Race, Gender and Empire

John Cullen Gruesser, Race, Gender and Empire in American Detective Fiction, Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, forthcoming Fall/Winter 2013

GruesserAs John Gruesser says in his Introduction, his intention isn’t to offer a comprehensive history of American detective fiction but to demonstrate the malleability and the range of the form.  By means of his judicious selection of texts, he illuminates the development of the genre from its inception, conveying a strong sense of its enormous variety and exploring some of the ways in which this fluidity enables the genre to function (in Stanley Orr’s phrase) as “a site of contest between contending voices and ideologies.”

The study opens with a chapter on Poe, setting the stage by arguing that Poe’s own reworking of the form – his commitment to innovation – inspired later writers “to find new ways to outwit, enlighten, educate, and politicize readers.”  The adaptability of the genre is further illustrated by close discussion of other nineteenth-century writers, such as Hawthorne, Melville, Twain and Harriet Jacobs.  Although not normally associated with detective fiction these are writers who arguably contributed in important ways to the evolution of the genre. In the following chapter, consideration of the work of Mary Wilkins Freeman and Susan Glaspell demonstrates how readily the genre can serve the purposes of political and social commentary, especially on gender and sexuality.  As Gruesser moves on to the twentieth century, he focuses particularly on African American writers who subordinate their detective plots to their political purposes, turning to detective fiction “as the means to make social, political, and moral statements that might not otherwise have found an audience.”

This is an astute and wide-ranging study of detective fiction in its historical contexts.  The broad sweep of the discussion combined with close, perceptive attention to textual detail allows Gruesser to create a distinctive and valuable analysis of cross-cultural currents within American crime writing, shedding new light on the genre’s representations of gender, race and empire.

An extract from the Introduction to Race, Gender and Empire in American Detective Fiction:

Detective fiction merits scholarly attention not solely because so many people read it but also because it reflects the evolution of modern society. Despite detection’s association with British authors, manners, and settings, American writers invented both its classic, or (to use John Irwin’s more precise term) analytical, and hard-boiled varieties. Following the lead of John G. Cawelti in Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (1976), several critics have emphasized the supposed rigidity of detective and mystery writing. A comprehensive analysis of American detection, however, reveals its adaptability to a multiplicity of artistic, personal, ideological, and political programs. The wide range of directions in which authors have taken the genre serves to substantiate Raymond Chandler’s contention in the first epigraph to this chapter that it is a “fluid” form that cannot be easily pigeonholed. No doubt Poe, who craved but never achieved sustained popular success as a fiction writer, would have been surprised to discover that in the second half of the 1800s the genre he launched would reappear in action-packed dime novels featuring protagonists such as the Old Sleuth, New York Detective, and Nick Carter, as well as a series of books about the exploits of America’s most famous detective agency (well known for its trademark open eye, the eye that never sleeps), supposedly written by Allan Pinkerton himself. He would certainly be shocked to learn that two generations after his death white women and African Americans would embrace detection as a means of addressing social and political issues of particular concern to themselves. Moreover, he would likely be amazed to find that over the last 170 years the descendants of his aristocratic French sleuth C. Auguste Dupin have come in an array of shapes, sizes, nationalities, genders, socio-economic classes, sexual orientations, political points of view, subject positions, and ethnic and racial backgrounds. This work traces some of the roles that gender, race, and empire have played in American detection from Poe’s originary tales through the myriad variations upon them published before 1920 to hard-boiled fiction (the origins of which derive in part from turn-of-the- twentieth-century notions about gender, race and nationality), and it concludes with a discussion of contemporary mystery series with inner-city settings that address black male and black female heroism.

John Cullen Gruesser, a professor of English at Kean University, is the author of The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home: African American Literature and the Era of Overseas Expansion (2012) and the editor of A Century of Detection: Twenty Great Mystery Stories, 1841-1940 (2010).  He currently serves as President of the Poe Studies Association.

Race, Gender and Empire in American Detective Fiction will soon be available from Amazon and is further described on the McFarland website:

From its inception, American detective fiction has been adaptable to a multiplicity of artistic, personal, ideological and political programs. The wide range of directions in which authors have taken the genre reminds us of Raymond Chandler’s view that it is a “fluid” form that cannot be pigeonholed.

This book highlights detection’s malleability by analyzing the works of particular groups of authors from specific time periods written in response to other texts. Specifically, it traces some of the roles that gender, race and empire have played in American detective fiction from Edgar Allan Poe’s works through the myriad variations upon them published before 1920 to hard-boiled fiction (the origins of which derive in part from turn-of-the-20th-century notions about gender, race and nationality), and it concludes with a discussion of contemporary mystery series with inner-city settings that address black male and black female heroism.
In addition to fiction by Poe, the book analyzes texts by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Harriet Jacobs, Mark Twain, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Susan Glaspell, Dashiell Hammett, Carroll John Daly, Pauline Hopkins, John Edward Bruce, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, and Valerie Wilson Wesley.


Introduction: Manipulation, Malleability, and Metafiction in American Detection

ONE • “Having defeated him in his own castle”: Character Rivalry, Authorial Sleight of Hand, and Generic Fluidity in Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin Tales

TWO • Expanding on Poe: Varieties of Detection in Key American Literary Texts 1850–1882

THREE • Subverting and Re-Entrenching Traditional Gender Roles: Female Sleuths, Dangerous Women, and the Imperial Origins of Hard-Boiled Fiction

FOUR • Detecting Empire Abroad and at Home: Interrogations of United States Overseas Expansion and Jim Crow in Early African American Detective Writing

Coda: Black Freedom, Hard-Boiled Motherhood, and Mythic Heroism in Contemporary American Detective Fiction

Appendix: Interviews with Valerie Wilson Wesley (May 2003, January and February 2013)



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