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Reviewed by:
  • Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories
  • Lawrence E. Hussman Jr.
Leonard Cassuto. Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. 327 pp. $27.50.

This complex study centers on a convincing argument. Cassuto locates two apparently opposing conceptual influences on "hard-boiled" American crime fiction. He traces the genre's code of machismo back to the gender disassociation that gained momentum early in the twentieth century. Teddy Roosevelt famously rode roughshod over the perceived effeminacy of his day and thereby helped enshrine "masculinity" as the male lodestar for more than the next hundred years. The genre's sentimental, or more humanly integrated element derives directly from the sort of "feminine" male model Roosevelt abhorred and sought to displace. That softer type, characterized not so much by manly strength as by the perceived virtues of empathy, sensitivity, and domestication, had been endorsed in the previous century by British moral philosophers. It had also been brought to fictional life then, especially by the female creators of sentimental novels about the middle class. In America, the influence of evangelical Christianity played a role in elevating the sentimental by reemphasizing community and family values. The traditional hard-boiled hero or antihero of American crime fiction beginning in the 1920s, customarily a detective, almost always displayed elements of both gender models. He was a rugged, sometimes violent loner whose existential code required him to fight amoral heavies and [End Page 211] care about their real and potential victims in order to make an empty world safe for society. As the genre has developed over decades, Cassuto argues, hard-boiled protagonists have become mellower while their antagonists have turned more vicious.

Cassuto names other prior persuasions that have colored the structure, style, and world view characteristic of "hard-boiled" crime fiction. These include the traditional mystery writer's preference for suspenseful plots, Hemingway's tough-guy stance and laconic, expressionless voice, as well as literary naturalists' grim take on existence. He devotes considerable space to Dreiser's hugely popular An American Tragedy (1925) as a "gateway" novel for the writers who launched the first "hard-boiled" crime books. And Cassuto underpins his main argument about the teaming of the tough and the tender by citing the conflict within Clyde Griffiths, whose sensitive side stays his hand at the moment of his planned murder. Hemingway's work figures here too in that his hardened heroes fight their feelings but occasionally lose the battle, as when Jake Barnes cries himself to sleep in The Sun Also Rises (1926). Cassuto calls these defeats Hemingway's "anti-sentimental sentimentalism."

As his analysis develops, Cassuto applies his premise to a host of the genre's practitioners, from Dashiell Hammett to Sue Grafton. Along the way, he includes a chapter on the emergence of hard-boiled crime fiction written by black writers. In it, he argues that these writers' relatively recent arrival on the scene owes to a delayed convergence of their interests and those of white U. S. crime writers. He shows how, after the appearance of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), African American fiction had most often reflected ambivalence about the relative efficacy of moral suasion (read sentimentalism) and aggressive challenge to authority as routes to full freedom. His lucid discussion of the central players in this debate among black writers who chose crime as a subject includes a recognition of Richard Wright's importance.

In the original version of Uncle Tom's Children (1938), Wright arranged his stories in an ascending order of available responses to white authority and injustice, moving from timorous acquiescence to angry political agitation. But for subsequent editions of the book, he added and ended with "Bright and Morning Star," a story that honors self-sacrifice. Cassuto stresses Wright's oscillation between opposites in Uncle Tom's Children and underscores its resolution in the rallying call to rise up implicit in Native Son (1940). He believes that Wright's masterpiece marks the beginning of modern African American crime fiction. An American Tragedy inspired the naturalistic veneer and three-section structure Wright used in Native Son, but by the time he wrote it...


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pp. 211-213
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