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Dossier LELE- The writer in his century – Pulp magazines and Hard boiled fiction

KEY QUESTION: From Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe or how did the detective become an anti hero?

Analyze popular fiction of the 1920s-1930’s with these stories from the pulp magazine Black Mask and hard-boiled novels . What do they say about society and era of the time?

AT A GLANCE: What the world was like in the 1930’s- 1950’s America

Ideologies of the society in which hard-boiled fiction was created

  • Prohibition was “the prevention by law of the manufacture and sale of alcohol, in the US between 1920 and 1933.
  • Large crime syndicates use and abuse ordinary men to increase their wealth. Nothing/no one will stand in their way (even the police)
  • Ready access to firearms reinforces American freedom to carry and use firearms
  • The protagonist has few ties to others, so that no one can get hurt, symbolises the shifting loyalty of a society and radical individualism.
  • Reinforce middle/working class values and make supremacy in a male-dominated world.

Pulp fiction


Femmes fatales were standard fare in hardboiled fiction.

From its earliest days, hardboiled fiction was published in and closely associated with so-called pulp magazines, most famously Black Mask. In its earliest uses in the late 1920s, « hardboiled » didn’t refer to a type of crime fiction; it meant the tough (cynical) attitude towards emotions triggered by violence.

Hardboiled writing is also associated with « noir fiction« .

Pulp historian Robert Sampson argues that Gordon Young‘s « Don Everhard » stories (which appeared in Adventure magazine from 1917 onwards), about an « extremely tough, unsentimental, and lethal » gun-toting urban gambler, anticipated the hardboiled detective stories.[7]

Black Mask moved exclusively to publishing detective stories in 1933, and pulp’s exclusive reference to crime fiction probably became fixed around that time, although it’s impossible to pin down with precision. The hardboiled crime story became a staple of several pulp magazines in the 1930s; in addition to Black Mask, hardboiled crime fiction appeared in Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly.Later, many hardboiled novels were published by houses specializing in paperback originals, also colloquially known as « pulps ».

The cover of seminal hardboiled magazine Black Mask, September 1929, featuring part 1 of its serialization of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Illustration of private eye Sam Spade by Henry C. Murphy, Jr

Pulp magazines – Interesting facts

What it’s about: In the first half of the 20th century, fiction magazines were popular, and were typically printed on cheap paper made from wood pulp (as opposed to the glossy, high-quality paper used in traditional magazines). “Pulp” became shorthand for an often lurid and lowbrow style of writing that could include all manner of genre fiction—romance, mystery, horror, sci-fi, Westerns, and even softcore porn were all pulp mainstays.

So, what is this pulp style of writing? What makes literature snobs turn up their noses at the mention of pulp?

First and foremost, pulp storytelling is for the masses. It is accessible, not particularly deep or thought provoking, and gets to the heart of a tale with simple, descriptive, action filled words. It is storytelling at its purest, capturing the imagination, taking the reader outside of themselves and dropping them into a world of fantastic slightly larger than life characters.

A lot of what passes for thriller writing today, even those on the bestseller list, are pulp inspired, yet for me they miss the point as most consist of bloated filler designed to turn books into 400 — 700 page doorstops under the false assumption more is better. If you’re like me, you don’t have the time or patience to plow through 700 pages to read a story better served in 300 pages — or far less.

The writers who wrote for the pulp magazines back in the day understood this. Their audience wanted stripped down yarns filled with action, twists and turns, all with the point of providing reader satisfaction.

Strangest fact: The pulps were put out of business by Hitler! A paper shortage during the WWII made production costs untenable for most publishers of pulps, and most of the magazines either folded or switched formats. Some sci-fi and mystery titles switched to a smaller digest format, but most other titles—including well-known series like The ShadowDoc Savage, and Weird Tales—simply disappeared. After the war, the economy rebounded, but pulps didn’t. Genre fiction and its readers had moved on to comic books, book-length short story collections, and the nascent medium of television.

Thing we were happiest to learn: The pulps attracted some top-notch authors. While pulps paid less than books or glossy magazines, they could be a stepping stone to better work. They also paid in advance, so many authors used them as a means to supplement their income, or buoy a flagging career. At one point, Upton Sinclair wrote 8,000 words a day for pulps, often writing under multiple aliases so the magazines could run several stories by the same author without seeming monotonous. Unsurprisingly, an A-to-Z of sci-fi writers appeared in the pulps—AsimovBesterClarke—but you could also read work by Agatha ChristieWilliam S. BurroughsC.S. ForesterF. Scott FitzgeraldRudyard Kipling, and even Mark Twain. The first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sinclair Lewis, got his start editing and writing filler material for a pulp called Adventure.

Things we were unhappiest to learn: PULPS and gender, race and war

Like pretty much everything in the first half of the 20th century, the pulps could be pretty racist. The Yellow Peril was a persistent theme in adventure stories, typified by villains like Fu Manchu, a series that was actually halted by the U.S. State Department during WWII for fear of alienating China, an important ally in the fight against Japan. (The Chinese embassy had also complained about the 1932 film The Mask Of Fu Manchu, which includes a scene of pan-Asian stereotypes plotting to “kill the white men and take their women.”

One area where the pulps were ahead of their time, socially, was in publishing gay-themed fiction. Because pulps weren’t considered “serious” literature, they escaped censorship to some degree, as their content was expected to be lurid. As a result, pulps were one of the only places you could read about gay and lesbian characters in pre-war America. To satisfy the censors, and the era’s cultural mores, the stories were almost universally cautionary—the heroes either ended up committed or dead (or magically turned straight) by story’s end. Still, pulp publishers churned out gay-themed stories, less out of altruism than because there was money to be made from a market that most of the country refused to acknowledge.

Also noteworthy: While the pulps themselves didn’t survive past the 1940s, many of their characters have. As 21st-century culture seems to be devoted almost solely to remaking things from the 20th, pulp staples like Conan The Barbarian, John Carter Of Mars, Tarzan, and Zorro have all seen recent updates.

Hardboiled (or hard-boiled) fiction is a literary genre that shares some of its characters and settings with crime fiction (especially detective stories). The genre’s typical protagonist is a detective who witnesses the violence of organized crime that flourished during Prohibition (1920–1933) and its aftermath, while dealing with a legal system that has become as corrupt as the organized crime itself. Rendered cynical by this cycle of violence, the detectives of hardboiled fiction are often antiheroes. Notable hardboiled detectives include Philip MarloweMike HammerSam SpadeLew Archer, and The Continental Op.

The Hard-boiled detective  (from website : Crime culture)

-tough, unsentimental style (more realistic than classical detective fiction)

-often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue

1920s and 1930s was the tough guy crime fiction of the hard-boiled tradition that started with the stories of ‘the Black Mask boys’. These ‘noir thrillers’ are stories that can be seen as very directly related to the socio-economic circumstances of the time.


The sense of disillusionment in the years between the wars was heightened by political and economic disasters for which people were wholly unprepared: there was the folly of Prohibition and its attendant gangsterism, as well as growing evidence of illicit connections between crime, business and politics in American cities. Crises afflicted both American and European economies, bringing the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, which Keynes saw as the worst catastrophe of modern times. In the ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘noir’ fiction of this period, the anxious sense of fatality is usually attached to a pessimistic conviction that economic and socio-political circumstances will deprive people of control over their lives by destroying their hopes and by creating in them the weaknesses of character that turn them into transgressors or mark them out On the question of historical origin, I understand « hard-boiled » to originate in the twenties, while « noir » follows in the thirties, developing out of Cornell Woolrich and elements of Dashiell Hammettt and James Cain. Noir encompasses a wider, more flexible range ofplots, types, and themes than the hardboiled detective story, and is the inspiration for the film noir in the post WW2, Cold War period.

