Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction: The Invention of a Genre

Moderator: Neil Novik
Role of participants: Each participant will make a brief presentation on a classic book in the hard-boiled genre and lead a discussion that uses that book as its starting point. Although participants will not be required to read every book being discussed, a familiarity with each author and the genre will be encouraged. A list of suggested titles and authors will be provided, but others may be selected subject to the concurrence of the moderator.
Number of participants (including the moderator): 11-13
Time: Mondays, 10:00 am–noon
Place: Smith College, Lilly Hall, Room 308, Northampton
Parking: You will be issued a Smith College campus parking permit

This seminar will examine the roots of American Crime Fiction: the “hard-boiled” detective novel.

Hard-boiled crime fiction, as a distinctly American genre, came to life in the interwar period, emerging from the western adventure story but set in the dark, mean streets of urban America. Starting in the 1920’s, a time when organized crime was growing largely in response to prohibition, writers such as Dashiell Hammett, and later Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Ross Macdonald and others, introduced the tough, wise-cracking PI, the femme fatale, a focus on police incompetence and government corruption, and a social realism not usually found in earlier detective fiction. That so many of their books remain classics today, e.g., The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, etc., is testament not only to their place among the great writers of American literature, but also to the staying power of the genre itself. These writers set the course of American crime fiction and eventually influenced the development of most crime fiction world-wide.

Through discussions of these classic novels, as well as the lives of the writers, the times they lived in, and essays about the books and the genre, this seminar will explore the hard-boiled genre, its place in American literature, and how it influenced generations of writers who followed.

Format: Presentations and discussion

Resources: Most titles we will read are in print and/or widely available in libraries and as used books. Critical essays can be found online or will be distributed by the moderator.

The Moderator: Neil was considered the “Crime Fiction Guy” at the Odyssey Bookshop, where he was co-owner. He still runs a crime fiction reading group there and has a special interest in the history of crime fiction.

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