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BOOK REVIEW

Sentimental tough guys

Hard-Boiled Sentimentality; The Secret History of American Crime Fiction; Leonard Cassuto; Columbia University Press: 328 pp., $27.50

October 17, 2008|Sarah Weinman | Special to The Times

Devoted readers of crime fiction can recite the tropes of hard-boiled novels by heart. Tough-talking detectives. Femmes fatales. Prose harder than diamonds. And lots of violence, preferably by someone holding a gun.

Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are the standards, giving rise to the idea that the darker the crime novel, the better -- and more respected by the literati and academia.

But what if that standard had less to do with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe than with Ellen Montgomery, the naive young heroine of Susan Warner's 1850 bestseller "The Wide, Wide World"? What if the walk down mean streets was less about an alienated lone wolf and more about the search for home and domesticity?

At first blush, such questions sound preposterous, but Hofstra University professor Leonard Cassuto's provocative new book, "Hard-Boiled Sentimentality," makes a strong case for a hidden connection between crime fiction and 19th century sentimental novels, arguing that tough guys like Spade and Marlowe are really, in the words of Henry Miller, "tender as babies, they're all lambs; this is all compensation for their extra-tender qualities."

The book's title comes from a letter by John D. MacDonald's publisher at Gold Medal, Knox Burger, praising the early Travis McGee novels' "hard-boiled sentimentality . . . as enormously successful and attractive."

"Hard-Boiled Sentimentality" purports to be an intellectual history of noir fiction, but Cassuto wisely lets his material do the heavy lifting and doesn't bog his thesis down in needless academic jargon.

Arguments about how crime stories and sentimental novels "depend on the marketplace-household (that is, public/private) division" -- the tension between the safety of home and the dangers of society -- are developed with judicious quotes from James M. Cain's 1941 masterpiece, "Mildred Pierce," which Cassuto considers "a kind of key to the hard-boiled engine room."

Rather than devoting page after page to the sociological and familial underpinnings of Hammett's and Chandler's work, Cassuto re-interprets Spade's and Marlowe's words to provide the meat of his hypothesis.

Spot-on analysis

By and large, Cassuto's analytical choices are spot on. He begins by examining "An American Tragedy" (1925), showing how Theodore Dreiser's highly emotional portrait of a young man driven to kill for personal gain served as both template and anti-template for hard-boiled authors to come.

Wrapped in a sentimental framework, the twisted family dynamics of Hammett's "The Dain Curse" (1929) take on extra resonance as the Continental Op's detective agency becomes a makeshift family for the story's young orphan Gabrielle Leggett.

Such a framework also explains the more overt connections between detective and family, as embodied by Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, the white-knight behavior of Travis McGee, and the "flowering of the male domestic detective" in the form of Lawrence Block's recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder or Robert B. Parker's neo-Chandlerian Spenser, a gourmet cook in a happy relationship with his psychoanalyst girlfriend.

Getting off-message

Even the still-current vogue for serial-killer fiction fits Cassuto's thesis, because such figures are "the dedicated enemy of the middle-class family that the domestic detective serves to uphold."

No longer is it enough to provoke sympathy in the reader; now, we start at disgust and move toward revulsion in protecting middle-class values.

Cassuto is less successful when he wanders off-message or makes tenuous connections. In a chapter on African American fiction, his suggestion that works by Chester Himes and Walter Mosley have little to do with hard-boiled sentimentality seems puzzling.

After credibly establishing Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith as models of anti-sentimental crime fiction, he forces a comparison between Thompson's novel "The Getaway" and the folk art of Grandma Moses, which strikes an odd note.

One can always play the equivalent of fantasy baseball with a book like "Hard-Boiled Sentimentality," quibbling with what's included (forgettable, out-of-print work by Robert Finnegan and Harold Browne), or with what's left out. Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels merit just a few sentences; James Crumley's P.I. protagonists, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue, are not mentioned at all.

Surprising omission

Still, I can't help noting that Dorothy B. Hughes' "In a Lonely Place" is a particularly startling omission; this novel seems to prove Cassuto's hypothesis definitively. Published in 1947, it reflects the post-World War II landscape where family is cherished, but also the dangers of that world.

Not only does the book revolve around a serial killer roaming the streets of Los Angeles, deluded in his own fantasy of order and belonging, but as the work of a female writer, featuring strong, capable female characters, it refracts American middle-class values to reveal an underlying proto-feminism underneath.

For all that, "Hard-Boiled Sentimentality" should stimulate discussion among academics and general readers, framing, as it does, a common ground between tough men who are lambs underneath and cozy women with knitting-needle nerves of steel.

--

Sarah Weinman writes Dark Passages, a mystery and suspense column, at latimes.com/books. She blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com.

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