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The Grace of a Shadowy Street

The small-time chicanery and shuffling criminality of American hard-boiled.

Book review, March 24, 2012

A few years ago in Paris I happened to pick up, at one of the bookstalls along the Seine, a shabby volume in English. It was an old paperback collection of American crime stories. I barely remember the titles or the authors now. But I've never forgotten the atmosphere – gloomy, monotone, cynical, as emotionally austere as Formica. It made me intensely homesick. For days afterward I sat out on our balcony in the Latin Quarter, with the spindly spires of Notre Dame almost close enough to touch, and read happily about anonymous boardinghouses and shadowy warehouse districts and all-night diners where doomed men planned one last heist.

The Hard-Boiled Library

The essential books in the classic hardboiled style are Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest," "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Glass Key," and Raymond Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely." (All are available individually in paperback and in Library of America omnibus editions). Readers who want to go deeper into the genre might move on to these:

Selected Novels and Short Stories
By Patricia Highsmith
It has been said that the only mystery in Highsmith's novels is the mystery of why we're alive. Included here are two early novels, "Strangers on a Train" (1950) and "The Price of Salt" (1952), which make a good introduction to her dark, insinuating, and often quite nasty studies of the unknowability of other people.

A Hell of a Woman (1954)
By Jim Thompson
Thompson took the most conventional hard-boiled material and pushed it to the outer edges of psychic frenzy. This typically bizarre offering from 1954 is a lurid femme-fatale story that seems to disintegrate right on the page into a primal shriek of horror.

Violent Saturday (1955)
By W.L. Heath
An impressive genre outlier by a writer who's since dropped out of sight, "Violent Saturday" is a tough-guy novel about a bank robbery that morphs into a brilliantly lyrical evocation of life in a Southern town in the 1950s. A follow-up, "Ill Wind" (1957), is just as strong.

The Chill (1964)
By Ross Macdonald
One of the best post-Chandler private eye stories, "The Chill" is a wildly complex mystery shot through with a pervasive romantic melancholy about its Southern California setting. Macdonald had a remarkable gift for contriving shock endings, and the title proves particularly apt.

On the Yard (1967)
By Malcolm Braly
A genuine tough guy, Braly began writing while incarcerated. "On the Yard" is his best novel, a grand epic about prison life. His autobiography, "False Starts: A Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons" (1976) is equally impressive.

The Score (1963)
By Richard Stark
With "Richard Stark" (actually the well-known mystery writer Donald E. Westlake), the hard-boiled novel went into its decadent phase—from which it has yet to recover. Stark's affectless, omni-competent criminal-hero Parker is not so much a tough guy as an absurdist Terminator-style cyborg programmed with the collected works of the hard-boiled tradition. Still, the early Parker novels have an undeniable power—like this sleekly machine-tooled offering about an apocalyptic heist of an entire town. Since Parker, there have been many interesting postmodern riffs on hard-boiled themes (such as the gigantic thrillers of James Ellroy), but the classic genre is still waiting to be revitalized.

— L.S.

It was an ideal introduction to a peculiarly American literary genre: the hard-boiled story. People think "hard-boiled" automatically means a wisecracking private eye and an icy femme fatale (or, more often lately, a wisecracking private eye who is an icy femme fatale), but the genre used to be a lot more interesting. The Library of America has an excellent two-volume set called "Crime Novels," which surveys the field in its glory years – roughly from its first sproutings in the pulp magazines of the late 1920s through its efflorescence in the cheap original paperbacks of the 1950s – and there isn't a private eye in sight. The 11 novels collected in the set are about small-time chicanery and shuffling criminality – a seedy panorama of con men, carnies, outlaws and losers. It's less like "The Maltese Falcon" than a WPA documentary on American hard times.