The private eye is 1) dedicated to the client, 2) economical, if not thrifty, in his expenses and personal habits, 3) loyal to his profession, 4) cooperative, to some degree, with the police, 4) concerned with self-survival, and 5) unwilling to be duped by anyone 6) vulnerable

Femme Fatale

irresistibly attractive woman, especially one who leads men into danger. In hard-boiled fiction, she is usually the protagonist’s romantic interest. The protagonist’s involvement with her may range from mild flirtation to passionate sex, but in the denouement he must reject or leave her, for the revealed plot shows her to be one of the causes A good example of how the femme fatale is used creatively is Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. There Sam Spade is attracted to three women, He is involved in an adulterous affair with his partner’s wife, Iva Archer. His secretary, Effie Perrine, is a tom-boyish, competent girl-next-door who would make the perfect spouse. Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale, seems to promise sensuality and wealth, but Spade sees through her – and uses her when she thinks she is using him

These detectives were obviously different from Sherlock Holmes or other English detectives of the same period; they were also different from Poe’s Dupin. They saw the world from the perspective of the average citizen, the « man on the street, » rather than from an educated, aristocratic one.

The Roots of American & British Crime Fiction

British and American detective fiction share a common origin in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, but by the time they were enjoying their respective Golden Ages in the early twentieth century they had already become quite distinct from the other, with each possessing its own unique tropes and clichés. This article will look at the development of the hard-boiled and ‘soft-boiled’ genres, and provide an explanation for the British preference for the countryside and the American predilection for stories set in the ‘mean streets’ of L.A., San Francisco, etc. It will demonstrate that the differences between British and American crime fiction can be attributed not only to obvious matters of geography but also their social milieus, and that both the British and American detective were designed to fulfil very different purposes: stability and the preservation of the status quo in the case of the former, and a study into moral complexity and blue-collar sympathy regarding the latter.

The first literary detective was Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Poe is the font from which all future crime writers drew their inspiration, but Dupin has more in common with British creations like Hercule Poirot than he does Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Dupin is European, eccentric, aristocratic, arcane in his pursuits and, like Sherlock Holmes, is best characterised as a ‘consulting detective’. Unlike later American detective stories, whenever Poe utilised miasmic streets and labyrinthine alleys he turned to London (The Man of the Crowd) or Paris (Murders in the Rue Morgue) as backdrop. Mid-to-late nineteenth century American fiction, when dealing with their own cities, tended to portray them as “urban-pastoral world[s] of primeval novelty” rather than “a city anyone ever inhabited.” The “mean streets” of Chandler and Hammett had yet to emerge from the turmoil of the new century.

The classic British detective story, according to P.D. James, was concerned with “bringing order out of disorder” and was typically “a genre of reconciliation and social healing”. Though detectives like Poirot sometimes found themselves jaunting between Britain, Egypt, Iraq and the Continent, the typical location for these stories was the countryside, often represented as “an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal, crime an aberration”. Readers could be assured that whenever a story’s mystery was resolved the countryside would be restored to its tranquillit by an omnisciently-observant gentleman detective.

These detectives were typically aristocratic and included doctors, solicitors, spinsters, and pastime sleuths. They were “never frightened or appalled, never himself (and occasionally herself) a victim of events, never outwitted or daunted” and their ultimate purpose was “to build and uphold a firm structure of social and moral values.” ……. The idealised British detective therefore was a paragon, especially equipped to remove crime from the countryside.

British crime fiction’s predilection for posing murder and mystery in the countryside rather than the city are manifold. Firstly, the early detective novels sprang from the country-house genre. ……..” ‘Country house’ novels typically explored small, interlocked communities where social and personal familiarity were key themes. …..Secondly, English rural writers and poets had long denigrated London and its “insolent rabble” and the “idle, profligate and debauched” therein. They came from a tradition that insisted upon the “very powerful myth of modern England in which the transition from a rural to an industrial society is seen as a kind of fall, the true cause and origin of our social suffering and disorder.” That cities were chaotic and polluted was a given, that they were troubled by incessant crime a certainty. For many intellectual and refined detectives the criminals in England’s cities were too common and their crimes too conventional. Crime fiction put knives and poisons in the hands of zealous parlour maids, butlers, housekeepers, fortune hunters etc… It took the strange and terrible and transposed it into the mundane and ordinary.

In Agatha Christie’s short story collection The Thirteen Problems a writer, a clergyman, a solicitor and a former police commissioner all debate on whose profession and “what class of brain” is best suited for solving mysteries. ……..

In true parlour fashion, the mysteries in The Thirteen Problems are merely mental exercises, solved from the comfort of an armchair, the stakes no higher than the loss of face during a guessing game. The book’s main device is what Poe called “ratiocination” (and what Christie’s own Poirot would refer to as his ‘little grey cells’); it is the unique ability to soak up details and turn out precise observations that reveal deeper or hidden truths.

….. This assumption highlights why the countryside was the perfect environment for a mystery story: the notion that a butler, vicar or maid could be a murderer is more likely to surprise a reader than if the suspects were a pickpocket, a burglar or any other felon. The detective novel’s purpose was to provide the stimulant of a puzzle and the thrill of revelation. It was not designed to remind readers of the squalor of the inner cities, but tease them with the exciting prospect that there was something hidden amongst the picket fences and cropped grass and familiar and genteel smiles of their neighbours. “Very painful and distressing things happen in villages sometimes,” Miss Marple teases in The Thirteen Problems.

Even the most famous city detective found the demure countryside landscape chilling. Sherlock Holmes, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, utters that “The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” And we must remember that London, as Watson tells us in A Study in Scarlet, is “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.”

WHY DO WE LIKE ANTI-HEROES?  (see previous post)

Hard boiled detective in the mean streets of LA  (you tube video)

Hard Boiled Detective in the Pulps (

Started in the 1920s and perfected in the 1930s, the hard boiled detective was one of the most popular forms to arise from the pulp fiction magazines.

The hard boiled detective was a character who had to live on the mean streets of the city where fighting, drinking, swearing, poverty and death were all part of life. This new type of detective had to balance the day to day needs of survival against the desire to uphold the law and assist justice. Living in the toughest of environments, and required to be tougher than the evil surrounding him, our new heroes had to become « hard boiled ».

In this new world, the hard boiled detective began to administer a new form of justice where if need be, he himself would cross the line and break the law, to insure that justice was done. Our hero was thrust into a world where he had to choose between different levels of evil and no one was truly on the side of good. His survival often depended upon a shoot first, ask questions later approach where the ability to reason out a murder is less important than the ability to fight one’s way out of a jam.

This ushered in a new era of action packed detective stories where the murder no longer took place off stage and instead took place all around our hero on an ongoing basis. In some respects, the hard boiled detective was in response to the rising crime and gangster activity caused by Prohibition and then the Great Depression.

