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An examination of the culture that produced and supported pulp-fiction

Hard-Boiled

Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines

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Erin A. Smith

"Picking up a classic 'hard-boiled' detective novel by Dashiell Hammet or Raymond Chandler—or even modern-day Sara Paretsky—is an entirely different experience after reading Smith's fascinating book. Now the pages of these novels and their close cousins, the pulp magazines, have become rich canvases for working out struggles over readers' class and consumer identities."
Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University

In the 1920s a distinctively American detective fiction emerged from the pages of pulp magazines. The "hard-boiled" stories published in Black Mask, Dime Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly, and Clues featured a new kind of hero and soon challenged the popularity of the British mysteries that held readers in thrall on both sides of the Atlantic. In Hard-Boiled Erin A. Smith examines the culture that produced and supported this form of detective story through the 1940s.

Relying on pulp magazine advertising, the memoirs of writers and publishers, Depression-era studies of adult reading habits, social and labor history, Smith offers an innovative account of how these popular stories were generated and read. She shows that although the work of pulp fiction authors like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner have become "classics" of popular culture, the hard-boiled genre was dominated by hack writers paid by the word, not self-styled artists. Pulp magazine editors and writers emphasized a gritty realism in the new genre. Unlike the highly rational and respectable British protagonists (Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, for instance), tough-talking American private eyes relied as much on their fists as their brains as they made their way through tangled plot lines.

Casting working-class readers of pulp fiction as "poachers," Smith argues that they understood these stories as parables about Taylorism, work and manhood; as guides to navigating consumer culture; as sites for managing anxieties about working women. Engaged in re-creating white, male privilege for the modern, heterosocial world, pulp detective fiction shaped readers into consumers by selling them what they wanted to hear—stories about manly artisan-heroes who resisted encroaching commodity culture and the female consumers who came with it. Commenting on the genre's staying power, Smith considers contemporary detective fiction by women, minority and gay and lesbian writers.

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Excerpt

Read an excerpt from Part I (pdf).

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Reviews

"Not until Erin Smith's innovative study have we had such a fully-grounded look at the imagined community of working-class fraternity, masculinity, and consumerism through which pulp audiences interpreted the 'fast-talking' heroes of hard-boiled detective fiction. A lively, engaging book that ranges from the linguistics to the sartorial dimensions of the genre, from labor to cultural capital, from advertising copy to literary theory."
Christopher P. Wilson, author of Cap Knowledge: Police Power and Cultural Narrative in Twentieth Century America

"Hard-Boiled [is] a valuable contribution to the study of American literature between the wars."
Modern Fiction Studies

"Erin Smith's Hard-Boiled is an extremely interesting and well-written analysis of the pulp magazines."
American Literature

"Hard-Boiled ably demonstrates that detective pulp fiction functioned contradictorily, simultaneously empowering its readers and keeping them in line. Moreover, Smith's careful research persuasively reconstructs the proletarian readers who left no written records of their experience, thus making a substantial contribution to the field of working-class studies."
The Journal of American History

"One of the few works of pure American Studies that I have as yet encountered, Hard-Boiled is a work of interdisciplinary scholarship..."
Journal of Social History

"...offers a thoroughly inventive approach to sensational crime fiction.... Smith's deft readings demonstrate the often surprising ambiguity of the pulps' gender, labor, and consumer politics."
Novel: A Forum on Fiction

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Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction

Part I: Reconstructing Readers
1. The Hard-Boiled Writer and the Literary Marketplace
2. The Adman on the Shop Floor: Workers, Consumer Culture, and the Pulps

Part II: Reading Hard-Boiled Fiction
3. Proletarian Plots
4. Dressed to Kill
5. Talking Tough
6. The Office Wife
Afterword
Notes
Index

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About the Author(s)

Erin A. Smith is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Literature at the University of Texas.

Subject Categories

American Studies
Literature and Drama

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