professional. The best section of this chapter, and perhaps of the book, is Irwin's comparison of the Flitcraft episode of The Maltese Falcon to Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Wakefield" and the Book of Job. Not only does this establish several different foundational points about the importance of the professional to the typical American male, it also sets The Maltese Falcon in relation to important canonical texts. In the second chapter, Irwin compares Dashiell Hammett's work to Raymond Chandler's and discusses The Big Sleep in depth. Like Hammett's works, Raymond Chandler's novels must portray the professional as above the personal. In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade achieves independence when Archer dies and chooses the professional when he gives Brigid up to the police. Unlike Spade, Philip Marlowe enjoys more stable independence and freedom in The Big Sleep, and the hierarchy of career before love is highlighted in every interaction with Vivian. Ultimately, Irwin asserts that while Spade is his own boss, Marlowe is "not just self-employed but his own sole employee as well—the culmination of the quest to be one's own boss being the freeing of the boss from responsibility for anyone but himself" (55).

To complete the trio of hard-boiled super authors, Irwin discusses James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity. In contrast to the works of Hammett and [End Page 194] Chandler, Cain's novels generally focus not on the success of the professional but on what happens when a man becomes mired in the personal. Walter Huff's loving yet competitive relationship with Keyes (his superior in the insurance business) represents Huff's struggle with independence. Huff seeks "a more or less capricious freedom from the responsibilities and demands work entails" (92). This irresponsible behavior leads to an affair, murder, and his ultimate downfall. In the chapter on W.R. Burnett, Irwin discusses how Burnett, like Cain, concentrates on downfall in High Sierra "by addressing the question of who's actually the boss and whether bosses are necessary" (97). The novel begins with Roy Earle well into his criminal activities. With a strong distaste for bosses and all qualities of leadership, Roy reluctantly agrees to lead a heist. Through these experiences, Roy grapples with the commanding nature of time, self identity, and loss. Irwin shifts away from an examination of the hard-boiled genre's embodied villains and into abstract obstacles of time and fate, bringing the theme about being boss to larger existential levels. Subject to deadlines and forces behind any control, the hard-boiled detective struggles with emasculation in his experiences as a boss or trying to become boss. In the last of the five close examinations, Irwin turns to Cornell Woolrich's Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Woolrich's novel shares with Burnett's a focus on time, but in Woolrich's...