Hard-boiled irony : the inversion of medieval romance in 20th century American detective fiction.

Date of Award


Document Type



Caspersen School of Graduate Studies

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


This dissertation examines the reason why hard-boiled detective fiction owes a greater debt to medieval romance than to its immediate predecessors within the detective fiction genre. Through a comparative analysis of major works in each field, I identify the thematic relationship between medieval romance and hard-boiled detective fiction. By first examining the generic concerns of medieval authors, as well as the motivation for the nineteenth century's renewed interest in medieval culture, particularly romance, I establish the mode and movement (Romantic nationalism) to which hard-boiled detective writers are responding. This, compounded by the contemporary socio-political and cultural landscape of early twentieth-century America provides not only the basis for the stylistic shift in the detective fiction genre after World War I but also the deliberate inversion of medieval romance themes. Addressing why and how the themes established in medieval romance, which fulfill the romance genre's bi-partite functions of entertainment and instruction, also resonate in hard-boiled detective fiction, I classify the latter as a modern form of romance. By creating its own "exaggerated verisimilitude" and by reworking familiar romance themes of authority, identity, and gender relations, hard-boiled fiction, like medieval romance, speaks to contemporary cultural anxieties.