Our primary goal is to provide a venue for the scholarly analysis of an important subgenre of American literature, crime fiction, that had traditionally been dismissed as unworthy of serious academic study. Thankfully that state of affairs began to change at the end of the twentieth century and has certainly been completely disproven in the twenty-first. Courses in mystery and detective novels have proliferated, and dissertations and monographs about the major authors of crime fiction are quite common. As American literature professors and scholars, we want Mean Streets to support this movement, specifically in regard to American authors. American crime fiction crosses boundaries of genres and modes of expression and is continuously open to new ways of looking at the social, cultural, political, and historical values of the nation. It reflects our culture as well as showing it to us in new ways.
In addition, we believe that the rich tradition of American crime writing needs to be explored further: Many excellent authors from the first half of the twentieth century deserve to be rediscovered and their works popularized. Our third issue, for example, will feature essays on the Golden Age of detective fiction, 1920-1945, and will highlight authors such as S. S. Van Dine who are often overlooked because they worked outside the hard-boiled tradition established by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The concept of the Golden Age is usually applied only to British authors such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, so the American literary history here needs to be re-examined.
Of course, important crime fiction is being written today and will certainly continue, and Mean Streets wants to promote these texts and authors and identify their literary significance.
Is there a particular novel that you think is a cornerstone for the detective and mystery genre?
The most important American crime novel is The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett. By embedding a murder mystery within a book that is rich with existential overtones, Hammett conclusively proved that detective fiction can be literature. In addition, through the character of Sam Spade, Hammett created a template for all private-eye stories to follow. When the novel was adapted into a film in 1941 by John Huston, the movie became another template, this time for the visual style and characterization of film noir. Rarely has one book been the source for so many of the essential ingredients of both a literary genre and a cinematic movement.
With the addition of recent books like When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole (William Morrow & Company, 2020) and The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey (Tor Books, 2021) that twist the usual formula in some way, how else do you see the genre evolving in the near future?
The recent novels Alyssa Cole’s When No One Is Watching and Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife each demonstrate a trend that we think will continue to develop:
First, we will begin to see more fiction by African American and other Black authors that gives readers crucial views of Black experience written from that perspective, but written within the recognizable practices of mystery and crime fiction and appealing to a wide audience, as have films such as Get Out (2017) and Queen and Slim (2019) and many others in recent years.
Additionally, the publishing industry seems ready to welcome an even wider range of voices that dig into experiences unknown to or badly misunderstood by many Americans. Here we’re thinking of novels such as Murder on the Red River, a 2017 crime novel by Marcie Rendon, a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, focused on the experiences of members of Native American tribes near North Dakota’s border with Minnesota, an area of very rich farmland. Rendon explores their experience of both contemporary violence as well as the violent wresting of thousands of children out of their native families and into white foster families and the continuing cultural damage spreading from this. All of this action is set within the fertile and valuable land from which Native tribes were forced. The novel, one of the best crime novels of recent years, won the 2018 Pinckley Prize for Debut Crime Fiction, and is a near-perfect example of how a riveting crime novel with richly-drawn characters operating in an atmosphere given depth and specificity can also explore issues of social justice and historical injustice, shining new light on them. Crime, death and resistance that takes many forms are part of the legacy of dispossession and historical violence, but the novel is neither didactic nor sentimental.
Second, mystery and crime writing is well-situated to explore complex questions raised about science and ethics—and where ethical questions at the boundaries of scientific inquiry tip into crime and, indeed, where the boundary between legitimate inquiry and crime may lie.
Along these lines, we also may expect more novels in the vein of “eco-noir,” a category exemplified by Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017), set in a future when much of the city—particularly lower Manhattan (sorry Pace!)–is under fifty feet of water. The novel not only explores how the city’s inhabitants cope with dramatic sea rise (quite well and with creativity and inventiveness) but also criminal behavior and police investigative practices that have changed surprisingly little over more than a century, though they take place in a changed environment. New York 2140 is a fascinating crime novel but also a thoughtful indictment of capitalism’s excesses and a paean to human adaptability.
Its ability to absorb features and formulas of other genres, such as science fiction or the novel of the American West, as well as the many forms of expression within crime writing itself—true crime, detective fiction, cozy crime, hardboiled crime, metaphysical detection, courtroom drama—make for an endless spur to creativity.
What upcoming mystery novels are you looking forward to reading?
Megan Abbott’s next novel, The Turnout, coming later this year! Her writing about crime is attuned to how violence both physical and emotional can enter the lives of young women or develop from the pressures within their lives. Each of her novels, beginning with Dare Me in 2012, creates a world and then sensitively explores how young women navigate within it and the roles played by female friendship and power relations. Her next novel is set in the world of ballet. Now, this isn’t a subject that interests either of us, but Rebecca learned her lesson after putting aside Dare Me for a couple of years because the lives of cheerleaders didn’t interest her. Lesson learned. That book (on which the 2019-2020 USA Network series was based) is not really about cheerleading; it’s about female strength, intelligence and drive but also about obsession, power dynamics and the complicated vulnerability of young women.
We also hope that Marcie Rendon is at work on a third Cash Blackbear novel.