American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow by Peter Swirski

By Peter Swirski

Peter Swirski appears to be like at American crime fiction as an artform that expresses and displays the social and aesthetic values of its authors and readers. As such he files the manifold ways that such authorship and readership are a question of trained literary selection and never of cultural brainwashing or declining literary criteria. Asking, in influence, a chain of questions about the character of style fiction as artwork, successive chapters examine American crime writers whose careers throw mild at the risks and rewards of nobrow site visitors among well known kinds and intellectual aesthetics: Dashiell Hammett, John Grisham, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, Nelson DeMille, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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Although diversion from daily stresses and sorrows is reported to be an important factor in turning to fiction, highbrow and lowbrow, numerous multilayered and sophisticated motivations come into play in readers’ contacts with either. 18 Indeed, favorite whodunits are re-read with a passion that NOBROW: CONTENTS AND DISCONTENTS 17 vitiates condemnations that they are consumed solely for the purpose of outing the criminal. Evidently, there are parameters of the phenomenology of the mystery genre that take it in the direction of literature tout court.

After all, if not Hammett, then who? Although many crime writers such as Carroll John Daly, Raoul Whitfield, George Harmon Cox, Frederick Nebel, Brett Halliday, and Michael Collins plied their craft alongside him, he was the only one to leave a lasting mark on American literature and culture. 5 Even crime fiction buffs would be hard pressed today to remember Daly’s less-than-unforgettable detective Race Williams or Whitfield’s notso-memorable gumshoe Jo Gar. Some hired guns, it seems, were destined to disappear from the cultural supermarket as swiftly as their creators, and not even subsequent imitators like Mickey Spillane and his lantern-jawed Mike Hammer were able to dent Hammett’s staying power.

Most genre fiction is no more than the only thing it ever tries to be: gripping but ephemeral entertainment with no aspirations to bowl over the literati. But to appreciate how much some genre bestsellers have in common with the classics and how much some of our classics owe to genreflecting, we need to better appreciate their nobrow design.  Eliot—a highbrows’ highbrow, an enemy of mass culture, and a closet devotee of Sherlock Holmes. Often working against the critical grain, they have brought the native variety of crime story up from the basement while documenting the raw power of its storytelling and the lingering darkness of its social vision.

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