The criminal protagonist: Moral collapse, ethical ambiguity, and the pursuit of happiness in twentieth-century American crime fiction
This dissertation examines the criminal as protagonist in twentieth-century American crime fiction and seeks to place crime fiction within the larger context of American and Western European fiction. Crime fiction functions simultaneously on multiple levels: as a form of mass-market entertainment, as representative of an evolution of the protagonist in modern fiction, and as a continuing tradition in American literature. As opposed to mystery or detective fiction, crime fiction usually features a criminal as its protagonist. These characters reside on the margins of legitimate society and rarely serve a redemptive function. In much literature, the criminal serves as a figure whose capture and punishment reorders society; however, in crime fiction there is rarely any attempt to restore the social or moral order of the fictive world. This tendency suggests that writers of crime fiction are not merely producing entertainments. Instead, this body of literature offers a critique of modern American society that is couched as an amusement. American crime writers like W. R. Burnett, James M. Cain, Edward Anderson, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, and Mario Puzo feature the criminal as a protagonist. Nelson Algren and Hubert Selby, Jr. write sympathetically about the criminal elements in American society, as well. In addition, authors included in the Western literary canon—Daniel Defoe, Fydor Dostoevsky, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example—also employ the criminal as protagonist. This wide stratum of authors suggests that the criminal in fiction serves an important function in how writers and readers interpret their respective societies. In American crime fiction, the protagonist's complete estrangement from legitimate society and his cynicism regarding conventional values renders him an outsider. In the work of these authors, the protagonist remains unredeemed in an amoral, ambiguous world, a world unable to offer redemption to the individual. This lack of redemption suggests that individuals have little effective agency; and that in terms of its morality, American society is corrupt or plastic at best. Thus, American crime fiction, although it is often dismissed as a product of the entertainment industry, functions as social commentary and represents a continuing tradition in American fiction.