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Traces, Codes, and Clues: Reading Race in Crime Fiction
Maureen T. Reddy
New Brunswick, N.J., and London: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
$19.00, 213 pages, ISBN 0-8135-3202-7 (paperback).

Ulrike Erichsen
Darmstadt University of Technology


Before going into some detail with respect to Maureen T. Reddy’s argument in Traces, Codes, and Clues, it has to be mentioned that Reddy’s sub-title Reading Race in Crime Fiction is a bit misleading, at least from a European point of view. Reddy focuses almost exclusively on American crime writing with a selective interest in novels that belong to or can be related to the sub-genre of the hard-boiled crime novel as established by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The very few British writers she discusses (e.g. Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, and several novels from Mike Phillips’s Sam Dean-series) do not really fit into the pattern she puts forward, thus getting far less attention than the American novels.

Traces, Codes, and Clues is Reddy’s second publication focusing on the genre of crime writing. In 1988, she published, Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel, one of the first comprehensive evaluations dealing with the emerging genre of the feminist mystery or crime novel. In contrast to the earlier book exploring an evolving feminist novel, Reddy’s discussion of the state of race in crime fiction seems far less optimistic.

In this book, Maureen T. Reddy aims at investigating the uses of race and racial stereotypes in crime fiction. She relies on the—by now widely accepted assumption—that "race is both a cultural fiction (not a biological reality) and a central organizing principle of knowledge, social structures and experience" (4). Popular fiction, or genre fiction (the American term), because of its large readership, "offers an interesting field for examining the construction and reinforcement of race/gender/sexuality norms" (2). Besides, Reddy sees popular fiction squarely within the paradigm of the realist novel, and, thus, argues for a strong interdependence of such fiction and social context: "the codes and conventions of each genre are intertwined with the codes and conventions of the society in which the literary texts are produced" (1). Personally, I find Reddy’s use of the term ‘genre fiction’ ("loose but distinctive structures or frameworks for fiction" (1)) too unfocused and too vague to be helpful for any systematic analysis of the connections between genre and context. This probably explains why, at times, her argument comes across as circular: As racism is a structural problem in US-American society, everybody is a affected by it. Texts by white, as well as black authors, illustrate the extent to which everybody is inescapably influenced by a racist society that valorises whiteness at the expense of blackness, thus, at the same time re-inscribing this ideology. Most of the texts she analyses remain within this racist paradigm even when apparently intending to go beyond it. Reddy’s understanding of the pervasive structural features of racism comes across as a deterministic trap which only very few writers, mainly black women writers, can escape.

Reddy herself draws the reader’s attention to the fact that her book is strongly influenced by Tony Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), an examination of the figure of the African-American in white-authored American literature. Morrison investigates literary devices—conceits, tropes, metaphors—that have been, mostly unconsciously, deployed by white writers to deal with ‘blackness’. It is, in Morrison’s own words, "an investigation into the ways in which a non-white, Africanlike (or Africanist) presence or persona was constructed in the United States, and the imaginative uses this fabricated presence served" (6). Morrison argues that a black presence exists throughout the history of American literature and that ‘blackness’ has become a silent organising principle even of texts without any black characters. She then continues: "the process of organizing American coherence through a distancing Africanism became the operative mode of a new cultural hegemony" (8). In a second step of a her argumentation, she investigates the uses that "whiteness," in an US-American context the unmarked race, "play[s] in the construction of what is loosely described as ‘American’" (9). Reddy’s book is an attempt to apply Tony Morrison’s approach to a specific genre, namely crime fiction.