The literary quality of the selections is remarkably high. At least two – "They Shoot Horses, Don't They – " (1935), Horace McCoy's desolate novel about 1930s dance marathons, and "Thieves Like Us" (1937), Edward Anderson's stark story about a Bonnie-and-Clyde couple on the run – must surely be ranked with the finest American literature of the Great Depression. And that's the set's big downside: The exclusive focus on the outliers and the literary freaks means that readers are in for a dismal crash when they discover the genre's ordinary product.

Take, for instance, the new and lavish edition of the complete stories of Paul Cain (no relation to James M.), who was a writer for Black Mask magazine in the early 1930s. It is an exceptional piece of bookmaking: handsomely designed and printed, with an expensive insert of glossy color pages. Not only is there a long biographical introduction and several scholarly appendices, but each story comes with its own introduction, courtesy of a modern hard-boiled novelist, collector, bookseller or Cain aficionado. But the cumulative effect is that of an endless testimonial dinner. Bored readers may find themselves meanly noting how everybody keeps calling Cain the "quintessential" hard-boiled writer who made "unique and valuable" contributions to the field, but nobody actually comes out and says that he's any good.

There's a reason for that. Cain wasn't any good. His prose is pitched, page after page, at exactly the same volume: a shrill, pounding staccato that can barely spare time for conjunctions. "There was sudden faint light at the after end and he waited until a shadow came into the light, shot at it, once, twice." It's not easy to read a lot of this. The characters meanwhile are just a bunch of generic last names – Green, Doyle, Fenner – with a few interchangeable bits of description attached: "red-faced," "dark-browed," "powerfully muscled." Each of these blank mannequins appears out of nowhere and a few pages later is arbitrarily killed. Kells, the hero of Cain's novel "Fast One" (1932), stands out from the crowd only because he is explicitly described as nuts: "He balanced the revolver across his fingers and a kind of soft insanity came into his eyes. . . . He grinned, and the grin was a terrible thing on his bloody face." One of the introducers says of "Fast One": "You don't read it; you survive it." A better word would be endure.

But none of this is entirely the author's fault. According to the editor's introduction, Cain was brought in to Black Mask magazine as a replacement for Dashiell Hammett, their superstar writer and the greatest practitioner of the hard-boiled style, who had recently decamped for Hollywood. Cain's brief was to turn out stories as much like Hammett's as possible. He did his best. The hero of Hammett's "Red Harvest" (1929), for instance, escapes the bad guys through a back yard: "I made the opposite fence, untangled myself from a clothes line, crossed two more yards, got yelled at from a window, had a bottle thrown at me, and dropped into a cobblestoned back street." The hero of Cain's 1932 story "Black," making a remarkably similar escape, "crossed the back yard and jumped a low fence and walked through another yard to a gate that led into an alley. I sloshed along through the mud until I came to a cross street."

Everything has been faithfully reproduced, except what matters. Hammett's style was built on the taciturn; no American prose has less affect. Cain was able to imitate that quality well enough. What he couldn't duplicate was Hammett's freakish knack for making neutrality interesting. Every object in a Hammett novel registers with unnerving clarity, even when it doesn't appear to signify anything at all – as in this aria to an office desk:

Ragged gray flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.

It's as radiant as an Edward Hopper painting, and as eerie. It means nothing in particular, and yet it seems to hold within it the silence of the entire American landscape. Hammett's deadpan brutality inspired generations of truculent, thuggish, bullying private eyes; because of his influence, the average hard-boiled novel is like the world's surliest Internet comment thread. But his more enduring legacy is in the way he was able to infuse the flatness of the American vernacular with this strange visionary cool.

The best of his successors have been able to pull off something similar: They take the hard-boiled style and twist it into something wholly personal. The setting might be a cliché, but the language and the sensibility are distinctively original – such as this passage, from the little-known writer David Goodis's "Street of No Return" (1954):

Up here along Skid Row there were a lot of bright lights, varicolored and sprinkling the darkness with the all-night glow from eateries and cut-rate stores and pawnshops. But where Skid Row ended the bright lights ended, and down there south on River Street there were no lights at all, only the hulking shapes of four-story tenements and three-story warehouses, and here and there the masts and funnels of freighters docked in the river.

