Detecting Community: Joseph McCarthy, the Detective Form, and Recent American Fiction

A dissertation in literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz

By Thad Nodine



Many studies have traced the popularity of science fiction, western, and detective movies in the 1950s to Cold War tensions and paranoia. In exploring the ways popular movies exploit political rhetoric, however, these studies have overlooked the extent to which political language exploits popular genres. Unaware of his own appropriations from the detective form, Senator Joseph McCarthy nonetheless used its structures and metaphors to generate animosity toward a criminal Other (communists), support for an outnumbered detective (himself), and suspense over his upcoming actions and investigations. His digressive tactics generated media coverage, and the media, in turn, pressed him into his detective role.


This study provides a contemporary analysis of the rhetoric of the detective form, and of its depictions of community in America, traced from Chandler’s The Big Sleep through McCarthy’s political language, and into four American novels of the 1960s and 1970s: Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Silko’s Ceremony.



Horror flicks, western shootouts, and espionage thrillers captivated theatre and television audiences in the 1950s. People flocked to the movies to see The Thing, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Fly, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Similarly, serials such as “Gunsmoke,” “The Rifleman,” and “I Led Three Lives” were some of the most popular more…