Reddy begins her discussion with an analysis of "that most American of mystery genres, the hard-boiled" (3); one of her reasons for taking this sub-genre crime fiction as a starting point for her argument seems to be the understanding that "[h]ard-boiled ideology is an exaggerated version—but only a very slightly exaggerated version—of mainstream American ideology, particularly as that ideology was propounded in the years between the world wars" (9). Her discussion of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade yields the not very surprising result that "not only masculinity but also whiteness and heterosexuality are fundamental elements of [...] the hard boiled genre" (7). After a discussion of The Maltese Falcon and The Continental Op, she takes her hypothesis a step further: "the central white / male / heterosexual consciousness is sacred, unchallengeable, which in turn emphasizes the great degree to which the fiction is about that consciousness. [It] seems clear that racism (and sexism and heterosexism) is a necessary element of hard-boiled detective fiction and is in fact a cornerstone of that fiction’s ideological orientation" (27). In order to derive pleasure from the reading of hard-boiled fiction, Reddy claims a "centrality of white bonding" (37) that is a necessary identification with the white, male detective on the part of the reader, and she criticises such identification in no uncertain terms: "White / male / heterosexual bonding is not incidental to the reading of hard-boiled fiction but absolutely constitutive of its pleasures. Readers who speak of the ‘guilty pleasure’ of reading crime fiction generally mean the pleasure of reading less-than-literary fiction, but the far guiltier pleasure is indeed participation in a ritual that helps to perpetuate racism, sexism, and heterosexism" (38).

Whiteness is seen as such a central element of the hard-boiled in Reddy’s argument that a critical or transgressive rewriting of the genre seems impossible. "The genre largely is that [white/male/heterosexual] subject position, which is at the core of that ideology. Writers who shift away from that central consciousness thus revise the form so profoundly that as a group they must be seen as establishing what amounts to a new genre" (41). While Reddy’s usage of crime fiction comprises several sub-genres, like the hard-boiled, the police procedural, the amateur detective novel, and seems unnecessarily wide, her definition of the hard-boiled sub-genre at this stage of her argument seems unnecessarily narrow and inflexible, effectively disallowing any modification or development of the genre.

However, the second chapter of the book, ‘Countering Tradition,’ traces quite a wide range of modifications to the hard-boiled novel by writers of colour, mostly since the 1990s. Reddy’s particular focus in this chapter is on crime fiction by black women writers as they challenge not only "mainstream crime fiction conventions" but also "the conventions of the white feminist countertradition" (as exemplified for instance by Amanda Cross, Sara Paretsky, Barbara Wilson) developing during the 1970s and 1980s. Analysing thirteen different series of crime writing by black female authors, Reddy identifies a number of features and common concerns that in her opinion justify speaking of a revision of crime fiction traditions in accordance with a liberatory, progressive ideology: "In sum, these features include a black female consciousness in the central position in the text, with that consciousness demonstrably connected to a wider black community and shaped by it; emphasis on the political dimension of friendship between black women; attention to black women’s roles as mothers and other-mothers; a focus on the systemic opposition of law and justice; scenes of instruction on the intersection of race and gender; use of a specifically race-based invisibility/hypervisibility theme; and narrative interest in colorism and class issues among people of color, particularly their impact on black women" (76). Moreover, black female detectives usually are motivated by "their conviction that if they do not investigate, no one will, or that racism will make any official investigation pro forma and inadequate" (60). Black crime writing by women, according to Reddy, makes racism a central theme of the novels, often the energising force of the plot, thus exposing its pervasive nature and far-reaching effects.

Chapter three (‘Tracing Whiteness’) focuses on "how the meanings of whiteness are revised in crime fiction by and about people of color and what that revision might signify, both for the genre and beyond it" (79). Like Tony Morrison, Reddy concludes that whiteness as the unmarked, seemingly transparent feature, remains the structural principle that organises even attacks on the prevailing racial hierarchy. She criticises that many such attempts to de-centre the prevailing hierarchy are limited through racial essentialism: "[R]acial essentialism undermines attempts to dismantle the structure of racism itself [...] Essentializing and reifying whiteness, as several critiques of whiteness in crime fiction do, logically reifies race itself" (81). Again, her argument is based on close readings of several novels that deal with the theme of passing, however her readings mainly seem to illustrate the difficulty of revising and re-writing whiteness. This seems hardly surprising considering her assumptions that it is "whites [who] get to define who is white" as it is "whites who determine who is ‘really’ American" (105). Given these assumptions Reddy’s expectations that writers of colour can revise the concept of whiteness seems if not a contradiction in terms, then certainly overly optimistic.

