McCann Post

McCann´s treatment of Black Mask hard-boiled detective stories shows how an interesting methodological issue arises when the object of literary study shifts from canonized Literary Works to popular literature that has not been endowed with the same prestige—to what extent do we view these works as products of an individual authorial intelligence vs. products of systemic economic and ideological formations? I think there is a tension in these two views at work in McCann´s treatment of Dashiell Hammett, who, if he has not ascended to the ranks of the Great Modernists, has at least progressed much farther in certain canons than Daly has. McCann´s clear bias toward Hammett reiterates this canonical status: he is “a far more perceptive writer” than Daly (62) and his novel Red Harvest is lavished with praise. As a result, it seems to me that, in the Hammett sections, a desire to defend the author´s status emerges alongside (and potentially in tension with) the larger project of linking a particular cultural form to its economic and cultural context.

This defensiveness is particularly evident in the claim that “in order to fully appreciate Hammett´s ingenuity and his novel´s account of violence run amok, we need to recognise that Red Harvest is not only a deconstruction of the detective story but the logical conclusion of the critique of Klannish fantasy that hard-boiled fiction began in ´Knights of the Open Palm´¨(78). The ideological work done in Red Harvest is put down to Hammett´s own “ingenuity,” his own agency as a thinker and an author (it is interesting to note as well that this ingenuity is linked to a skeptical engagement with genre). This perhaps explains a small problem I have with this article. With Daly, McCann is perfectly willing to admit that Klannish nativism is merely one form of the will toward community-constituting social fantasy that the hard-boiled detective sides against—Race Williams finds himself opposing labor unions and liberal senators peddling class-based fantasies of solidarity as well. With Hammett, however, McCann at times presses Klannish nativism into service to stand for any such fantasy. Perhaps a practical philosophy of amoral individualism is a lot more redeemable as an authorial position if it is opposed to atavistic nativism. Perhaps viewing Red Harvest as the “logical conclusion” of work begun in “Knights of the Open Palm” is a move at least somewhat rooted in a desire to defend Hammett as a thinking author. But is the goal of criticism to defend or to objectively explain? And is the independence of thought we allow to some writers and not others a result of the complexity of their work or merely our preexisting assumptions about them?