Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Susan V Donaldson
Through close readings of fiction, film, and television, “The Sacred Ginmill Closes” provides a cultural history of the heavy-drinking hard-boiled detective in his twentieth-century cultural prime. Emergent in the Prohibition era, hard-boiled fiction comprised a cultural response to both the real and imagined effects of national prohibition. In portraying the Prohibition era’s corrupt and violent public sphere, early hard-boiled fiction by authors like Dashiell Hammett contrasted heavy drinking masculine authority figures, often private detectives, with transgressively greedy and excessively thirsty women whose participation in the public sphere and in masculine behaviors like heavy drinking represented both the cause and ongoing effects of the temperance movement’s culminating legislative success. Having helped to pass a Constitutional amendment, temperance women were perceived not only to have eliminated the saloon, the semi-public space for masculine homosocial conviviality. According to the alcoholic semiotics of hard-boiled detective fiction, women also corrupted the public sphere by infusing that previously masculine sphere with transgressive feminine greed, represented by the excessive alcoholic thirst of the genre’s femmes fatales. The gendered semiotics of heavy drinking in hard-boiled detective fiction outlived the genre’s origins in the Prohibition era. Raymond Chandler’s post-Repeal novels cemented the symbolic role of the alcoholic femme fatale, and she and the heavy-drinking detective survived through the post-World War II era despite (and in fact because of) changing ideas about heavy drinking that gained prominence along with the mutual help organization Alcoholics Anonymous. The racial erasures in the genre’s nostalgia for an imagined masculine saloon past were of little consequence for heavy-drinking hard-boiled masculinity’s continued cultural relevance through the mid-twentieth century. By the mid-1970s, however, second-wave feminism and new public health concerns about the harm heavy drinkers caused others fundamentally challenged the moral authority of the heavy-drinking hard-boiled masculine hero. While heavy-drinking detectives like Lawrence Block’s private eye Matthew Scudder grappled with the social harm of which they were capable when drinking, hard-boiled detectives also fought increasingly against masculine serial-killer antagonists rather than the femmes fatales that once had been the genre’s very embodiment of corruption and violence. The proliferation of hard-boiled women detectives since the late twentieth century, and especially heavy-drinking women detectives in recent texts like the HBO series True Detective, suggest that the gendered alcoholic semiotics of mid-twentieth century hard-boiled detective fiction no longer reflect widely shared ideas about white American masculinity and femininity.
© The Author
Pratt, David Camak, "The Sacred Ginmill Closes: Heavy Drinking, White Masculinity and the Hard-Boiled Detective in American Culture" (2017). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. William & Mary. Paper 1516639674.