The Hardboiled Detective as Moralist: Ethics and Crime Fiction

Sandrine Berges

in T.D. Chappell (ed.) Values and Virtues, 2007, Oxford University Press.

In this paper I investigate a claim made by Martha Nussbaum and Wayne Booth, amongst others, that good literature can be morally valuable, by applying it to a certain kind of genre fiction: the modern harboiled detective novel.

In the first part I analyse Nussbaum's argument for the conclusion that reading novels can contribute to moral education. In the second part I put forward the claim that crime novels constitute a very good example of how novels can be morally valuable - more so perhaps than Nussbaum's preferred examples: the novels of Henry James.

In the third part I substantiate my claim by showing that the ethical guidance we may extract from hardboiled detective novels is specifically the Aristotelian ethics which Nussbaum often praises. The particular traits of the hardboiled detective can be summarised as follows: a predilection for casuistry and a rejection of rules, a tendency to care about what is going on around them and to be influenced in their action by this caring, and their character is seen to evolve and mature from one novel to the next because of what they have gone through. Because of this, I will argue, if the hardboiled detective is a moralist, he or she is an aristotelian moralist.

Lastly I will address two objections to my claim that crime fiction can be morally valuable.  The first objection draws on Jane Austen's criticism of gothic novels and the sense of paranoia they induce in some readers. The same might be said of crime fiction: we could fear that an avid reader was led into seeing crime and corruption everywhere. If this is true, we might have to think twice before recommending crime literature as part of a course in moral improvement. The second objection is I think more radical. The fight for justice is portrayed as a very costly one - as they solve more cases, detectives are seen to become more and more lonely - so that we may be weary to follow the detective's example. I will argue that these two objections do not constitute a refutation of my thesis that the hardboiled detective novel is a source of moral education.