Hard-Boiled Fiction -American Hard-Boiled Crime Writing, 1920s-1940s  -From Crime Culture website

Early twentieth-century American crime fiction wasn’t entirely ‘hard-boiled’. America also produced its share of classic Golden Age whodunits, written in the 20s, for example, by S. S. Van Dine, and in the 30s by Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. But the distinctively American contribution of the 1920s and 1930s was the tough guy crime fiction of the hard-boiled tradition that started with the stories of ‘the Black Mask boys’. These ‘noir thrillers’ are stories that can be seen as very directly related to the socio-economic circumstances of the time. Raymond Chandler wrote that the ‘smell of fear’ generated by such stories was evidence of their serious response to the modern condition: ‘Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine-gun. The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The streets were dark with something more than night.’

This type of crime fiction, then, began to develop as a popular form in the aftermath of one devastating war and came to maturity in the two decades that terminate in a second world war. In its most characteristic narratives, some traumatic event irretrievably alters the conditions of life and creates for its characters an absolute experiential divide between their dependence on stable, predictable patterns and the recognition that life is, in truth, morally chaotic, subject to randomness and total dislocation. In the best-known parable of ordinary life disrupted, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade (Maltese Flacon) tells the story of Flitcraft, who comes to realise life’s arbitrariness and absurdity when he is nearly killed by a falling beam. The American thrillers of the period repeatedly represent the sort of transformation that leaves the protagonist feeling, as Flitcraft does, that ‘someone had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.’ The sense of disillusionment in the years between the wars was heightened by political and economic disasters for which people were wholly unprepared: there was the folly of Prohibition and its attendant gangsterism, as well as growing evidence of illicit connections between crime, business and politics in American cities. Crises afflicted both American and European economies, bringing the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, which Keynes saw as the worst catastrophe of modern times. In the ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘noir’ fiction of this period, the anxious sense of fatality is usually attached to a pessimistic conviction that economic and socio-political circumstances will deprive people of control over their lives by destroying their hopes and by creating in them the weaknesses of character that turn them into transgressors or mark them out as victims.

The Black Mask Boys

The most important publication of the 20s in encouraging and marketing the new kind of hard-boiled crime story was Black Mask. The magazine was founded in 1920 by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan; in the early 1920s, Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly began writing for Black Mask, and the identity of the magazine became more sharply defined when the editorship was taken over in 1926 by Captain Joseph T. Shaw. Shaw encouraged a high standard of colloquial, racy writing, favouring ‘economy of expression’ and ‘authenticity in character and action’, all of which are important features of the hard-boiled style. Shaw greatly increased the circulation of Black Mask, and other pulp magazines (for example, Dime DetectiveDetective Fiction WeeklyBlack Aces) were soon competing in some numbers. Amongst the regular contributors to Black Mask, in addition to Daly and Hammett, were Paul Cain (George Sims), Raymond Chandler and Horace McCoy.

Hard-boiled protagonists

The most immediately recognisable iconic figure to emerge in the crime stories of this period is the hard-boiled investigatora tough, independent, often solitary figure, a descendant of the frontier hero and cowboy but, as re-imagined in the 1920s, a cynical city-dweller: ‘He finds no way out. And so he is slugged, shot at, choked, doped, yet he survives because it is in his nature to survive’ (Herbert Ruhm, The Hard-Boiled Detective). He can achieve a degree of control, but, unlike the classic Holmesian detective, he cannot restore order and set all to rights. The basic narrative pattern pits this lone investigator against brutal criminals, often in league with a corrupt power structure.

One finds, in the hard-boiled stories and novels of this period, two main types of investigators: on the one hand, those who possess some form of moral superiority (like Chandler’s Marlowe); on the other, those who are more implicated in the world of corruption, depicted as entering into a scene of disorder and acknowledging their own anarchic tendencies and capacity for violence (as in the novels of Hammett). These ‘compromised’ investigators are key figures in the evolution of literary noir, which, as it develops in the late 1920s and the 1930s, turns to the portrayal of deeply flawed, transgressive, often criminal protagonists.

The unsettling manipulation of point of view and the unstable position of the protagonist are key characteristics of the darker (more ‘noir’) types of hard-boiled crime story. We are often brought close to the mind of a protagonist whose position vis a vis other characters is not fixed; we see treacherous confusions of his role and the movement of the protagonist from one role to another. The victim might, for example, become the aggressor; the hunter might turn into the hunted or vice versa; the investigator might double as either the victim or the perpetrator. Whereas the traditional mystery story, with its stable triangle of detective, victim and murderer, is reasonably certain to have the detective as the protagonist, much of the crime fiction of this period deliberately violates this convention. Victim, criminal and investigator can all act as protagonists. An exploration of guilt is fundamental, and there can be no clear distinction between guilt and innocence.

Hammett and Chandler
Hammett’s output was surprisingly small: he wrote all of his novels between 1929 and 1934. His influence, however, has been enormous. He introduced characters who often quite closely conform to the description of the private eye as ‘half gangster’ – a man whose innocence has become so tarnished as to be no longer visible. Hammett’s impact was due in part to his ability in creating a distinctive voice, a true ‘hard-boiled’ style that is in itself an implicit rejection of bourgeois hypocrisy and conventional values. His spare, unembellished prose is appropriate to his no-nonsense protagonists. Hammett’s flawed, vulnerable narrators and his hard, direct representation of contemporary material give him an ability to lay bare the ‘heart, soul, skin and guts’ of a corrupt town (Red Harvest).

Hammett’s most famous successor, Raymond Chandler, started writing for Black Maskin December 1933. Chandler’s work is characterised by a much more consistent lightness of tone, combining witty detachment with an underlying sentimentality and romanticism. When Marlowe develops beyond the sketchily realised narrator of early stories like ‘Finger Man’, the fictional world created is always reliably mediated by the voice of a protagonist who unfailingly combines honourable conduct with penetrating judgement and self-mocking humour. Though Marlowe is caught up in plots of notorious complexity (and is significantly less in control than, say, the figure of the classic detective) he continues to provide the reassurance of a stable and trustworthy perspective. His detachment places him much closer to the masculine competence and ‘rightness’ of traditional detective fiction, and so moves him away from a noir sense of uncertainty.

The protective presence that Marlowe establishes is above all stylistic. The witty, ironic aloofness of his narrative acts to evaluate and to contain the moral disorder of the society he investigates. Marlowe’s self-ironising manner simultaneously acknowledges his limitations and draws attention to his separateness: ‘”Don’t make me get tough,” I whined. “Don’t make me lose my beautiful manners and my flawless English”‘ (Farewell, My Lovely). Marlowe’s superiority to his environment is not, though he is resilient, a matter of physical prowess but of a subtle intellect that can manage a self-deprecating joke even when he’s been sapped and imprisoned and ‘shot full of dope and locked in a barred room’. Unlike Hammett’s Op, Marlowe would never ‘go blood-simple’. As critics have often observed, when Marlowe does enter into conflict with the depraved society around him, his preferred role is that of the questing knight.






Black Protest Song : Strange Fruit







‘Strange Fruit’ Unusual Imagery, so grabs your attention. Also dehumanising.






‘gallant’ Gallant means brave and honourable, so using it in this context is sarcastic – the poet means the opposite of this.




‘Black bodies’


“sudden smell”

Makes you pay attention to those words




Throughout poems Helps when reading it out loud, gives it structure, makes it flow. Memorable.






























Means different – see connotations(fruit)


Two meanings: 1. People looking at hem might look like they had a bitter taste in their mouths, 2. The bitterness that it caused in the family and friends of those who were lynched.


