The cover of the magazine Mystery Novels Magazine. A woman’s astonished face looks toward brilliant red and white light emanating from a huge red ruby.

Source: Detective Book Magazine, Winter 1933, featuring
“The Burma Ruby” by J. S. Fletcher, Wikimedia Commons

While a considerable amount of literature focused on the Great Depression and its effects on people, the period also encouraged escapism. With hardship and strife came the desire to get away from it all.

The depression enlivened a genre in American literature: the mystery. Crime and detective novels laid the foundation for today's television crime dramas and police stories. The purpose of this literature was to entertain people and take their minds off the problems they were facing. Some crime novels also had a civic purpose, that of exposing corruption and the seedy underside of life in cities such as Los Angeles and New York.

Interestingly, the mysteries shift away from the unemployment and homelessness of previous examples. This writing was purely for entertainment and escapism. The writing was more formal in tone and sought a more adult, sophisticated audience. In the next exercise, you will evaluate changes in formality and tone within the same medium (written text) for specific audiences and purposes. Even though mystery writers attempted to expose corruption in society, their main purpose was to pull the audience into the lives of fictional characters so that readers could escape into their worlds of fantasy.

In the excerpt that follows, two characters briefly discuss getting away from it all.

Book cover from “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” A sketchy man smoking a cigarette looks from a darkened door as a woman and an older, worn-looking man have an argument.

Source: “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Marxchivist, Flickr

“. . . I’m so sick of hot dogs and beer and apple pie with cheese on the side I could heave it all in the river."

“You’ll love it, Frank. We’ll get a place up in the mountains, where it’s cool, and then, after I get my act ready, we can go all over the world with it. Go as we please, do as we please, and have plenty of money to spend. Have you got a little bit of gypsy in you?”

“Gypsy? I had rings in my ears when I was born.”

—James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice

Do you get a sense of escape from this excerpt? Many of the novels in this particular genre focus on escaping the hard life of reality and traveling someplace else. Readers were able to escape from their lives by sharing an adventure with others who were getting away from their troubles for a little while.Taking an adventure and getting away from your troubles for a little while were the purpose of this writing. The crime stories differed from Steinbeck’s fiction and the WPA Life Stories in that they aimed to entertain. Given what you have read in previous sections, you can see why people were attracted to this kind of literature; they needed to forget their problems for a while. With this in mind, read and answer the questions below.

  1. What is the tone of the writing by James Cain?

  2. a. Foreboding
    Try again.

    b. Adventurous

    c. Sad
    Try again.

  3. The purpose of this type of writing was to help audiences—

  4. a. sympathize with migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl.
    Try again.

    b. get worked up about unfair business and banking practices.
    Try again.

    c. escape from reality and be entertained.