Dreams for Dead Bodies traces the lineage of the genre of detective fiction back to unexpected texts: experimental works on the margins of what we recognize as classical detective fiction today. It shows that authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Pauline Hopkins, and Rudolph Fisher drew on detective fiction’s puzzle-elements to wrestle with complicated questions about race and labor in the United States, such that the emergence of detective fiction is itself bound to a history of interracial conflicts and labor struggles.
Unlike previous studies, this book foregrounds an interracial genealogy of detective fiction, building a nuanced picture of the ways that both black and white American authors appropriated and cultivated literary conventions that at the turn of the 20th-century finally coalesced in a recognizable genre. These authors tinkered with detective fiction’s puzzle-elements to address a variety of historical contexts, including the exigencies of chattel slavery, the erosion of working-class solidarities by racial and ethnic competition, and accelerated mass production. Dreams for Dead Bodies demonstrates that 19th - and early 20th-century American literature was broadly engaged with detective fiction, and that authors rehearsed and refined its formal elements in literary works typically relegated to the margins of the genre. By looking at these margins, the book argues, we can better understand the origins and cultural functions of American detective fiction.