Fleshing Out and Losing Flesh: The Decomposing Corpse as Narrative Object in American Hardboiled Detective Fiction
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This dissertation examines the corpse as an object in and of American hardboiled detective fiction written between 1920 and 1950. I deploy several theoretical frames, including narratology, body-as-text theory, object relations theory, and genre theory, in order to demonstrate the significance of objects, symbols, and things primarily in the clever and crafty work of Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) and Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), but also touching on the writings of their lesser known accomplices. I construct a literary genealogy of American hardboiled detective fiction originating in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, compare the contributions of classic or Golden Age detective fiction in England, and describe the socio-economic contexts, particularly the predominance of the “pulps,” that gave birth to the realism of the Hardboiled School. Taking seriously Chandler’s obsession with the art of murder, I engage with how authors pre-empt their readers’ knowledge of the tricks of the trade and manipulate their expectations, as well as discuss the characteristics and effect of the inimitable hardboiled style, its sharpshooting language and deadpan humour. Critical scholarship has rarely addressed the body and figure of the corpse, preferring to focus instead on the machinations of the femme fatale, the performance of masculinity, or the prevalence of violence. I cast new light on the world of hardboiled detective fiction by dissecting the corpse as the object that both motivates and de-composes (or rots away from) the narrative that makes it signify. I treat the corpse as an inanimate object, indifferent to representation, that destabilizes the integrity and self-possession, as well as the ratiocination, of the detective who authors the narrative of how the corpse came to be. The corpse is all deceptive and dangerous surface rather than the container of hidden depths of life and meaning that the detective hopes to uncover and reconstruct. I conclude with a chapter that is both critical denouement and creative writing experiment to reveal the self-reflexive (and at times metafictional) dimensions of hardboiled fiction. My dissertation, too, in the manner of hardboiled fiction, hopes to incriminate my readers as much as enlighten them.