Private Investigations: Hard-Boiled and Soft-Hearted Heroes

Winter 2002

The detective story celebrated its 150th birthday in 1991. The prototype of the classic detective story perfected by American and British authors centers on the rational, logical solution of a crime. In the 1920’s and the 1930’s, reacting against the rules and formulas of previous detective fiction and reflecting the turmoil and transition due to war, Prohibition and the Great Depression, American authors invented a new kind of detective hero who is uniquely American—the hard boiled detective. Writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler pioneered this new kind of detective story about a professional man of action.

American Detective Fiction focuses on a “common person” hero oppressed by the system, but who still manages to outmaneuver it. Although the detectives are hard-boiled about their tasks and cynical about their society, they possess a soft-hearted core of romantic idealism, a sense of honor, and a resulting vulnerability. Each novel we will read deals with the moral dilemma of a changing world. The main interest is less on “Who done it” than on the development of character and the analysis of social issues, the description of a real world, and the interactions between individuals and their social and physical environments. Some of the new hard-boiled heroes represent women and racial minorities that the original detective heroes often scorned. The heroes will vary from Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe of The Big Sleep to Tony Hillerman’s Navaho Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee.

Do you want to explore this hard-boiled detective’s sense of honor that enables him to circumvent the law, engage in cover-ups, and protect the guilty if he sees they are infirm? If you want the stimulation of being exposed to the minds of five provocative and entertaining writers, whose opinions sometimes conflict, please join us for this “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma” reading and discussion series.

Oklahoma City University invites participants to make these issues come “alive” in the readings of this five-part series. At each session, a Humanities scholar will make a 30-40 minute presentation on the readings. Small group discussion will follow with experienced discussion leaders. At the end, everyone comes together for a brief wrap-up. Anyone interested in participating is encouraged to preregister and borrow the reading selections by calling Harbour Winn at 521-5472, emailing him at or dropping by OCU’s Walker Center 171. A brochure describing the series theme is also available.

The series will be held in Walker Center, Room 151, on the Oklahoma City University campus from 7:00 to 9:00 PM on Tuesdays, beginning January 8 and continuing on alternate Tuesdays through March 5. “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma,” a cooperative project of the Oklahoma Library Association and the Oklahoma Humanities Council, provides books, materials, and services for this series. Funding for this series is provided by a grant from the Oklahoma Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


1/8/2002 Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

Chandler’s first novel introduces Philip Marlowe, a thirty-eight-year-old private detective moving through the seamy side of Los Angeles in the 1930’s. The case involves a paralyzed millionaire, two psychotic daughters, blackmail, and murder. Bogart and Becall immortalized the main characters on the silver screen.

1/22/2002 Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position

Kate Fansler would seem to be a far cry from the hard-boiled Marlowe, but this academic scholar resembles him in many ways working with her “clients.” Cynical about the abuses of language and the assumptions of the wealthy, Fansler is also tolerant and flexible as she tries to solve the mystery of the first female professor in Harvard’s stuffy English Department and also the first female corpse found in the men’s room! Can male chauvinism lead to death?

2/5/2002 Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway

Best selling author Hillerman dramatizes the conflict of Navaho policeman Jim Chee who tries to live between the white and Navaho worlds while solving a crime. His odyssey leads him from an Indian hogan and its trapped ghost, to the underbelly of LA, and finally to a healing ceremony whose cure may be death.

2/19/2002 Sara Paretsky’s Killing Orders

Mystery fans always include Sara Paretsky and her terrific fictional female sleuth V. I. Warshawski on their must-read lists. V. I’s moral fiber leads her to take on the Mafia, the Catholic Church, and one of Chicago’s most prestigious families.

3/5/2002 Kinky Friedman’s A Case of Lone Star

The scene of the crime is the famous Lone Star Café where sequined singers start dying with their hand-tooled boots on and the lyrics to a Hank Williams song in their hands. Now it’s up to country boy Kinky to grab his guitar and go stage center to catch a killer.