Book Review: American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow Literature Reviewed by Anna Kirsch
Peter Swirski, American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow Literature as Art, (Palgrave Macmillian 2017). eBook £56.99. Hardcover £72.00. Softcover £22.50
American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow Literature as Art has a unique approach to the question of the value of genre fiction and the relationship between high and low culture. Peter Swirski is a Canadian scholar specializing in American Studies and is the author of, among others, Ars Americana, Ars Politica (2010), American Utopia and Social Engineering (2011), American Political Fictions: War on Errorism (2015). Swirski promises a new approach to the vexing question of genre fiction and value articulating the cultural war between the highbrow and lowbrow without engaging with the theory of a separation between intellectual classes by advocating for a middle ground between high and low culture, a transgressive intellectual space he calls Nobrow.
American Crime Fiction is comprised of six chapters covering authors writing from the twentieth century to today. Chapter 1 is thought-provoking and indirectly answers the question of how crime fiction can become academically valuable. Chapter 1 exemplifies the core thesis of the book and elucidates Swirski’s theorization of a Nobrow faction in popular culture. Swirski is a skilled writer who can write playfully and critically. He divides his chapters, into imaginatively named subsections. One section he calls The Bermuda Triangle outlines his conviction that popular fiction ‘borrows from serious fiction, leaving debased culture in its wake’ is nothing more than a myth, like the Bermuda Triangle (9). Swirski finds formulas and patterns in all artists work pointing out that even Shakespeare relied on types and formulas in his writing.
Chapter 2 sets a precedent for the rest of the work with Swirski comparing and contrasting John Grisham’s legal procedurals with Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled mysteries. Swirsk has a knack for finding commonalities. For example, despite the hardboiled mystery and the legal thriller seeming to have little in common, and the timeframe for their popularity being at odds, with the hardboiled peaking in popularity in the 1930’s and 40’s and the legal thriller emerging in the 1980’s Swirski is able to articulate their use of a common hero archetype writing:
Both are fast-talking urban cowboys who daily wade into the shark tanks of city streets and city courtrooms. Both are for hire for a fee plus expenses. Both are slow to get heavy but, when push comes to shove, neither the PI nor the attorney at law will back down from a tangle with the bad guys-or the bed-eyed dames, for that matter (30).
In Chapter 3 Swirski examines what he calls boilerplate potboilers where he looks at the work William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway who used elements of crime fiction in their work seeking commercial success. Unsurprisingly, Swirski argues this is an example of the blurred lines between genre fiction and so-called literary fiction. He makes a particular case for Faulkner’s Sanctuary and Hemingway’s To Have or Have Not to be read as an artistic effort in its own right rather than as an aberration from their previous work. This chapter illuminates the double standard applied to literary writers and genre writers and dives to the heart of American fiction which is the idealization of the individual in ‘a country built on mass production, mass culture, and mass culturally produced belief ’ (88). This chapter explores the line, which Swirski maintains is imaginary, between a generic writing formula and an inventive literary creation.
Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 focus on Raymond Chandler and Ed McBain respectively. Chandler is an obvious choice in an exploration of American crime fiction. In Chandler, Swirski has a perfect example of literary style within genre fiction. Swirski, however, chooses to use a close reading of Chandler’s last novel Playback, a novel that for critics, as Swirski phrases it, ‘is the one Chandler novel they love to hate‘ (99). Swirski, however, reads Playback as a meta-genre novel writing that ‘From the title down Playback spells out an invitation to a novel kind of detective game- intertextual, ironic and self-reflective’ (101). The theme of repetitive genre features as self- reflection appears again and again in Swirski’s work. Chapter 5 covers a police procedural series written under the pseudonym of Ed McBain, the author was born Salvatore Albert Lambino before changing his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. Ed McBain is not as visible crime author academically as Chandler, but, the series covering the fictional 87th Precinct has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Swirski is quick to draw the reader into his choice using McBain as an example of the racial diversity and literary potential of urban crime fiction continuing the theme of the individual in a mass-produced world he began in Chapter 3.
Chapter 6 returns to a compare and contrast formula turning his attention to Nelson DeMille and F.Scott Fitzgerald. Here Swirski brings his argument on genre fiction to bear on mafia fiction. Swirski reads DeMille’s The Gold Coast as a sort of playback of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Chapter 6 is somewhat disappointing because it attempts a detailed close reading of two authors while also functioning as a cumulative chapter for the book as a whole. While Swirski attempts to leave the reader with a conclusion in a section he calls The American Dream which focuses on true crime statistics, such as drug and gun violence, he slightly undermines his earlier argument that crime fiction is more than fantasy when he writes crime fiction is always waiting in the wings to satisfy ‘ the atavistic need coiled at the base of every readers thalamus to vicariously experience the primal crime of passion, power or revenge and to witness the dispensation of legal- or at least poetic justice’ (182) . This seems to slightly discount Swirski’s earlier points in Chapter 1 where he is careful to separate popular fiction from fantasy.
American Crime Fiction attempts to define the position of crime fiction in what Swirski calls Nobrow literature. American Crime Fiction would appeal to a non-specialist or to those specializing in American popular culture more generally, although the book is designed for those interested in American crime fiction. Because of the underlying premise of the importance of crime fiction in cultural dialogue those specializing in other areas of crime fiction would enjoy Chapter 1, but those interested in the underlying premise would be best served reading From Lowbrow to Nobrow (2005) for a more methodology driven argument. For those who enjoy American crime fiction this book is not to be missed.
Bio: Anna Kirsch is the Book Review Editor for The International Crime Fiction Association. She completed her English Studies MA at Durham University and is currently applying for her PhD. Her thesis was on environmental ethics and morality in Carl Hiaasen’s Crime Fiction. Her research interests include Crime Fiction, American Studies, Gender Studies, Environmental History, Satire, and Philosophy Her Twitter account is @kucerakirsch.