Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-Boiled History

Johns Hopkins. Jun. 2020. 224p. ISBN 9781421437095. $27. LIT
The hard-boiled P.I. appeared in fiction for the first time in the 1920s and has endured for nearly a century. Drawing on iconic figures in detective fiction from pulp magazines to television, Lee (French, comparative literature, Georgetown Univ.; Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Decline of Moral Authority) articulates a sophisticated thesis as to why their personas resonate with fans from the 1920s to today. Starting with Jon Carroll Daly’s Race Williams, the author moves to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, considers the sea change in attitudes reflected in Mickey Spillane’s appeal, and takes us on a whirlwind tour of TV detective heroes, such as David O. Rockford from HBO’s The Wire. The book concludes with an essay on Jessica Jones, addressing why so few women are assigned the detective role. For Lee, these loner heroes encapsulate strains in American 20th-century culture, and with acute commentary, she explores the genre’s predominant maleness and whiteness.
VERDICT One can say many things about crime fiction, and throughout this thoughtful, well-crafted piece of literary history, Lee succeeds in telling the story straight.
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