Comfort on Lee (2016)


Lee, Susanna. Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Decline of Moral Authority. Ohio State P, 2016, pp. 232, ISBN 978-0-81421-318-6

Kathy Comfort, University of Arkansas

“Hard-boiled” describes the unsentimental, cynical crime novels featuring graphic sex and violence that emerged in the mid-twentieth century in France and in the United States. Susanna Lee’s bold declaration that “the history of hard-boiled fiction […] tells nothing less than the story of individual autonomy and accountability in modern Western culture” (3) appears at first to be a provocation aimed at those who refuse to accept the genre as a legitimate subject of academic study. Nonetheless, thanks to a carefully crafted argument, even the most skeptical of readers are likely to be convinced of the validity of Lee’s assertion that hard-boiled detectives such as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma “are the direct descendants, incarnations even, of culturally specific character models of spiritual authority—the tough, plain-speaking maverick in the United States and the contemplative poet-aesthete in France—that were outlined in the early nineteenth-century romantic and religious literature” (7). Therein lies the originality of this volume, for if previous studies emphasize the influence of the novels of Eugène Sue (Les Mystères de Paris) and Honoré de Balzac (Une ténébreuse affaire), and the short stories by Edgar Allan Poe (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”), Lee convincingly argues that French hard-boiled crime fiction—called le polar or le roman noir—finds its source in the isolated, pensive young protagonists exemplified by Chateaubriand’s René.

In her introduction, Lee offers the reader an excellent grounding in the theoretical underpinnings of her argument as well as an overview of the history of hard-boiled crime fiction, referencing such prominent literary critics as Georg Lukács and Uri Eisenzweig on the one hand, and leading scholars of the polar Benoît Tadié and Tzvetan Todorov on the other. Lee acknowledges the paradox inherent in the scholarly examination of a genre that rejects the very idea of conventionality, but states that this is precisely its intellectual basis. The body of the study deals with the integration and disintegration of heroic models of the nineteenth century and the subsequent calling into question of individual moral authority and responsibility in French and American crime fiction. Chateaubriand provides the framework for the discussion, which at times creates an unexpected juxtaposition between high and low culture.

Chapter one is a continuation of the introduction in that it presents more foundational material, including brief presentations on, for instance, Félicité de Lamennais’s philosophical writings, Chateaubriand’s Génie du christianisme, and the works of their American contemporaries, among them Jonathan Pomeroy’s “metasermon” (35) entitled “On the Folly of Denying a God,” and James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Chapter two examines the first hard-boiled detectives, Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams and Léon Malet’s Nestor Burma. In discussing Malet’s 120, rue de la Gare—cited by critics as the first French polar—Lee observes that the “rumination on the criminal investigation is not unlike Chateaubriand’s contemplation of the church bells in his town” (44). The startling comparison between Chateaubriand and Burma—just one example of Lee’s unique insights—itself invites contemplation on the part of the reader. A lengthy but engaging psychological profile of Burma as a shell-shocked World War I veteran highlights the social conscience of Malet’s work. Unfortunately, this showcasing of the influence of contemporary events on the protagonist’s mindset is undermined by the anti-climactic return to the argument that Burma’s precursors are “nineteenth-century character outlines” (50). That one minor quibble aside, the reader will revel in the fascinating, unexpected connections between the nineteenth-century canonical novelists and poets such as Stendhal, Charles Baudelaire, and Gustave Flaubert and the hard-boiled authors such as Léo Malet, Jean-Patrick Manchette, and Fred Vargas.

The subject of chapter three is the American author Jim Thompson, whose work illustrates Lee’s contention that “the individual is as much the problem as it is the solution, and the notion of the individual crushed by outside forces becomes a strategy for avoiding accountability” (95). The presentation of Manchette’s œuvre in chapter four parallels that of Thompson in that both use “distortions of canonical character models [to] undermine the beloved hard-boiled ideal of the individual for whom spiritual principles become secular personality attributes” (130). In chapter five, “Contemporary Hard-Boiled Fiction: Rebuilding a Cultural Hero,” Lee points to the “resuscitation of the individual as viable autonomous entity and of the shared values as other than deadening, impersonal, fraudulent, or corrupt” (167). This wide-ranging chapter presenting crime shows such as Law and Order and True Detective as outgrowths of the hard-boiled genre and its likely successors is the most spirited section in the tome. While the discussion of American detective novels may seem to be of only marginal interest to French literature scholars, Lee reminds us of the undeniable synergy between the countries as the crime novel developed in the mid-twentieth century. The current incarnation of the hard-boiled detective novel has dissolved its Romantic models and, in the process, destroyed the notion of accountability, “that foundation of self and of moral authority” (93).

Lee exhibits a mastery of hard-boiled crime novels as well as the relevant criticism of the genre, as witnessed by an exhaustive bibliography. Of interest to specialists and the general reader alike, this is a fine piece of cross-century, cross-cultural scholarship that successfully applies cutting-edge criticism to seminal works in hard-boiled crime fiction.