Only reference to race in the poem. Followed by ‘bodies’, showing that the people had no individuality or identity as such apart from their race.








‘Strange Fruit’ Gets it into your head – at beginning and end of poem to give it structure












Bulging, Twisted

We associate with death and pain


We think of fruit being positive, but in this poem we are made aware that this fruit is ‘strange’ – so negative.






…the whole poem… This whole poem uses Imagery to get its message across. In particular, a lot of disturbing and violent imagery is used. Also, at times, unusual imagery is used for dramatic effect.



For… Time passing, reiterates the point



‘scent of magnolias’ vs ‘burning flesh’ Imagery for the nose J Shocks you because it is so disturbing, especially when juxtaposed with the sweetness of a magnolia.
Allusions To seasons:

Rain: Winter


Sun: Summer

To drop: Autumn


Shows it is all year round – ever present. And cyclical.



 First recorded by the famous jazz singer Billie Holiday, ‘Strange Fruit’ is a song about the lynching of black people in Southern America in the first half of the 20th Century. It was first written as a poem by teacher Abel Meerpol and was then was published in 1937. Abel Meerpol was a white Jewish man who belonged to the American Communist Party, and he wrote the song after seeing a gruesome picture of a lynching of black men. In the 1930s, lynching had reached a high peak in the South of US. By conservative estimates there were around 4,000 lynchings in the half century before 1940, the vast majority in the South, with most of the victims black.

The song has simple lyrics, that carry a huge strength, and haunt you even when the song is over.  The song exposes the brutality of racism in America, and doesn’t leave any room for more words. When the meaning of the song is fully grasped, one remains shocked, angry and disgusted by the imagery portrayed.

When Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939 she said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation but, because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances. The song was so powerful that a rule was set that she could only close a show with it; the barmen would have to close off service and darken the room. The show would end with Billie Holiday, with her powerful voice, singing in the dark with a light shining on her. Even the way it was performed reflected the compelling origin of the song and its lyrics.

It was not easy to record the song, as most recording companies were afraid of gaining a bad reputation with the anti-communists and southern racists in America, which at the time dominated the political scene. However, when it was finally recorded by Commodore in 1939, it quickly became famous. It attracted the attention of the more politically aware park of society; intellectuals, artists, teachers and journalists. In October of that year, a journalist of the New York Post described the song as the anthem and the anger of the exploited people of the south, if they ever got to voice it.

At a time when political protest was not often expressed in musical form, the song was revolutionary. It was seldom played on the radio. This was a period in which the segregationist Southern Dixiecrats played a leading role in the Democratic Party as well as the Roosevelt administration. It would take a mass movement to finally dismantle the apartheid system that played a key role in setting the stage for lynching.

The song, is said to be the original protest song.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,

And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

sources :


It was the first time a black artist had sung such controversial lyrics. Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun called the song « a declaration of war… the beginning of the civil rights movement ».

It has endured and become a symbol of the racism, cruelty, pain and suffering endured by so many in the United States. Other major artists, including Nina Simone, John Martyn, Sting and Robert Wyatt, went on to record it.

Billie Holiday’s version eventually sold more than a million copies. In 1999, Time magazine voted Strange Fruit the Song of the Century.

Bob Dylan cites the song as a personal inspiration. It has inspired books, an opera and continues to be recorded today.


Why were most lynching victims hung from trees?

How do we know from the lyrics that the « strange » fruit here means the bodies of lynching victims?

What contrast is made between the « gallant South » and the South which bears strange fruit? What is ironic about this contrast?

Why do you think the word « lynching » never appears in the song?

Do you think the song is more powerful, or less powerful, because its topic [lynching] is implied instead of stated?

To what extent can a song be an effective form of protest ?

Why is this song so relevant today ?

Donald Trump inauguration: Rebecca Ferguson says she will perform ceremony if she can sing ‘Strange Fruit’ !!!!







Malcolm X, the activist and outspoken public voice of the Black Muslim faith, challenged the mainstream civil rights movement and the nonviolent pursuit of integration championed by Martin Luther King Jr.He urged followers to defend themselves against white aggression “by any means necessary.” Born Malcolm Little, he changed his last name to X to signify his rejection of his “slave” name. Charismatic and eloquent, Malcolm became an influential leader of the Nation of Islam, which combined Islam with black nationalism and sought to encourageand enfranchise disadvantaged young blacks searching for confidence in segregated America. After Malcolm X’s death in 1965, his bestselling book The Autobiography of Malcolm X popularized his ideas, particularly among black youth, and laid the foundation for the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.


Une émission de France Culture sur Malcolm X

7 Things You May Not Know About Malcolm X

Get the facts on the outspoken black nationalist.
His father may have been killed by white supremacists.
As vocal supporters of pan-African leader Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X’s parents faced constant threats from white supremacists. Just before Malcolm’s birth, for example, armed Ku Klux Klansmen rode out to their house in Omaha, Nebraska, and shattered all their windows. Another of their homes burned down a few years later, apparently at the hands of the Black Legion, a Klan splinter group. Even worse, when Malcolm was 6 years old, his father went out one evening to collect a debt, only to be hit by a streetcar and mortally wounded. Though the authorities ruled his death an accident, African-Americans in town believed the Black Legion had beat him and placed him on the tracks to be run over. To this day, no one knows for sure. Malcolm also lost other relatives to violence, including an uncle he said was lynched by whites.

He moved around constantly as a youth.

Despite being born in Omaha, Malcolm Little (as he was known then) spent very little time there before his family uprooted, first to Milwaukee, then to East Chicago, Indiana, and finally to Lansing, Michigan, where his father would be killed. Not long afterwards, Malcolm’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was shipped off to a mental institution, prompting welfare officials to split Malcolm and his now-parentless siblings apart. At first, Malcolm stayed with neighbors. He was then sent to a juvenile detention home in Mason, Michigan, about 10 miles south of Lansing, where he attended a nearly all-white junior high. Though academically near the top of his class, an English teacher purportedly told him that being a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger.” Fed up, he went at age 15 to live with his half-sister in Boston, never to attend school again. A railroad job instilled in him a fondness for travel, and by age 17 he was residing in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem.

He spent six-and-a-half years in jail.

As early as age 9, with his family in dire economic straits, Malcolm began robbing food from stores in Lansing. Later on, in Boston and New York, he got involved in drug dealing, gambling and prostitution rackets, spending much of his time in seedy nightclubs. At age 19, he was arrested for the first time for allegedly stealing and pawning his half-sister’s fur coat. A second arrest followed for allegedly mugging an acquaintance at gunpoint, and a third arrest came after he burglarized a series of Boston-area homes. Sentenced to state prison in 1946, his cellblock mates called him “Satan” for his habit of pacing around and muttering curses at God and the Bible. Soon after, however, he settled down and began voraciously devouring works of history—the horrors of slavery made a particular impression on him—as well as virtually all other nonfiction he could get his hands on. He even tried memorizing the dictionary. “In every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk,” Malcolm wrote in his autobiography. “You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge.” Meanwhile, following the example of his siblings, he joined the Nation of Islam and struck up a correspondence with its leader, Elijah Muhammad. Like Garvey, the Nation of Islam preached black self-reliance and empowerment. In a far cry from traditional Islam, it also taught that whites were a race of “blue-eyed devils” created millenniums ago by an evil scientist.

With his help, the Nation of Islam took off in popularity.

