Booked: Sexuality and taste in American crime fiction

Martin J Northrop, Fordham University


In Booked, I reveal the phenomenon that, in American crime fiction of the interwar and postwar periods, sexual ideology is coded as a matter of aesthetic taste; and that scenes depicting or evoking aspects of print culture are especially expressive of this ideology. Drawing on the emergent methodological strategies of book history, I reveal the constitutive relationship among popular crime fiction, print culture, and sexual culture. In particular, I examine the symbolic function of books and bookstores in pulp and paperback plots, themes, and characterizations; as well as the contextual significance of the design, promotion, and circulation of actual crime books in these periods alongside other print archives that influenced mainstream sexual ideas. I begin by discussing the deployment of homophobic masculinity through the use of street slang in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and the depiction of an underworld pornography ring in Chandler’s The Big Sleep. With those who have argued that the hard-boiled ethos is defined through the attempted repudiation of femininity (Forter) or sentimentality (Cassuto), I recognize that this ethos requires its homophobia, but I also extend this line of inquiry to argue that crime fiction’s cultural work was to police and naturalize the homo/hetero binary that is now our culture’s entrenched model for sexual identity. In the second half of the dissertation, I turn to two postwar writers who continue the cultural work of Hammett and Chandler by picking up on the link between bibliography and sexuality, but who also find ways of subverting their hard-boiled homophobia.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Northrop, Martin J, "Booked: Sexuality and taste in American crime fiction" (2015). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3727411.