American Crime Fiction, 1920-1950

Renée Pigeon, CSU San Bernardino

Commentary: English 463, American Crime Fiction

This syllabus is for a course in American Crime Fiction, roughly spanning the period from 1920-1950.  It is an upper-division course for English majors, taught in a 10-week quarter format.  I teach five novels, use film excerpts, and screen one film (Double Indemnity) in its entirety.

Three of the novels are quite well-known (Hammett, Chandler and Cain) and two (Macdonald and Hughes) less so. The course explores these works from a number of angles, including  the development of the figures of the so-called “hard-boiled’ detective and the femme fatale. In that regard, Hughes’ novel (much less familiar than the Humphrey Bogart film loosely adapted from it) is a very interesting text: its protagonist is a displaced and misogynistic WWII vet in Los Angeles, a serial killer of women.  Hughes’ handling of the character, his attitude towards and relationships with women, and the LA setting, raise excellent questions for students coming directly from a reading of the earlier works, as to a lesser extent do Ross Macdonald’s moves towards humanizing the hard-boiled mode in his character of Lew Archer in The Drowning Pool.

We also explore issues of adaptation and appropriation, looking for example at the roots of Double Indemnity in a famous 1920s murder case, as well as the multiple film adaptations of the novels on the syllabus. Because I teach at a Southern California university, the locales of many of the novels are often familiar to students, so we pay some attention to how the concept of “California” is constructed in these works, as well as their often casual racism and homophobia.

Because of the level of this course, students also read a number of scholarly articles on the texts and related issues; below is a bibliography of the works assigned (I will shift required and optional readings from term to term), followed by the course syllabus.

 English 463: Required Secondary Readings

Abbott, Megan E. “‘Nothing You Can’t Fix’: Screening Marlowe’s Masculinity.” Studies In The Novel 35.3 (2003): 305-324.

Breu, Christopher. “Radical Noir: Negativity, Misogyny, and the Critique of Privatization in Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place.” Modern Fiction Studies 55.2 (2009): 199-215.

Dussere, Erik. “Out of the Past, Into the Supermarket:  Consuming Film Noir.”  Film Quarterly 60.1 (2006): 16-27.

Shulman, Robert. “Dashiell Hammett’s Social Vision.” Centennial Review 29.4 (Fall 1985): 400-419. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg. Vol. 187. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center.

Starr, Kevin. Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (Americans and the California Dream).  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. 183-199. Print.  Note to students: Please pay particular attention to pages 193-199 about WWII vets’ difficulties in readjusting to civilian life–we’ll be watching part of The Best Years of Our Lives, mentioned in this reading, in class together.  You can skim through the earlier part of this reading and you don’t need to print this one and bring it to class, but it sets the scene for our next novel, In a Lonely Place. This excerpt is from one volume of Starr’s definitive history of California, a good source for some historical and contextual background for our readings in this class.

Optional Secondary Readings

Athanasourelis, John Paul. “Film Adaptation and the Censors: 1940s Hollywood and Raymond Chandler.” Studies in the Novel 35.3 (2003): 325-338.

Avila, Eric. “Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Film Noir, Disneyland, and the Cold War (Sub)Urban Imaginary.”Journal of Urban History 31.1 (2004): 3-22.

Bascara, Victor. “The Case of the Disappearing Filipino American Houseboy: Speculations on Double Indemnity and United States Imperialism.” Kritika Kultura 8 (2007): 54-89.

Ewert, Jeanne C. “Deep and Dark Waters: Raymond Chandler Revisits the Fin-de-Siècle.” Genre 27.3 (Fall 1994): 255-274.

Lott, Eric. “The Whiteness of Film Noir.” American Literary History 9.3 (1997): 542-566.

Mooney, William. “Sex, Booze, and the Code: Four Versions of The Maltese Falcon.” Literature Film Quarterly, 39.1 (2011): 54-70.

Pelizzon, V. Penelope, and Nancy M. West. “Multiple Indemnity: Film Noir, James M. Cain, and Adaptations of a Tabloid Case.” Narrative 13.3 (2005): 211-237.

Ramey, Jessie. “The Bloody Blonde And The Marble Woman: Gender And Power In The Case Of Ruth Snyder.” Journal of Social History 37.3 (2004): 625-650.

Scaggs, John.  “The Hard-Boiled Mode.”  In Crime Fiction. The New Critical Idiom. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.  55-77.

Telotte, J. P.  “The Displaced Voice of In a Lonely Place.” South Atlantic Review 54.1 (1989): 1-12.

Syllabus: English 463 (pdf)