Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s Vol 1 (Library of America) Hardcover – 16 Oct 2014
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From the Back Cover
This adventurous volume, with its companion devoted to the 1950s, presents a rich vein of modern American writing too often neglected in mainstream literary histories. Evolving out of the terse and violent hardboiled style of the pulp magazines, noir fiction expanded over the decades into a varied and innovative body of writing. Tapping deep roots in the American literary imagination, the novels in this volume explore themes of crime, guilt, deception, obsessive passion, murder, and the disintegrating psyche. With visionary and often subversive force they create a dark and violent mythology out of the most commonplace elements of modern life. The raw power of their vernacular style has profoundly influenced contemporary American culture and writing. Far from formulaic, they are ambitious works which bend the rules of genre fiction to their often experimental purposes.
About the Author
From the 1930s until his death in 1968, Cornell Woolrichriveted the reading public with his mystery, suspense, and horror stories. Classic films like Hitchcock'sRear Windowand Trauffaut'sThe Bride Wore Blackand novels likeNight has a Thousand EyesandThe Black Angelearned Woolrich epithets like "the twentieth century's Edgar Allen Poe" and "the father of noir."
James M. Cain (1892 1977) was one of the most important authors in the history of crime fiction. Born in Maryland, he became a journalist after giving up on a childhood dream of singing opera. After two decades writing for newspapers in Baltimore, New York, and the army and a brief stint as the managing editor of the" New Yorker" Cain moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. While writing for the movies, he turned to fiction, penning the novella "The Postman Always Rings Twice "(1934). This tightly wound tale of passion, murder, and greed became one of the most controversial bestsellers of its day, and remains one of the foremost examples of American noir writing. It set the tone for Cain s next few novels, including "Serenade "(1937), "Mildred Pierce "(1941), "Double Indemnity" (1943), and "The Butterfly" (1947). Several of his books became equally successful noir films, particularly the classic 1940s adaptations of "Mildred Pierce "and "Double Indemnity". Cain moved back to Maryland in 1948. Though he wrote prolifically until his death, Cain remains most famous for his early work.
KENNETH FEARING (1902-1961) was born in Oak Park, Illinois. Voted wittiest boy and class pessimist in high school, he moved to New York City after graduating the University of Wisconsin. He published several well received volumes of poetry in addition to his novels, including "Angel Arms," "Dead Reckoning," and "Stranger at Coney Island and other poems."
ROBERT POLITO is the author of "Doubles, A Reader's Guide to James Merrill's "The Changing Light at Sandover and "Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson." He edited the Library of America volumes, "Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s" and "Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s," and directs the Graduate Writing Program at The New School. He lives in New York.
Horace Stanley McCoy (1897 1955) was an American novelist whose gritty, hardboiled novels documented the hardships Americans faced during the Depression and post-war periods. McCoy grew up in Tennessee and Texas; after serving in the air force during World War I, he worked as a journalist, film actor, and screenplay writer, and is author of five novels including "They Shoot Horses, Don t They? "(1935) and the noir classic "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye "(1948). Though underappreciated in his own time, McCoy is now recognized as a peer of Dashiell Hammett and James Cain. He died in Beverly Hills, California, in 1955.
Robert Polito is director of the Writing Program at the New School for Social Research in New York. He is the author of "A Reader's Guide to James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover" (1994), among other critical works, and a biography of novelist Jim Thompson," Savage Art" (1995).
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The first story is from James Cain, and it's a whiz-bang of a tale. I had heard of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" before, mainly in reference to the two film versions of the story. This is one dark read. Adultery and murder never seem to mix, and it sure doesn't here, either. Told in first person narration, a drifter gets himself mixed up with a washed up beauty queen who is tired of her Greek husband. The result is classic noir: a conspiracy to murder the poor schmuck and run off together. As usual, the murder brings about tragic consequences. This story has more twists and turns than you can imagine. The ending is especially atmospheric. This is certainly one of the best stories in the book. I always like to see a story where the blackmailer gets a good beating.
Horace McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is next in line. This is another great tale that was made into a film in the 1960's starring Hanoi Jane Fonda and Gig Young. The movie is soul shattering, with depictions of dehumanization in the neighborhood of "Schindler's List." The story is not quite as good, but it still packs a heck of a punch. The story is set in Depression-era America and depicts the horrors of a dance marathon. These marathons were apparently quite popular during the 1930's, until they were ultimately outlawed. Contestants were required to dance for hundreds of hours with only ten minute breaks every two hours. The couple that lasted the longest won a thousand or so dollars. The public would come and pay admission to watch this sorry spectacle. It's like poking sticks at animals in a cage. This story is loaded with dark depression and sexual innuendo. The conclusion is suitably depressing to merit a noir award.