The next chapter (‘White Readings of Race’) was in many respects the chapter that irritated me most and that seemed weakest in terms of the analysis of the relations between context and genre. (I am not sure whether the fact that I am a white reader had anything to do with it.) Reddy begins by stating: "Whiteness is taken for granted in most crime fiction authored by whites, and that implicitness is one of the ways in which whiteness is reproduced and maintains its cultural hegemony" (115). Reddy accuses white authors of a number of crimes: not mentioning race at all (116), commenting on race only when the race at issue is not white (116), portraying racism as personal obsession or aberrant behaviour rather than as a structural problem (119), inventing white detectives exonerated of the taint of racism (119), "providing an experience of affirmation and absolution for white readers who do not believe themselves to be racist" (121), as well as "trying to tap into that market [crime fiction with race theme], in a classic case of cultural appropriation and commodification" (119). Reddy’s idea of an appropriate detective comes out in her critique of two feminist series—Margaret Maron’s Sigrid Harald books and Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski novels: "Neither series, however, takes seriously the possibility that the detective herself has internalized racist attitudes from the culture and must work to divest herself of them" (130). If the detective cannot be a black woman than s/he should at least be aware of being influenced by racist culture and "remain vigilant for the vestiges of racism in themselves" (132).

Although I sympathise with Reddy’s political agenda first summarised in a rhetorical question—"[I]f racism does indeed profoundly negatively impact the lives of all people of color, do not all whites share some responsibility to end it?" (144)—I do not find it all that useful in discussing questions of genre and generic development. In fact, at times it seems as if Reddy is losing track of the fact that she is dealing with literary constructions. In my opinion, the realist paradigm (that is the assumption that novels show or reflect social reality to a certain extent) becomes an obstacle and prevents a thorough investigation of the relation between social context and generic development. In that respect, Reddy might have been better served with a constructionist approach.

The final chapter, ‘Writing the Other,’ provides some interesting analyses of various ‘ethnic’ crime writers, e.g. Tony Hillerman, Marcia Muller, and Dana Stabenow. Moreover, it continues the discussion, begun in chapter 4, about how even "well-intentioned texts end up reinforcing racist attitudes by inscribing binary thinking" (155). Reddy clearly argues for making an attempt to consciously take up an antiracist stance because "[n]o one in this or any other Western society escapes acculturation to and within white discourse, regardless of their subject positions" (154). However, employing Gayatri Ch. Spivak’s concept of the ‘domesticated Other’ to explain the limitations of white-authored fiction to create convincing coloured characters, she also seems to concede that there is only so much that white authors can do. Reddy mentions just two white authors who, at least to a certain extent, live up to her expectation of an antiracist stance: Sara Paretsky who, in interviews as well as in her novels, has shown some awareness of the problems involved in creating convincing characters of colour, and Barbara Hambly (better known for her SF and fantasy novels) with her Benjamin January series. Reddy writes: "Hambly alone seems to have absorbed the lessons to be learned from black women’s crime fiction and shares their oppositional stance in relation to white ideology" (186). I was rather surprised by this evaluation, as Barbara Hambly’s Ben January novels differ from most of the other series analysed in this book in an important respect—they are historical novels (set in the New Orleans of the 1830s) dealing with the intersections of race, class, and gender, e.g. as a consequence of colonialism and slavery, in a historical setting.

To conclude, Maureen T. Reddy analyses a great number of different texts with a focus on racial ideology and the pervasive force of acculturation through white discourse. Apart from introducing the reader to a wide range of crime writing by black and white authors, and emphasising the importance of black women’s writing in revising crime fiction, she also pursues a serious discussion of the ideological implications of this popular genre. In spite of certain irritations with her argument, I found Traces, Codes, and Clues thought-provoking in many respects and a book worth reading.


Cercles2003
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