As I have commented before, criticism has a binary drive of love and dissatisfaction. It’s not easy to bother to be critical about works that don’t in some way touch your heart, but with the things that completely satisfy you there can often seem little left to say beyond heaping undifferentiated praise on a work. I’d be at a bit of a loss to write much of anything about The Bridge of Birds or The Story of the Stone despite having read each perhaps a dozen times. So pieces like my dismissal of Oblivion or Taken reflect at least a certain basic level of interest, if not in the work than in the genre. If Hammett were a perfect detective author, I wouldn’t be writing a thesis on him.
Well, as it happens I am in the midst of reworking my Literature Review based around the main text that I’ve produced so far for the thesis. As a result, I have a list of recommended books and articles, some of which might be hard to come by but all of which are profoundly good and useful. In roughly chronological order:
“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin, c.1936
Not strictly related to my thesis, this is nonetheless a profoundly interesting survey of the problems of Art. This essay seems almost more relevant to modern notions of Art than it does to the problems it explicitly dealt with in the inter-war period. This is an article that literally everyone should read.
Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture by John G Cawelti, 1976
This book deals with the intangibles of storytelling, breaking down literature into comprehensible genre types and patterns. It does this with more-or-less plain English, and then offers a number of compelling close analyses that do really enhance the appreciation of the works discussed. This is perhaps the most-cited book in the field of Crime Criticism, and for good reason.
Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction by Stephen Knight, 1980
Almost a sequel to Cawelti, this book reconstructs the ideological arguments embedded inside the structure and rhetoric of detective fiction.
Six Walks in the Fictional Woods by Umberto Eco
In effect, this is a “how to read” for adults, and carefully breaks down a rational and usable way of thinking about text.
“The Slaughterhouse of Literature” by Franco Moretti, MLQ Mar 2000
While this article is focused on Arthur Conan Doyle and his contemporaries, which is fascinating in and of itself, it is also a powerful example of cross-field synergy. Moretti uses ideas of market forces & evolution to approach the Sherlock Holmes canon. This is a startling bit of criticism which begins to advocate for an entirely new approach to literary criticism.
“James Ellroy as Historical Novelist” by Jonathan Walker, History Workshop Journal 2002
Another essay I have not managed to cite or use specifically, but which really exploded James Ellroy for me. If you’ve ever read Ellroy and wanted to understand how he does what he does, and why, this is the place to go.
Obviously, I read many many other excellent and interesting articles and books, but these I can whole-heartedly endorse without reservation, and think that they all have a wider applicability and interest than Crime Fiction, let alone Dashiell Hammett.