Its elegance is in the way the sentences grow less gaudy and the adjectives surreptitiously drop out, as though the prose itself was enacting its own move into dimness. "Street of No Return" is one of five Goodis books collected into a volume from the Library of America. He is a quirky choice for republication, even given the Library's admirable willingness of late to forgo the literary establishment and wander through the meaner streets of American pop culture. (They've done three volumes of the lunatic outsider sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, none of Hemingway.) Goodis (1917-67) wrote 18 hard-boiled novels between the 1940s and the 1960s, almost all of them paperback originals and most distinguished by his peculiar, seedy, downbeat sensibility – as though Hammett were being rescored by Tom Waits.

His plots are genre boilerplate. He writes about the innocent man framed for murder, the professional burglar looking to retire, the famous singer who has lost his voice and, inevitably, the down-at-heels hero seduced into one deadly trap or another by a sinister femme fatale. What makes his novels striking is the neurotic intensity he brings to the dreariest clichés. His heroes' standard-issue taciturnity masks an inarticulate longing for self-destruction. The hero of "The Burglar" (1957) is continually aware of "something twisting around in his insides, something getting started in there." He can't name it and claims that he wants it to stop, but it's always consuming him. Toward the end of the novel, he and his beloved are on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, and the sight of the passersby prompts him to offer this tender aria: "Look at them walking. When they take a walk, they take a walk, and that's all. But you and I, when we take a walk it's like crawling through a pitch black tunnel."

As you might imagine, things don't end well for this couple. But the most striking thing about Goodis is that you feel worse when everything does work out. In "The Moon in the Gutter" (1953), for instance, he has his morose hero – Kerrigan, a dockworker this time, who is in perpetual mourning after his sister's suicide – drawn into an increasingly perverse relationship with a pair of rich, dissolute siblings. But even as the sinister signs of impending doom mount up, the hero mysteriously loses interest. Kerrigan, like Goodis himself apparently, turns out to be just too depressed to keep the plot going. Instead he drops his sinister friends as though it were just a matter of refusing to return their phone calls; he never does find out what the deal is with them and instead falls back into the stasis of his ordinary life as though sinking to the bottom of the ocean. (As it happens, there is another Goodis novel where the hero and heroine actually do sink to the bottom of the ocean.)

A classic noir plot unraveling due to sheer ennui – it sounds rather French. In fact, the one criticism I had of Goodis after reading this collection is that he seems too much like a French idea of what an American hard-boiled writer should be: not a tough guy at all but a slumming intellectual, a Baudelaire-style street poet elaborating a melancholy epic of Skid Row. It's no coincidence that Goodis really is a popular writer in France, much more so than he is here. There have been six French movies based on Goodis novels, including Truffaut's classic "Shoot the Piano Player"; the only book-length study of him is Philippe Garnier's "Goodis, la Vie en Noir et Blanc." (Goodis's life, as you might guess, was not happy – failed marriages, heavy drinking, stays in mental wards and some hair-raising sexual peccadilloes kept him consistently miserable.)

I regret that I didn't have Goodis to read when I was in Paris. There's a line from Guillaume Apollinaire's great urban poem "Zone": "I love the grace of this industrial street" (J'aime la grâce de cette rue industrielle). It could be the epigraph to Goodis's work. But then, it could work just as well for the best of the hard-boiled American tradition in general. It has always been about finding the poetry where most people just see a gray functional landscape.

This article appeared March 24, 2012, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal in print, and online at WSJ.com.

Lee reviewed: The Complete Slayers by Paul Cain (Centipede, 621 pages, $75), and David Goodis: Five Noir Novels edited by Robert Polito (Library of America, 804 pages, $35)