Upon leaving prison in 1952, Malcolm moved to his brother’s house near Detroit, where he attended the local Nation of Islam mosque and actively sought out new converts. Dropping his surname Little, which he considered a “slave” name, in favor of the letter X, he quickly became a favorite of Elijah Muhammad, who promoted him to minister prior to dispatching him to Boston and Philadelphia to establish new mosques there. Malcolm then spent a decade as head of the Harlem mosque, in addition to launching a Nation of Islam newspaper, giving speeches at dozens of universities around the country, participating in debates with mainstream civil-rights leaders and occasionally meeting with foreign heads of state. Everywhere, he railed against white racism, saying such things as, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters—Plymouth Rock landed on us!” Largely as a result of his efforts, membership in the Nation of Islam grew from only a few hundred at the time of his conversion to about 6,000 in 1955 and then to an estimated 75,000 in the early 1960s. Non-Muslims also took note of his fiery oratory, including author Alex Haley, with whom he would collaborate on his autobiography.

He opposed integration.

While in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm routinely referred to mainstream civil-rights leaders as “Uncle Toms,” considering them fools for thinking white America would ever willingly give them equality. When Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, Malcolm called it the “Farce on Washington.” “Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing ‘We Shall Overcome’ … while tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against?” he wrote in his autobiography. A believer in strict separation of the races, he once even entered into secret negotiations with the KKK. Yet after making a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in April 1964, he began, in his own words, to “reappraise the ‘white man.’” From that point forward, Malcolm moved away from black separatism and wholesale denunciations of whites, and instead embraced a more humanistic approach to fighting oppression.

He bitterly broke with Elijah Muhammad.

Though he once revered Muhammad, Malcolm began having second thoughts after discovering that his mentor had fathered several illegitimate children in direct violation of the Nation of Islam’s teachings. Their relationship then further soured in late 1963, when Muhammad suspended him for asserting that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a case of the “chickens coming home to roost.” At loose ends, Malcolm announced his split from the Nation of Islam early the next year, converted to traditional Islam and took on the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. In speeches, he now criticized Muhammad for his infidelities and for “religious fakery,” prompting the Nation of Islam to take retaliatory measures. On February 14, 1965, someone threw Molotov cocktails at his New York City home, forcing him, his pregnant wife and his four daughters to take refuge in the backyard. Exactly a week later, Nation of Islam members shot him dead at the Audubon Ballroom.

The FBI followed his every move.

As a prisoner in 1950, Malcolm wrote a letter to President Harry Truman in which he declared himself a Communist opposed to the Korean War. This brought him to the attention of the FBI, which began surveillance that would last until his death. In one document that has since come to light, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover told the agency’s New York office to “do something about Malcolm X.” Another time, the agency explored whether he had violated the little-known Logan Act, which bans citizens from unauthorized negotiation with foreign governments. It had a hard time discrediting him, however, because of the law-abiding way in which he lived his post-prison life. In 1958, an FBI informant called him a man “of high moral character” who “neither smokes nor drinks.” Apparently, he was seldom even late for an appointment. Some scholars speculate that the FBI, with so many informants inside the Nation of Islam, knew about the plot to assassinate Malcolm and intentionally turned a blind eye to it.



How does a man/a woman become a legend ?

What makes a man/a woman  a legend?

Malcom X was a complex hero but he remains one of America’s most influential civil rights leaders and  his legacy of black empowerment continues to resonate half a century after his assassination.

People who get remembered for such long periods of times are the legends who have done things that inspired generations and generations after their death.

How have they inspired generations ?

You can illustrate this statement with other black leaders and artists who have indeed become legends : MLK, Rosa Parks, Louis Amstrong, Duke Ellington etc..

You may ask yourself why such leaders as Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela who died more recently are already legendary heroes.

Make sure you know the difference between myths and legends although these two terms are often interchangeable.

A legend is presumed to have some basis in historical fact and tends to mention real people or events.  In contrast, a myth is a type of symbolic storytelling that was never based on fact. Throughout time, myths have sought to explain difficult concepts (e.g., the origin of the universe) with the help of common story devices, such as personification and allegories.

These words are commonly used interchangeably to refer to the fictitious nature of something. Historically and academically, however, there is a difference.

Comparison chart

Legend versus Myth comparison chart
Legend Myth
Evidence that events occurred / people existed? Yes, but evidence may be insubstantial. No
When and where did it happen? Typically in more recent historical past. Usually from a specific culture. Usually the ancient past from a specific culture.
Is it fact or fiction? Facts are distorted or exaggerated. Some fiction. No evidence to prove it as fact. Fictional stories explaining how « the world was created » or some type of natural situation that occurred on Earth.
Who are they about? Notable people from history. Gods, supernatural realm.
What are they about? Often about heroic deeds, overcoming obstacles, but may also be about evildoing. Traditional narrative that explains natural phenomena through symbolism and metaphor — often involves the gods of ancient cultures.







How to analyse a text or a lengthy novel ? where do I start?  The easiest way to do so is to break the whole text down into smaller elements. The parts of a literary text are known as its literary elements. Rather than looking at a whole novel, we can examine its plot, setting, characters, point of view and themes individually.  Let’s break these elements down and view them piece by piece, using the following questions:

what, when, where, who and how.

THE PLOT :What and How

A mere synopsis of the course of events is a summary – we say that this first happens, then that, then that.. It is only when we say how this is related to that and that, and in what ways all these matters are rendered and organised so as to achieve their particular effects, that a synopsis becomes a plot.

Most plots fit into a story arc, which is a visual representation of a story’s shape.

Many short stories begin at the point of the climax itself, and the writer of a drama often captures our attention with a representative incident, close to an event which precipitates the central situation or conflict.


Hamlet opens with the apparition of the ghost. The rising action begins, after the opening scene and exposition, with the ghost´ s telling Hamlet that he has been murdered by his brother Claudius; it continues with the developing conflict between Hamlet and Claudius, in which Hamlet despite setbacks, succeeds in controlling the course of events. The rising action reaches the climax of the hero´s fortunes with his proof of the King´s guilt by the device of the play within the play (Act III, scene ii). Then comes the crisis, or turning point of the fortunes of the protagonist, in his failure to kill the king while he is at prayer. This inaugurates the falling action, from now on the antagonist, Claudius, largely controls the course of events, until the catastrophe, in which the outcome is decided by the death of the hero, as well as of Claudius, the Queen,  and Laertes.

¨Catastrophe¨ is usually applied to tragedy only. A more general term is denouement- resolution in our drawing.


Setting is the when and where of a literary text. For example, the novel Gone With the Wind takes place in and around Atlanta, Georgia, and the plot – or action – occurs before, during and after the Civil War.

Although it’s a simple concept, setting is a vital literary element. Try thinking of all the Southern romanticism of Gone With the Wind in New York City during the same time period. It just wouldn’t work.

In some stories, the location itself almost becomes a character.Joyce´s Ulysees is Dublin on June 16, 1901, Paul Uster ´s novels , Brooklyn. The physical setting in writers like Poe, Hardy and Faulkner, is an important element in generating the atmosphere of the novel.Without mentionning the Gothic novel where the setting plays an essential part and defines the genre. Authors of such novels set their stories in a gloomy castle replete with dungeons, secret passages, sliding pannels, aiming to evoke chilling terror.



