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  • Race, Gender, and Empire in American Detective Fiction by John Cullen Gruesser
  • Philip Edward Phillips (bio)
Race, Gender, and Empire in American Detective Fiction. By John Cullen Gruesser. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2013. 216 pp. $40.00

In his most recent book, Race, Gender, and Empire in American Detective Fiction, John Cullen Gruesser, Professor of English at Kean University and Past President of the Poe Studies Association, traces the evolution of detective fiction in the United States by examining the origins of the genre in the analytical tales of Edgar Allan Poe and by following the various permutations of the genre in the hard-boiled fiction of the 1920s. Gruesser’s aim is not to present a comprehensive study of detective fiction in American literature from its introduction to the present day but rather to explore in some depth the uses to which the genre has been appropriated, adapted, parodied, and transformed by various writers, male and female, white and black, since the 1840s.

Gruesser’s examination of the form—as well as the strategies for reading the works that participate in the form—supports Raymond Chandler’s claim that detective fiction is a “fluid” genre that resists “easy classification.” The writers and their works that Gruesser so carefully treats reveal the extent to which detective fiction has served as a form through which issues of authorial competition, female victimization, gender equality, race relations, and imperialism can be explored. The malleability of detective fiction displayed from the beginning in Poe’s famous Dupin tales provides later writers a challenge and myriad opportunities to adapt the form to make social, political, and ethical statements to audiences that otherwise would not be receptive to them. Gruesser argues insightfully that Poe, by founding detective fiction, in which the author “competes with himself, striving to rework and outdo what he has already done,” created “a fluid genre, one that has enabled writers of all different stripes to find new ways to outwit, enlighten, educate, and politicize readers” (7). Gruesser’s expert perspective on the development of the detective fiction genre—especially Poe’s seminal role in it—makes this book essential reading for Poe scholars and enthusiasts. Students of nineteenth-century American literature, particularly American detective fiction, should appreciate Gruesser’s examination of works by such authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Harriett Jacobs, and Mark Twain.

“Malleability” is a central concern of this book, in which Gruesser organizes the chapters in roughly chronological fashion to illustrate the influence of Poe’s [End Page 106] ideas and strategies on later writers and to allow for the close analysis of key texts that are in conversation with one another. In the introduction, subtitled “Manipulation, Malleability, and Metafiction in American Detection,” Gruesser makes a compelling case for the importance of studying detective fiction “not solely because so many people read it” but because of its “adaptability to a multiplicity of artistic, ideological, and political programs” and its “fluid[ity]” that prevents it from being too easily “pigeonholed” (7–8). Gruesser argues that gender, race, and empire have played an important role—whether overtly or covertly—in detective fiction from Poe’s tales though the widest range of detective works published in the early twentieth century to the present day, including those by such figures as Mary Wilkins Freeman, Susan Glaspell, Dashiell Hammett, Carroll John Day, Pauline Hopkins, John Edward Bruce, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, and Valerie Wilson Wesley.

In the introduction and the first two chapters—“‘Having defeated him in his own castle’: Character Rivalry, Authorial Sleight of Hand, and Generic Fluidity in Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin Tales” and “Expanding on Poe: Varieties of Detection in Key American Literary Texts, 1850–1882”—Gruesser explores the roles of competition, manipulation, and metafiction, as well as themes of female victimization and empire, in the Dupin tales and traces the influence, reception, and adaptations of Poe’s themes and strategies in later detective narratives. Gruesser argues that “whereas American writers from Poe onward often delight in changing the game on readers by employing multiple plot lines, authors from Britain typically strive for ingenuity within the confines of a single detective storyline”; this kind of trickery...


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