Rediscovered: Gumshoe America; or, Race vs. the Klan


In a couple of days I’m dropping in on a party in Tom Krabacher’s lair, and returning his loaner copy of the academic tome Gumshoe America from 200o by Sean McCann. I was curious about it, since among the major authors surveyed it includes Charles Willeford — plus David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Chester Himes, and standards such as Hammett and Chandler. A great lineup, although I can’t say that I think he really nails his overall thesis about politics and America and hard-boiled lit.

Ultimately, you end up with a lot of plot summary, but then it installs Willeford in a book from Duke University Press, so what the hell.

Tom often pops for items like this one, and usually I don’t. (The Krabacher copy of The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales currently is making the rounds in our circle, since no one else wanted to shell out circa $80 for that turkey.) The guy is a real resource.

So, while in general I’m neither here nor there with Gumshoe America — if you like this kind of book, then it may be the kind of book you like, if you know what I mean — I was totally baffled by the first chapter, “Constructing Race Williams: The Klan and the Making of Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction.”

As anyone who checks this blog knows, recently I read through the first volume of the collected Race Williams tales, including “Knights of the Open Palm” — the story where Carroll John Daly introduces Race to the world, which happened to appear in the KKK issue of Black Mask. McCann makes a big deal out of this fact, spinning some deep meaning or connection that I had never heard a rumor of before.

The Klan was flourishing at that time — with millions of members in Ohio alone — so the editors decided to work up a theme issue on the subject. To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t as if KKK material appeared constantly in the pulp in that era. They did the one issue, and that was it — and perhaps a few items in the letters column afterwards referenced it.

Thus, as far as I know or have ever known, the Klan issue of Black Mask was an anomaly.

Daly already was appearing in The Mask, so I take it when he got word that the theme issue needed copy, he created Race Williams and had old Race encounter a Klan-like cult.

Made the sale, cashed the cheque.

But per McCann, something significant was going on, and he spends close to fifty pages in the chapter going on and on about Race and, well, race. . . .

Then suddenly, out of the blue, on page 45 McCann writes:

It would be a mistake, however, to overemphasize the role played by the Klan in the development of either hard-boiled crime fiction or Black Mask magazine. After 1924, the Klan faded quickly from political and social prominence, the victim of a series of public relations disasters. Likewise, the group (and nativist varieties of fiction that it may have helped inspire) disappeared from Black Mask after the mid-twenties, and neither the magazine nor hard-boiled crime fiction ever made direct reference to the Klan again. It seems unlikely, then, that the KKK provided an essential element for the success of the genre or that the fiction could not have developed as it did without the Klan.

In short, he’s admitting that his theory has no weight to it — and then he spends many more pages trying to prove it again.

Very bizarre.

If you ever write any litcrit, make sure you don’t stick something like that into your book or essay.

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