Characters are the fictional people – the who – in a story.They are endowed with moral and dispositional qualities that are expressed in what they say – the dialogue- and what they do – the action. The grounds in a character´s temperament and moral nature for his speech and actions constitute his motivation. But how is it that we can at times feel so close to a character ? The ¨round¨character is complex in temperament and motivation, and is represented with subtle particularity , thus he is difficult to describe with any adequacy as a person in real life, and, like most people , he is capable of surprising us. My own favourite are Mrs Dalloway, Jay Gatsby, Elizabeth Bennet among others. A ¨flat¨character on the other hand, is built around a single idea or quality, and is presented in outline without much individualizing detail. The degree to which a character needs to be three-dimensional depends on his function in the plot, and many types of plot, such as in the detective novel or adventure novel, even the protagonist usually possesses only two dimensions. Sherlock Holmes, for example, does not require the roundness of a hamlet to solve his case.

Difference Between Flat and Round Characters - infographic

Now, there are a few literary terms we have for certain types of characters. The main character, the one we follow most closely in the story, is the protagonist. They’re the Harry Potters, the Katniss Everdeens and the Luke Skywalkers of the literary world.

Then there are the antagonists, or the bad guys who work against the protagonists. Enter Voldemort, President Snow and Darth Vader.

We also have foil characters. A foil is a character that shows qualities that are in contrast with the qualities of another character with the objective to highlight the traits of the other character. What we observe in literature very often is that a foil is a secondary character who contrasts with the major character to enhance the importance of the major character.

Example of foil characters:

Dr Watson, the faithful companion of Sherlock Holmes is a foil character inasmuch as he is a minor but essential character; He never solves a crime and his true function is to contrast with Holmes and  therefore emphasize the great detective´s traits.

Point of View

Signifies the way a story is told – the perspective or perspectives established by an author through which the reader is presented with the characters, actions, setting, and events which constitute the narrative in a work of fiction. To understand point of view, it is important to pay attention to 2 things : grammatical person (is the narrator telling his own story using ¨I ¨ or ¨we¨ or someone else´s story using ¨he¨¨she¨ ¨they¨ ) and his level of insight, that is, how much does he know about his characters ?

In a first-person narrative, the narrator speaks as ¨I ¨and is himself a character in the story, the protagonist like Salinger´s Catcher in the Rye who begins : ¨If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you´ll really want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David copperfield kind of crap…¨ He can also be someone very close to the protagonis someone who is privy to his thoughts and actions (Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes stories), or an ancillary character who has little to do with the action of the story (such as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby).

Third-person point of view:

The omniscient point of view:  The narrator knows everything that needs to be known about the agents and the events ; he is entirely free to move as he will in time and place, and to shift from one character to another, reporting or conceiling what he chooses of their speech and actions. He has also ¨privileged¨ access to a character´s thoughts and feelings and motives. Within this mode, the intruisive narrator is one who not only reports but freely comments on his characters, evaluating their actions and motives and expressing his views about human life in general. Historically, the third-person omniscient perspective has been the most commonly used; it is seen in countless classic novels, including works by Charles Dickens.

The main advantage of this mode is that it is eminently suited to telling huge, sweeping, epic stories, and/or complicated stories involving numerous characters. The disadvantage of this mode is the increased distance between the audience and the story, and the fact that—when used in conjunction with a sweeping, epic « cast-of-thousands » story—characterization tends to be limited, thus reducing the reader’s ability to identify with or sympathize with the characters.

The limited point of view or subjective: the narrator tells the story in the third person, but confines himself to what is experienced, thought, and felt by a single character within the story (or a very limited number of characters).  If there is just one character, it can be termed third-person limited, in which the reader is « limited » to the thoughts of some particular character (often the protagonist) as in the first-person mode, except still giving personal descriptions using « he », « she », « it », and « they », but not « I ». This is almost always the main character (e.g., Gabriel in Joyce’s The Dead, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, or Santiago in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea).

Which character is your favourite? Ask yourself why?






MYTHS AND HEROES -Quelle problematique?


How to present the notion Myths and heroes ?

In the title Myths and heroes, we have two terms MYTHS and HEROES, so you´ll have to explain both. Both terms are intrinsically linked since a myth is a fiction or half-truth in which the hero (fictious or real) is the central character.

What you need to know to understand the notion

– The hero embodies (incarnates) universal values such as courage, honesty, justice, generosity, selflessness,  etc..

-These values are part of a country´s culture and are important for its people. (ie: the US dream)

-There are many ways of representing a myth (legends, media, cinema, statues, symbols..)

Think of the documents you have studied in class and enrich your presentation with a personal document to show your personal knowledge.

How to formulate your key question?

Problématiser, c’est se poser une question dont la réponse prête à discussion, une question à laquelle on ne peut pas répondre par oui ou par non, une question qui nous interpelle ; c’est une question qui pousse à la réflexion, qui nous invite à définir  les liens avec la notion et les documents choisis ; c’est une question qui suscite un raisonnement et ouvre sur  d’autres questions.

Therefore, your question should start with :

Why ? To what extent ? How ?

Ask yourself whether/why/how

A given person (a historical figure, a celebrity, an everyday person..) can be considered as a hero ? if not why? Does he/she is part of a myth?

 In order to find a key question (problematique) in relation to the notion of Myths and Heroes  ask yourself the following questions ?

To what extent can the characters studied in class be seen as heroes?

What values do they incarnate/embody/represent?

In which context have they emerged?

Is this the original myth or a parody, a modern interpretation?

How to illustrate the notion Myths and Heroes ?

San Francisco/ New York – How does a city become  a myth/a legend? (Also to link with Spaces and Exchanges)

Famous leaders/artists in UK/US: –

Why do  people need a leader to organize their fight? (Also to be related to Power and seats of power)

To what extent are iconic symbols necessary to lead people? (Also to be related to Power and seats of power)

To what extend have engaged artists helped improve the situation for …… ? (Also to be related to Power and seats of power)


What can explain the popularity of the fantasy genre?

The American Dream

To what extent is the myth still alive ? (Immigration – Spaces and exchanges)


You will find more key questions in my post ¨Myths and Heroes published a few months ago.










  • A man/woman distingued by exceptional courage, nobility, fortitude…
  • Someone who is idealized for possessing superior qualities (
  • A being who is endowed with extraordinary strength and courage, often of divine ancestry, who is celebrated for his bold exploits
  • The protagonist character in a novel, film, play..
  • A person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal
  • A person who has braved death, who has risked or sacrified his or her life

heroes  – vocabulary to help you define a hero





To successfully analyze literature, you’ll need to remember that authors make specific choices for particular reasons.  Your comments should point out the author’s choices and attempt to explain their significance.

In order to do so, you´ll need to develop your argument based on any single term (or combination of terms) listed below.

Setting – the place or location of the action.  The setting provides the historical and cultural context for characters. It often can symbolize the emotional state of characters. Example – In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the crumbling old mansion reflects the decaying state of both the family and the narrator’s mind.

Characterrepresentation of a person, place, or thing performing traditionally human activities or functions in a work of fiction

  • Protagonist – The character the story revolves around.
  • Antagonist – A character or force that opposes the protagonist.
  • Minor character – Often provides support and illuminates the protagonist.
  • Static character – A character that remains the same.
  • Dynamic character – A character that changes in some important way.
  • Characterization – The choices an author makes to reveal a character’s personality, such as appearance, actions, dialogue, and motivations.

Look for: Connections, links, and clues between and about characters. Ask yourself what the function and significance of each character is. Make this determination based upon the character’s history, what the reader is told (and not told), and what other characters say about themselves and others.

