Carnegie Mellon University

Heroes for Sale: Radical Politics and Genre Formation in Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction

Author: Victor Cohen

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2005

This dissertation, “Heroes for Sale: Radical Politics and Genre Formation in Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction,” offers a social and political history of radical hard-boiled crime fiction.  Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, radical writers produced hard-boiled crime fiction to critically address a range of issues for a popular audience—the contradictions of capitalism, the rise of fascism, the end of the New Deal, and the birth of the Cold War.  Informed by the political ambition of the proletarian literary movement and the narrative armature of pulp fiction, these writers attempted to shift the dominant political valence of hard-boiled crime fiction to the left, naturalizing a popular radicalism within the conventions of genre associated with a classically liberal worldview.  This dissertation investigates the generative moments of this radical sensibility.  It examines how writers experimented with ways to “formalize” their political critique in the language of the popular genre.  This project also reconceives the hard-boiled crime fiction canon as an actively contested political terrain. 

In the first chapter I locate the form’s unstable political valence within the institutional origins of hard-boiled crime fiction.  This genre of pulp fiction used a popular realism to sell itself to a working-class audience, while at the same time it articulated a petit-bourgeois worldview.  The second chapter focuses on the ways this sensibility was translated into representations of mass politics in the era of pre-Code films, prior to the formation of film noir.  Hard-boiled crime fiction is often viewed through the politically-constrained worldview of film noir; this chapter points towards an alternate cinematic trajectory for hard-boiled crime fiction, rooted in an engagement with mass politics, both progressive and reactionary. The third chapter analyzes the fiction of Daniel Mainwaring and Edward Anderson, two writers who attempted to produce politically radical hard-boiled crime fiction by revising their early proletarian fiction through this popular narrative form.  Their work also suggests the challenges of depicting mass politics and an emergent fascism in hard-boiled crime fiction.  In the final two chapters, I analyze the fiction of Benjamin Appel and Paul William Ryan, two writers involved with the Communist-led anti-fascist League of American Writers.  For different reasons, and at different historical moments, each attempted to produce anti-fascist hard-boiled crime fiction.  Appel’s Brain Guy gangster trilogy, written primarily during the Popular Front era, joins a critique of racism in the United States to an analysis of fascism, and theorizes the progressive social vision of the Popular Front itself.  Paul William Ryan, who took up writing crime fiction after the Popular Front had ended and as the Cold War began, generated an anti-fascist worldview in his crime novels as a means to keep the progressive political vision of the Popular Front alive in popular consciousness.  In the conclusion, I explore the traces of this history in the works of two current hard-boiled crime writers, Sara Paretsky and Walter Mosely, to suggest how the genre’s political valence functions today.