Date of Award

Summer 2023

Degree Type

Restricted to Claremont Colleges Dissertation

Degree Name

English, PhD


School of Arts and Humanities

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

David Luis-Brown

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Wendy Martin

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

James Morrison

Terms of Use & License Information

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Rights Information

© 2023 Ayoung Seok

Subject Categories

American Literature


This study reads American detective fiction in its golden era in the early and mid-twentieth century through the keyword of failure. Using Raymond Williams’s ‘structure of feeling’ to make “a cultural hypothesis” of failure especially prevailing at the turn of the century, I argue that failure as a set of structures of feeling is most distinctly literalized in the early and mid-twentieth-century American detective fiction, a genre which traditionally relied on the premise of the protagonist’s success. Thematically original in connecting the concept of failure and American detective fiction, this study seeks to contribute to the broader understanding of the genre, by suggesting the methodological need for a comparative reading of various subgenres of the field that the past and current studies have tended to lack. This comparative methodology, reading the texts written by women writers, African American writers and canonical white male writers of the field altogether, will allow us to see more clearly how writers with different backgrounds diversely reflect their understanding of early and mid-twentieth-century America in the specific narrative form of detective fiction, under the common affective influence of failure. In a larger sense, this study provides another case study of how this quintessentially modern genre of detective fiction undergoes a series of transformations as it addresses sociocultural turbulence in the late phase of modernity and reacts to the advent of postmodernity. In the first section, I choose Rinehart and Chandler to highlight the issue of sentimentality in detective fiction, both despised by the high modernist society of the time being considered as “failure of feeling” in close relation to their feminization of mass culture. These two writers’ works were chosen, however, because their employment of sentimentality are counterexamples against such a simple gendered frame of cultural hierarchy. Rinehart’s Hilda Adams series shows the female amateur detective’s growing anti-sentimentality in rejecting a heterosexual romantic relationship, albeit in Chandler’s The Long Goodbye detective Philip Marlowe helps the murder suspect to run away from the case being caught by homosocial attraction. Sentimentality in these two detective writers’ novels functions both as motivation and cause of feeling failed. While Adams becomes more haunted by her failure as a detective, struggling between her work ethic as a professional nurse and an amateur detective, while Marlowe finally accepts the impossibility to return to the nostalgic past that he sentimentally strives to regain in The Long Goodbye and chooses to reunite his former lover Linda Loring at the expense of his work at the end of Playback . Breaking the traditional frame of gender politics, both protagonists show in opposite ways how sentimentality becomes a significant element in constructing a self, in their struggles between work and love, a primary theme of modern sentimentality. In the second section, Fisher and Hammett are bound together since their detectives take similar strategy of transforming the genre formula facing to the limitation of the genre, which results in opposite conclusions. Here the limitation of detective fiction is deeply rooted in Edgar Allan Poe’s failure in his founding establishment of a detective figure as an individual genius. Poe’s modern detective figure does not work anymore in the late-modern crisis of social totality as a condition for the literary detectives’ existence: an increased tension against racial Others in Fisher’s case, and loss of communal bonding in Hammett’s. In common, both writers attempt to deal with the crisis by constructing a dialogic rationality by casing plural detectives as a substitute for the monologic one in the classic detective fiction. However, the results were opposite: whereas Fisher’s “community of detectives” 3 pursues the modern detective’s tasks through a class-specialized division of labor, Hammett’s detective couple dialectically raise a question about the value of literary detection as a social analysis. Fisher and Hammett’s literary struggles for their detectives, coexisting with the deep sense of failure prevailing in the stories, predict the amalgamating status of post/modernity in the transitional phenomena between late-modern and postmodern cultural domains—as a new phase different from modernity while it displays significant residues of modernity, a remaining belief in modern rationality in the late-modern detective fiction, a record of postmodern disbelief and hesitation.