- The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction by Catherine Ross Nickerson
The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction offers a broad collection of essays which explore the origins and characteristics of the many sub-genres that compose American crime fiction. There is no single overriding theme or argument presented by the collection, but many of the essays explore the socio-historical [End Page 221] influences on various crime writing genres, and how they translated into the distinct themes and tropes which inform the sub-genre in question. The Companion thus serves as a thorough historical overview of American crime fiction generally, and could be read from cover to cover in chronological order if one wanted to approach crime fiction as a function of its historical context.
Most, though not all of the essays, use the familiar format of focusing on a handful of influential authors and works, their cultural and historical context, and how they deploy various characters and themes to depict criminal worlds which appealed to the social anxieties of the day. The Companion is relatively short—fourteen essays in under 200 pages—but truly comprehensive in its scope. It begins with a chapter on early forms of crime writing in Colonial America, and ends with an essay discussing post-modernist fiction and the works of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. There are also very informative treatments on the more well-known periods in crime writing, including essays on Poe, the hard-boiled works of Hammett and Chandler, and the police procedural. It also features solid essays discussing modern works by authors of color, and feminist-informed crime novels which have re-invented the primarily white male worldview of the canon into more diverse expressions of social critique, while still maintaining some loyalty to earlier conventions.
The Companion features several excellent essays on sub-genres that have earned relatively less critical attention. Ilana Nash’s chapter on teenage detectives examines 20th century mid-America’s patriarchal anxieties related to adolescent delinquency and the policing of teenage morality. Nickerson’s essay on women crime writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries explores their use of gothic tropes or sensationalistic themes to reveal the hypocrisies and dangers inhabiting the seemingly placid and domestic upper-class worlds of their reading audiences. Both essays do an accomplished job of examining how these sub-genres fit within the historical development of crime fiction, and reflect the moral polarities of their respective times.
Taken together, the essays gathered for the Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction provide a broad overview of the most essential parts of the crime fiction catalogue, while also touching on some of the more obscure corners of the genre. There is no singular theory offered to explain the appeal of crime stories to the millions of Americans who digest them. But in that sense, the Companion succeeds in presenting the richness and diversity of works that form the genre, and the many ways in which crime fiction remains enormously relevant to the popular cultures of today.