Plot – the arrangement of ideas and/or incidents that make up a story

  • Foreshadowing – When the writer clues the reader in to something that will eventually occur in the story; it may be explicit (obvious) or implied (disguised).
  • Suspense – The tension that the author uses to create a feeling of discomfort about the unknown
  • Conflict – Struggle between opposing forces.
  • Exposition – Background information regarding the setting, characters, plot.
  • Rising Action – The process the story follows as it builds to its main conflict
  • Crisis – A significant turning point in the story that determines how it must end
  • Resolution/Denouement – The way the story turns out.

Point of View – who tells the story and how it is told. The point of view of a story can sometimes indirectly establish the author’s intentions.

  • Narrator – The person telling the story who may or may not be a character in the story.
  • First-person – Narrator participates in action but sometimes has limited knowledge/vision.
  • Second person – Narrator addresses the reader directly as though she is part of the story. (i.e. “You walk into your bedroom.  You see clutter everywhere and…”)
  • Third Person (Objective) – Narrator is unnamed/unidentified (a detached observer). Does not assume character’s perspective and is not a character in the story. The narrator reports on events and lets the reader supply the meaning.
  • Omniscient – All-knowing narrator (multiple perspectives). The narrator knows what each character is thinking and feeling, not just what they are doing throughout the story.  This type of narrator usually jumps around within the text, following one character for a few pages or chapters, and then switching to another character for a few pages, chapters, etc. Omniscient narrators also sometimes step out of a particular character’s mind to evaluate him or her in some meaningful way.

Structure  – The way that the writer arranges the plot of a story.

Look for: Repeated elements in action, gesture, dialogue, description, as well as shifts in direction, focus, time, place, etc.

The Detective – Le personnage, ses figures et ses avatars

Characters And Their Representations / Characters And Their Transformation / Characters: From Evolution to Metamorphosis

This article will give you a good illustration of the notion through the character of the detective and his multiple facets.

A Brief History of the Detective Film

Philippa Gates, Wilfrid Laurier University

The detective genre in film is difficult to define because the content and conventions of the detective film can be seen as crossing over into other genres, and it can be regarded as a subcategory of the overarching genre of the crime film (along with the gangster film, the thriller, and the social-problem film). For a film to belong to the detective genre, it requires two features: a narrative that follows an investigation, and a protagonist that functions as a detective-figure. If the detective film is defined by having a protagonist who functions as a detective-figure, then the detective genre itself can be more readily separated into subgenres defined by the type of detective-figure who fulfils the role of the investigating protagonist. The following is a brief outline of some of the major subgenres of the detective film as defined by their investigating heroes.

The detective film has proven popular and pervasive, offering movie-going audiences a specific kind of image of American masculinity: one defined by manliness, perseverance, and heroism. Despite the proliferation of female detectives, especially in the last decade, the detective hero is most often male. The narrative of the detective film follows the hero’s investigation of a crime; however, it also offers an investigation of the detective as his masculinity is tested and proven through his success in solving the case. The detective genre has remained popular because of its ability to adapt with social change thereby offering new images and debates of law and order and new images of American masculinity. The genre has seen a distinct evolution from the classical detective to the hard-boiled, to the cop who follows procedure to the one that throws the book away, and, lastly, to a new kind of sleuth – the criminalist.

The Classical Detective

HolmesEdgar Allan Poe is generally regarded as the creator of the fictional detective with the introduction of his sleuth C. Auguste Dupin in 1841; however, it was not until Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes that the classical detective, or sleuth, achieved widespread popularity. As the definitive sleuth, Holmes remains the greatest and most famous fictional detective and also one of the most recognised names, real or fictional, in the world. With his international appeal as a character, it is not surprising that Sherlock Holmes has proven to be one of the most popular detectives on the big screen with over 200 films and television shows being centred on his character: he has been portrayed by more actors than any other character in the history of cinema. Holmes made his debut in film in 1900 but is most closely associated with actor Basil Rathbone who starred opposite Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson on the big screen from 1939 to 1946. Like Poe’s Dupin, Holmes solved mysteries through observation and logical deduction in a reflection of Victorian ideals of manhood.

The Transitional Detective

Philo VanceIn the 1920s and 1930s, American detective fiction saw a shift from the gentleman sleuth to the hard-boiled private eye. Conceptions of masculinity in American society at this time came to have an increasing emphasis on physicality, independence, and sexuality and a corresponding shift can be seen in the fictional representations of masculinity. With Prohibition and the spread of organised crime in society, the classical detective was no longer seen as an effective solution to fictional crime. The sleuth with his superior skills of deduction was replaced by the tough but troubled hard-boiled detective with his tendency to use violence to get the job done. The hard-boiled detective is, in many ways, an adaptation of the British sleuth to an urban American environment. Brawn came to be seen as necessary to fight the heavies of the American city rather than ratiocination and observation, and the sleuth’s magnifying glass was replaced by the gun. The hard-boiled private eye was popularized by writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in the 1930s.

Many hard-boiled novels were adapted to the screen in the 1930s; however, the heroes of Hollywood’s detective series were less violent and troubled than their literary counterparts. These screen detectives were transitional figures – the protagonists of the American hard-boiled stories but not presented as hard-boiled as they would be in the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s. Instead they were most often portrayed as suave, sophisticated, and erudite gentlemen: Americans made somewhat anglicised; sleuths made somewhat streetwise. Their appeal is that they can be imagined to exist in reality as a somewhat average person, allowing the filmgoer a greater sense of identification with the protagonist. These popular detectives included Philo Vance, Bulldog Drummond, The Saint, The Falcon, The Crime Doctor, Michael Shayne, Dick Tracy, Boston Blackie, and Perry Mason. Female amateur sleuths like Hildegarde Withers and Nancy Drew, and the Asian detectives like Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and Mr. Wong, also appeared in detective series in the 1930s.

The Noir Detective

BogartIn the 1940s and 1950s, the hard-boiled detective came to the screen as the hero of film noirFilm noir is generally regarded as genre or film style that began with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and ended with Touch of Evil (1958), a group of films that were visually, as well as morally, dark. The films were set in the seedy underbelly of American society and followed a general progression from protagonists with questionable morals like Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946) to detectives who were borderline criminals themselves like Mike Hammer in Kiss me Deadly (1955). Film noir seem to have resonance for the veterans returning from World War II who struggled with feelings of displacement. American society had changed in their absence and upon their return they faced unemployment, changing gender roles, alienation, and often disablement. These films, with their hard-boiled heroes and anti-heroes, presented audiences with traumatized but tough men that could express and work through America’s postwar disillusionment.

The Police and Procedure

DragnetUntil the 1940s the policeman tended to be portrayed as a bumbling or inefficient figure who stood at the sidelines while the amateur sleuth or private eye solved the case. The police detective emerged as a detective-hero in the mid 1940s in a reflection of the professionalisation of real-life law enforcement and of national security concerns incited by the Cold War. The police procedural, most notably the radio and television series Dragnet, presented audiences with detailed scenes of the methods employed by the law to combat crime including ballistics tests, tracking, surveillance, and forensic technologies. The police detective represented an idealised image of masculinity as organized, methodical, and driven by duty.

