Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir by Geoffrey O’Brien ’66. When Geoffrey looks behind those paperback covers of seductive dames (or maybe they’re dishes) in various stages of undress, sometimes terror-stricken and sometimes just plain dead, he finds a fresh way to look at the America of the forties and fifties; beneath the wartime patriotism and the rosy familial bliss on the TV shows of that era, dark currents are flowing. This complex book takes on the history of the paperback, the history of the hardboiled detective, the role of those covers, and a literary analysis of the works of such writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Ross MacDonald, and Jim Thompson (to name just a few). His study of Hammett reveals what is so compelling in this kind of fiction. He shows that Hammett’s writing is efficient and beautiful, but that what sets it apart is how fast it is. The reader is swept away by the action; there is no possibility of being sidetracked by description and detail. Geoffrey can be quite succinct himself. He says the vision of these works is demonic and that the publishers wished to entice the reader with images that were more “ribald and colorful” than the works themselves. “After all, the public wanted gunfights and Lana Turner, not existentialism and l’acte gratuite.” (All French teachers everywhere will adore that quote). After reading this book, I know I will have to encounter the books of Jim Thompson. What a case Geoffrey makes for this author!
Is the hardboiled detective novel a good way to gain insight into American culture? You bet.There’s the lurid and then there’s the pushback.A House Select Committee on Pornography made it their business to take a critical look at these daring paperbacks.Here we see the culture of the fifties and, by the way, some hints about what is going on today.