Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hard Boiled Sentinentality Revisited

A while ago, I mentioned I was reading Leonard Cassuto's Hard Boiled Sentimentality. I was only halfway through the book at the time, and I have since finished it, and I'm still a little confused about Cassuto's thesis. He claims to present, "an intellectual history of hard boiled fiction, a story that tracks the nation's most self-consciously masculine fiction back to a genre dominated by women and focused on women and household."

Cassuto starts off with Dreiser and Hemingway as a starting point, which is hard to argue with, and then he moves on to Hammett. Now, as even Cassuto concedes, it's difficult to find anything sentimental in Hammett. The Continental-Op doesn't even have a name, let alone a personal life, and Sam Spade, when it comes time to choose between his professional reputation and his emotions he chooses to be the professional, which is not surprising, since even Spade's sex life revolves around the office.

Now, PI's do get less hard boiled as time goes on. Marlowe isn't Spade, and Archer isn't Marlowe, and by the time you get to get to McGee and Spenser it's hard to argue that detectives become more sentimental, but this may just be a function of their becoming more three dimensional as time goes on. People have families. Sometimes they wish they didn't, but generally they do, and this goes for private detectives and cops and bank robbers and just about any other person who might end up as the main character in a crime novel, so it makes sense that as the genre grows, so should it's characters. I'm not convinced these changes have anything to do with 19th Century sentinental fiction.

That said, there's not really a lot in this book with which I would disagree. I have more than a passing familiarity with most of the authors Cassuto writes about, and I would not dispute most of his insights. Hard Boiled Sentimentality is, overall, a pretty good book. It's just that, as I said before, I think Cassuto might have oversold his thesis.

I'm also a little perplexed as to why Andrew Vachss doesn't get a mention. You can certaintly argue that his books won't stand the test of time, but it's hard to think of a series that captures the essence of hard boiled sentimentality more than the Burke series, which, for all it's hard-ass posturing, is all about family. It's the apotheosis of the phenomenon Cassuto is trying to describe, and it's absence makes me think he may not be familiar with it at all.

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