Dreams for Dead Bodies

Blackness, Labor, and the Corpus of American Detective Fiction
M. Michelle Robinson
Explores U.S. detective fiction's deep engagement with the shifting dynamics of race and labor in America


Dreams for Dead Bodies: Blackness, Labor, and  the Corpus of American Detective Fiction offers new arguments about the origins of detective fiction in the United States, tracing the lineage of the genre back to unexpected texts and uncovering how authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Pauline Hopkins, and Rudolph Fisher made use of the genre’s puzzle-elements to explore the shifting dynamics of race and labor in America.
The author constructs an interracial genealogy of detective fiction to create a nuanced picture of the ways that black and white authors appropriated and cultivated literary conventions that coalesced in a recognizable genre at the turn of the twentieth century. These authors tinkered with detective fiction’s puzzle-elements to address a variety of historical contexts, including the exigencies of chattel slavery, the erosion of working-class solidarities by racial and ethnic competition, and accelerated mass production. Dreams for Dead Bodies demonstrates that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature was broadly engaged with detective fiction, and that authors rehearsed and refined its formal elements in literary works typically relegated to the margins of the genre. By looking at these margins, the book argues, we can better understand the origins and cultural functions of American detective fiction.

“With verve and energy, Michelle Robinson argues that the work of detection in fiction predates the appearance of the detective per se, and demonstrates that genres are fluid patchworks under constant repair and erasure even as they become ever more stable and predictable contracts between authors and readers. She shows how the modes of narration essential to elaborating crime plots—usually involving money and murder—are intimately tied to affective relations across classes, races and time, and the means by which they are expressed, involve, even commit, hidden violence. It is the work of narration to enlist readers in the narrators’ process of unraveling these crimes at the heart of family and nation.”
—Paula Rabinowitz, author of American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street

Cover Photo: Two people with shadows walking on a cobbled street © 123rf / Fred De Bailliencourt
M. Michelle Robinson is Assistant Professor for the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Praise / Awards

  • "Full of acute, accurate, original readings of both canonical and lesser-known works of detective fiction."
    --American Literature

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 264pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11981-3

Add to Cart
  • $59.95 U.S.

  • Open Access
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-90060-2

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  • Genre, detective fiction, American literature, Rudolph Fisher, Pauline Hopkins, race, class, labor, literary history, 19th century, American Studies