Thursday, September 10, 2020

Detectives in the Shadows: The Search for American Leadership: Guest Post by Susanna Lee

Susanna Lee: 
Detectives in the Shadows: The Search for American Leadership

In graduate school, years before I wrote Detectives in the Shadows, I designed and taught an undergraduate class called “Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction.” Most undergrads who came in didn’t know exactly what “hard-boiled” meant but they knew that it was vaguely cool, somehow connected to film noir, that there were guns involved, rainy streets, treacherous women, probably cigarettes. We started out reading the essay “Simple Art of Murder,” where Raymond Chandler writes that Dashiell Hammett “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the gutter.” Students loved it. (I should also say that the Yale Library had an incredible collection of 1930s and 1940s crime novels, many of which hadn’t been checked out for decades, which was heaven for a fan of detective fiction.)

At that time, I was writing my first book on religion and the nineteenth-century French novel, looking at questions of why characters do what they do, and why things happen to them. When trouble comes, whose fault is it, what is driving the narrative? Is it an accident, a character flaw, fate? And all the while I am reading – for pleasure and for the hard-boiled class – twentieth-century crime fiction that focuses relentlessly on individual accountability, on doing the right thing no matter what the circumstances, on being your own person. Even leaving aside the question of religion, the entire concept of blame – blaming others, or society, or inequitable institutions – is in some sense very foreign to the hard-boiled. It’s not that the genre doesn’t believe systemic obstacles exist, but it treats them as ultimately surmountable or at least survivable.

In teaching that class, and then while writing my second book about moral authority and American character, I thought about why the hard-boiled private detective is such an iconic American image. And I noticed that there is this curiously dual quality to American thinking about individualism. One part says: I can take care of this, whatever comes down the pike, I’ll deal with it. That’s the “rugged individualism” that Hoover campaigned on in the 1920s, that’s what Chandler described when he wrote, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything.” But there is another part of the American dream, namely that heroes like these are out there. They already exist. And so individualism, paradoxically, isn’t really a lonely or even solitary proposition. You’re not alone because you’re in the company of a world of tough guys, or tough people, who are competent. And these are the kind of people taking care of dirty work in America. The hard-boiled holds out that promise that this is American individualism, this is what you can be like. But it also lets you say, “that is who I want in charge.”

This is important, because the more I researched Detectives in the Shadows, the more I saw that fictional detectives responded very directly to leadership crises in America. When you look at when these novels came out, at what was going on the country at the time each iconic character became popular, you see that for every tough season in American history, there is a detective who came out to handle it. During the Depression, the Continental Op was resilient and humble and empathic. During the Cold War, Mike Hammer was an indestructible anti-Communist. Jump forward a few decades and when Nixon lies to the public, television detectives like Jim Rockford are simple straight shooters. In many cases, what we lacked in political representation, we made up for in fictional private detectives. This certainly happened with America’s numerous underrepresented communities. We had female detectives (Sharon McCone, Kinsey Milhone, VI Warshawksi, Tess Monaghan) and detectives of color (Easy Rawlins, Blanche White, Ivan Monk, Elouise Norton, Pete Fernandez, Jack Yu), queer detectives (Roxane Weary, Bobbi Logan), to name only a few. In some cases, and I discuss these in the book, a private detective embodies what we want in a leader and actual political representation follows suit. But it doesn’t always happen. Let’s hope that when we hold our election in November 2020, we can bring in the kind of competent, honest, ethical, and service-minded straight shooters we like to read about. We as a people have never needed national clean-up more than now!

Susanna Lee is a professor of French and comparative literature at Georgetown University. She is the author of three books, including Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-Boiled History, now available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amen, Sister!