The procedural ignored the disillusionment and paranoia of the Cold War period and instead offered a hero that was effective and committed to eradicating crime; however, he was also a rather sterile and conservative representation of masculinity. The procedural in its original form all but disappeared by the late 1950s (the exception being the long-running television show Columbo [1967 to present]); however, its legacy is introducing the cop as an American hero, a trend that continues today.

The Vigilante Cop

True CrimeThe conservative image of masculinity and law-enforcement embodied by the procedural detective was eradicated by the arrival of the vigilante cop film in the late 1960s. Changes in the American film industry allowed for developments in the detective genre. The Production Code, instituted in the 1930s, had been an internal, self-regulatory system of censorship; by the mid-1960s shifts in American cultural values had undermined the credibility of the Code, and by 1968 it was replaced with the ratings system. Under the ratings system, a film with excessive sexual or violent content could be released to an adult audience rather than being banned completely. The restriction of the high rating thus still prevented young people from being exposed to this ‘ adult’ material. The move from censorship to a ratings system allowed for more violent and controversial heroes, for example in films like Bullitt (1968),Coogan’s Bluff (1968), The French Connection (1971), and Dirty Harry (1971). These films introduced a tough and often angry hero who annihilated crime at any cost; he would go so far as to ignore or even break the law to get the job done. In a period when Nixon’s hard-line politics on crime and a widespread loss of confidence in law-enforcement were dominating the American psyche, the vigilante cop offered an image of masculinity that was tough, independent, violent, and successful in the war against crime.

The Cop as Action Hero

48 hrsThe aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and second-wave feminism saw the dominance of white, middle-class, middle-aged masculinity being called into question and, by the 1980s, hegemonic masculinity found its position in society challenged. The cop action film became a central genre of the 1980s and early 1990s as a backlash to this challenging of white male dominance. The films and their cop action-heroes offered a space for the expression, working through, and often resolution of the problems of race, class, gender, and crime that seemed to overwhelm American masculinity at the time.  The biracial cop film of the 1980s explored and negated the threat of African-American empowerment with the black ‘ buddy’ being placed in a subordinate role to the white hero. He offered his black energy to the fight against crime that threatened white America, for example 48 Hrs (1982) starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy.

However, the cop action-hero offered not only a resistance to the perceived threat of the empowered black man but also to that posed by the emerging equality of women. The male body as hypermasculine – manly, muscular, and spectacular – became the hero’s most effective weapon in the fight against crime and injustice and, thus, compounded issues of sexual difference. Cop action films revelled in scenes of action and violence with the male body at the centre engaged in fistfights, kickboxing, car chases, and gunplay. The cop action-hero, like John McClane in Die Hard (1988) and Martin Riggs Lethal Weapon (1987), followed in the tradition of the vigilante cop but also the male rampage hero like Rambo, offering an idealized image of American masculinity as violent, independent, muscular, and victorious. The cop action-hero as an icon of American masculinity did not allow himself to betray his emotions – an emasculating and effeminate weakness. Instead he expressed himself through wisecracking quips and physical violence and it was his body that became the site upon which masculine crisis could be expressed and resolved.

The Criminalist

Silence of the LambsFrom the early 1990s to the present, the type of masculinity that society deems admirable has changed. There has been a shift from the appreciation of physical masculinity to that of masculinity defined as intellectual and vulnerable and has prompted a similar shift in the representation of masculinity in the media. In the early 1990s a new sensitive type of masculinity emerged on-screen to replace the retributive masculinity of the 1980s as an ideal. The working-class cop as action hero came to be replaced by a new kind of police detective that was a middle-class, educated professional and employed his/her skills of observation and deduction to solve the crime rather than firepower. This shift from violent to vulnerable masculinities is evident with the new roles that former action stars began to portray. Bruce Willis abandoned guns and wisecracks in favour of more sensitive men in film like Mercury Rising (1998) and The Sixth Sense (1999), and Clint Eastwood has given up his vigilante roles to play a more mature and intellectual kind of hero in films like In the Line of Fire (1993), True Crime (1999), and Bloodwork (2002).

This shift has also seen a return to a thinking detective – a criminalist – not dissimilar to the first sleuth detectives. Originating in the fiction of authors such as Thomas Harris and Patricia Cornwell, the criminalist, or forensic detective, has flourished on the big and small screens. Criminalists such as Detective Somerset of Seven (1995) and Agent Clarice Starling of Silence of the Lambs (1991) have thrived in film while Gil Grissom of America’s C.S.I.: Criminal Scene Investigation, Sam Ryan of the Britain’s Silent Witness, and Dominic DaVinci of Canada’s DaVinci’s Inquest are evidence to the criminalist’s success on television. Criminalists employ observation, forensic science, and profiling to solve cases and often find themselves tracking serial killers. With this emphasis on intelligence over muscularity and the reliance of weapons, new kinds of detective-heroes have emerged, including women, older, and ethnic detectives. Thus, the detective and shifts in the representation of the masculinity of the hero can be seen as occurring in conjunction with broader social change. The icon of the detective has begun, and will continue, to evolve beyond the traditional white male action hero and offers audiences assuring images of masculinity, and more recently femininity, that can bring crime to halt to crime.

Shakespeare and the English language


Even if you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play, you’ll have used one of his words or phrases.

Famous phrases

If you’ve ever been ‘in a pickle’, waited ‘with bated breath’, or gone on ‘a wild goose chase’, you’ve been quoting from The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet respectively.

Next time you refer to jealousy as « the green-eyed monster, » know that you’re quoting Othello’s arch villain, Iago. (Shakespeare was almost self-quoting here, having first touched on green as the colour of envy in The Merchant of Venice, where Portia alludes to “green-eyed jealousy.”)

Allow yourself to “gossip” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and you’re quoting him. « The be-all and end-all » is uttered by Macbeth as he murderously contemplates King Duncan, and « fair play » falls from Miranda’s lips in The Tempest.

Some phrases have become so well used that they’re now regarded as clichés – . « A heart of gold »? You’ll find it in Henry V, while “the world’s mine oyster” crops up in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

To be in a pickle

Sarah was in a pickle when she realized that she had missed the last bus home

To be in a difficult situation  – The Tempest

To go on a wild goose chase

I went on a wild goose chase around the supermarket trying to find my favourite cheese. No luck!

To search for something unsuccessfully  – Romeo and Juliet

To have someone in stitches

Sue always has me in stitches. She’s just so funny!

To make someone laugh uncontrollably  -Twelfth Night

To set someone’s teeth on edge

I hate the sound of someone sharpening a knife. It sets my teeth on edge.

To make someone feel annoyed or uncomfortable  – Henry IV Part 1

To eat someone out of house and home

When my brother comes to visit me, he eats me out of house and home but I still love him!

To consume so much food that there is very little left.  – Henry IV Part 2

To be as dead as a doornail

Although my hometown is as dead as a doornail, I still enjoy going back in the holidays.

dead, no life, quiet  – Henry IV Part 2

To vanish into thin air

I don’t know where my keys are. They’ve vanished into thin air.

To disappear  – Othello

To wear your heart on your sleeve

I always know if Jack is feeling sad because he wears his heart on his sleeve.

To show your emotions  – Othello

To have a heart of gold

Robert’s got a heart of gold because he always does his elderly neighbour’s shopping.

To be a very kind person  – Henry V

To do something all in one fell swoop

I like to do my homework all in one fell swoop and relax afterwards.

To do everything at the same time, or in one go – Macbeth

If the mark of a great writer is that they’re still read, then perhaps the mark of a genius is that they’re still spoken, too.