Hard-boiled Crime Fiction and the Idea
of a Democratic Culture
If democracy is not an institution or a set of institutions, what is it?
It is an atmosphere and an attitude; in a word—a culture.
—Jacques Barzun, Of Human Freedom, 1939
My argument is and always has been merely that there is no such
thing as serious literature.—Raymond Chandler∞
James M. Cain’s 1937 novel Serenade is that classic Depression-
era story, a tale of exaggerated good fortune and terrible bad luck.
Though it might just as easily have told the history of an engineer, an
athlete, or a gangster, Cain’s particular version of the tale features an
operatic tenor named John Howard Sharp, and it relates with grim
fatality his rise and fall through the world of music. A poor boy
blessed with talent and a strong will, Sharp rises by dint of hard
work to a minor level of international recognition, but he loses his
way when he falls beneath the influence of an avant-garde impre-
sario and homosexual Svengali named Winston Hawes. Subject to
Hawes’s cosmopolitan corruption, Sharp’s will evaporates, his talent
disappears, and he plummets rapidly to become a penniless bum on
the streets of Mexico City. There he is saved by the love of a good
woman, a Mexican Indian prostitute named Juana, and, regaining
his talent, he claws his way back to stardom in radio and movies—a
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