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.
Books Available for Review:
Milly Buonanno (ed.),Television Antiheroines: Women Behaving Badly in Crime and Prison Drama, (Intellect Books, 2017).
Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton Murder and the Making of English CSI (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016 ).
Claire Hines (Ed.), Fan Phenomena: James Bond, (Intellect Books, 2015).
Angus McLaren Playboys and Mayfair Men Crime, Class, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1930s London (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).
S. Paul O’Hara Inventing the Pinkertons; or, Spies, Sleuths, Mercenaries, and Thugs (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016 ).
Alistair Rolls and Rachel Franks (Eds.), Crime Uncovered: Private Investigator, (Intellect Books, 2016).
E-books available . Please contact the editor for more information
Lucy Andrew, The Boy Detective in Early British Children’s Literature: Patrolling the Borders between Boyhood and Manhood, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
Julie A. Chappell and Mallory Young (Eds.) Bad Girls and Transgressive Women in Popular Television, Fiction, and Film, ( Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
Brian Cliff, Irish Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan UK, May 2018).
Laura Joyce and Henry Sutton. Domestic Noir: The New Face of 21st Century Crime Fiction( Palgrave Macmillan March, 2018)
Mareike Jenner. American TV Detective Dramas: Serial Investigations (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016)
Please contact Anna Kirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or suggestions. Please place Book Review in the subject line when inquiring about a book and include the address you would like it sent to. When writing, please follow the blog guidelines with pieces between 800-1200 words long which are fully referenced and cited where appropriate. Reviews would ideally be between 800-1000 words long. Also remember to include a short bio to appear with the piece. Reviews can also include images, but please ensure that any images are free from copyright and fully cited.
Charles J. Rzepka, Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard, (John Hopkins University Press, 2017).
Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard is about style, or more specifically a particular writing style. While it does consider the experiences that shaped Leonard’s beginning it does so through the lens of his work. Charles J. Rzepka is an English Professor at Boston University and previously author of Detective Fiction, a reference work tracing the history of detective fiction from the early eighteenth century to the present. Rzepka has also written extensively on Romanticism including Inventions and Interventions: Selected Studies in Romantic and American Literature, History, and Culture. This combination of specialities is strangely complimentary in Rzepka’s work on Leonard who, despite claims to the contrary, incorporated high and low culture in his work. To be clear, this is a review of the 2017 reprint of Being Cool, not of the original 2013 release.
Rzepka spent a considerable amount of time interviewing Elmore Leonard with ‘several interviews comprising some twelve hours of recorded conversation’ forming the core of Being Cool which is available here. (vii). Rzepka could have written the definitive work on Elmore Leonard, however Being Cool is not that work. Instead, it is a fascinating account of ‘a single theme throughout Leonard’s work‘ (viii). Rzepka writes of being cool as a writers techne and theorizes being cool as a performative act which is ‘rooted in the body and expressed in work’ (12). Rzepka swings between technical literary terms and common terms bridging the divide between literary writing and popular writing with his application of the Greek word techne to Leonard’s popular crime fiction. The key to Rzepka’s thesis on the techne of Leonard’s work finds its full expression in Chapter two where Rzepka defines his terminology and in Chapter Three where Rzepka uses the pop culture terminology of jazz to ‘designate stages, styles and elements, as well as the patterns of combination and recombination’ to further define Leonard’s creative development (134).
Rzepka is most interested in Leonard’s crime fiction characterizing several novels as transitional novels and the first decade of Leonard’s career as a crime writer as ‘ interrupted at several points by work that harkened back to his Western phase’ (92). Rzepka also ignores various attempts to translate Leonard’s work onto film clearly more interested in the techne of Leonard’s text. Due to spacial concerns, and a subject whose career spans six decades, forty-five novels, and dozens of short stories, that Rzepka chooses to look at only the things that Leonard ‘exercised total control’ is a wise decision, but it leaves a gap in the literature (viii).
Perhaps the most dated aspects of Leonard’s work is his depiction of women and Rzepka has difficulty articulating a gender-neutral criticism. For example, when writing of Leonard’s early literary inspiration and the influence Hemingway had on his style Rzepka comments ‘it apparently took him awhile to realize that writing could be as conventionally masculine a pursuit as baseball or football’ (31). Rzepka contends that ‘gender may have proven the most resistant barriers to Leonard’s gifts of empathy’ but does not elaborate on what effect Leonard’s gender perspective has on his writing (63). While Rzepka does suggest Leonard produced stronger female characters after meeting his second wife who encouraged him to ‘move beyond beyond the supportive partners, the bratty bad girls, and motherly widows and divorcées comprising the female cohort of his previous fiction’ (120). Rzepka does not spend nearly enough time on the implications of this shift, or how it relates to the main theme of techne.
Instead of developing on Leonard’s improvement on feminine characterization over his career, or on the gender implications of coolness, Rzepka writes ‘techne takes a backseat to liberation of a traditionally feminist cast’ (120). This thesis that feminist narratives are the antithesis of being comfortable and playful in one’s own skin and profession, which Rzepka contends is the meaning of techne, deserves further evaluation. Instead of analysis Rzepka gives a list of women who he cites as practicing techne such as‘ painting (Franny Kaufman in La Brava), writing ( Angela Nolan in Split Images), law enforcement (Karan Cisco in Out of Sight) investment advising (Kyle McLaren in Stick), fight attending (Jackie Burke in Rum Punch), singing (Linda Moon in Be Cool), tail gunning (Louly Webster in Up in Honey’s Room ), modeling ( Kelly Barr and Chloe Robinette in Mr. Paradise), or film making ( Dara Barr in Djibouti)’ without any evaluation of what meaning these examples have when evaluating Leonard’s treatment of women in his work as a whole (158). Instead of confirming his argument that techne is secondary to feminist liberation Rzepka’s examples seem to push towards the opposite conclusion demonstrating that many of Leonard’s women, particularly in his later work, were fully rounded characters able to find something they were passionate about.
Being Cool is slightly out of date, and it shows in the conclusion. Rzepka ends with a reflection on what was at the time Leonard’s latest novel Blue Dreams and what Rzepka expected would be Leonard’s starring character the Ice Man. Rzepka confidently writes that ‘Whatever happens next, it’s likely the Ice Man will provide his creator with some serious fun before the book is finished, and more than a few shots at being cool’ (206). These words take on a melancholy tone when reading with the knowledge of Leonard’s death in August 2013 before he could finish the novel (206). Being Cool would only have improved if instead of leaving the reader with the question of what’s next for the author Rzepka had ended with the question of what’s next for his work.
Anyone who enjoys Leonard‘s writing would enjoy Being Cool. Rzepka exhibits a considerable techne of his own combining a playful critical voice with detailed close reading. Those interested in the craft of writing would are sure to enjoy Rzepka’s interpretation of Leonard’s style. As with all academic writing, the text is riddled with plot spoilers so non-specialists should take this into account. As previously mentioned reissue could have amended the conclusion to reflect current directions in criticism after Leonard’s death and taken a longer look at the gendered aspects of techne, but despite these quibbles Being Cool has aged remarkably well.
Bio: Anna Kirsch completed her English Studies MA at Durham University and is currently applying for a PhD. She is the Book Reviews Editor for the International Crime Fiction Association. Her thesis was on Environmental Ethics and Morality in Carl Hiaasen’s Crime Fiction, and her research interests include Crime Fiction, American Studies, Gender Studies, and Environmental History. Her Twitter is @kucerakirsch