Crime Fiction’s Secret Sentimental History

When I first heard that Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English Literature at Fordham (and not Hofstra, as it reads in the piece) was writing a book about the links between hardboiled fiction and sentimental novels, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. The end result is a full review in today’s Los Angeles Times of HARDBOILED SENTIMENTALITY: THE SECRET HISTORY OF AMERICAN CRIME STORIES:

Devoted readers of crime fiction can recite the tropes of hard-boiled novels by heart. Tough-talking detectives. Femmes fatales. Prose harder than diamonds. And lots of violence, preferably by someone holding a gun. Dashiell

Hammett and Raymond Chandler are the standards, giving rise to the idea

that the darker the crime novel, the better — and more respected by

the literati and academia.

But what if that standard had less to do with

Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe than with Ellen Montgomery, the naive

young heroine of Susan Warner’s 1850 bestseller “The Wide, Wide World”?

What if the walk down mean streets was less about an alienated lone

wolf and more about the search for home and domesticity?


first blush, such questions sound preposterous, but Hofstra University

professor Leonard Cassuto’s provocative new book, “Hard-Boiled

Sentimentality,” makes a strong case for a hidden connection between

crime fiction and 19th century sentimental novels, arguing that tough

guys like Spade and Marlowe are really, in the words of Henry Miller,

“tender as babies, they’re all lambs; this is all compensation for

their extra-tender qualities.”

HARDBOILED SENTIMENTALITY is not without some flaws, and it’s all too easy to fit in the book of your choice within Cassuto’s thesis (or grouse which ones got left out), but that’s all for good if it provokes some serious dialogue about the genre’s so-called tent poles. We all ought to take this sentimental journey…