"Thieves Like Us" was pretty substandard when compared to the other stories in this book. This one really didn't seem to have those noir elements that I like so much. Actually, it's more of a Bonnie and Clyde type story. A penitentiary break leads to a crime spree across Texas. Banks are robbed and cops are killed while the gang lives on the lam. A relationship between Bowie, the main character, and a girl named Keechie really doesn't add much interest to the story. There is some good dialogue and a bit of desolate atmosphere, but not enough to lift this to the level of noir. I don't know why this story is included here. Try and guess how the story ends (the clue is "Bonnie and Clyde"). I hope that Edward Anderson's other stories are better.
Kenneth Fearing's "The Big Clock" is excellent, and brings the level of the book back up to where it should be. Set in a magazine publishing house, this tale is sleek and smart. The story is told in first person narration, but Fearing shifts the narration to various characters in the story. These constantly changing viewpoints turn the story into a roller coaster ride of epic proportions. An editor at the company makes the mistake of sleeping with the boss's woman. When this lady turns up dead at the hands of same boss, all heck breaks loose. This story is riveting and has a great ending that is all suspense. A must read.
William Lindsay Gresham wrote "Nightmare Alley" after some discussions he had with some carnival workers. This story is the longest one in the book and is a decent addition to the volume. Full of unpleasant images of murder, swindle, cynicism and downright perversion, you won't be disappointed when this one comes to an end. A scheming magician decides to take his con to the big time by posing as a Spiritualist minister, and as usual, the end result is tragedy all around. This story is downright depressing, and if you don't feel sorry for Gyp, you have got a problem. I didn't really care too much for the (...) addition of the black Communist towards the end of the book. Gresham had a flirtation with the Redski movement, so this apparent insertion makes some sense in that context. It goes nowhere in the story, however. There are some other holes in the plot but overall this is an entertaining story.
The final tale comes from the sumptuous pen of Cornell Woolrich. "I Married a Dead Man" becomes instantly familiar within a few pages, mostly due to the numerous films that have copped the plot. The writing here is far superior to any of the other stories in the book. I'd say it's far superior to most writing in general. The metaphors are extraordinary. Look for the description of Bill lighting his cigarette in the doorway. Wow! The story centers on a case of mistaken identity with a strong dose of blackmail thrown in for good measure. Of course, there's also a murder. This story is outstanding.
Overall, if you are just starting to read noir, start with these two volumes. It is good to see some of the best noir has to offer, and you will find some of it in these pages. The book clocks in at 990 pages, but it reads really fast. There is also a nice summary concerning the careers of each author at the back of the book. Recommended.
It's comforting in a way that these novels, which were considered (and still considered by some) as trash, disposable items of consumption, are collected along with the novels of Melville, James and Hawthorne...."elevated" to high brow lit.
Perhaps the original authors of these masterworks would disagree on the modern critical re-assessment, but to readers like myself, it's just confirmation of something we've known ever since we first discovered them.
Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice" was probably the first crime novel I ever really got into, and it's a stunning departure from Agatha Christie-style mysteries. So much happens in this short book (as turns of plot, but also development of character) that it compares favorably to the first half Camus' "The Stranger." The drifter plumbs the depths of his desperation in a brutal attachment to another man's wife: it's not greed or lust that drives him, but a base need for someone to whom he can anchor himself. A raw and amazing experience, unmatched by anything else of Cain's.
McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is impressively vivid. I had no idea these dance-hall marathons took place before reading this story. This circus of exploitation of young and apparently desperate people certainly makes for excellent Noir. One of these benefits of reading these novels is the unearthing of buried episodes in America's past.
"Thieves Like Us" has been reviewed here as the weaker end of the collection, and I have to agree. It's still a very capable story of outlaws; and the stoicism of the young people caught up in the criminal's lives is admirably depicted here. I recommend reading Andersen's novel before the others (it's still definitive Noir), so one can more easily avoid expectations built up by the Cain and McCoy.
"The Big Clock" is interesting in the depiction of power relationships between employer and employee, and the shifting first-person style of telling the story works here. I never heard of Fearing before reading this novel, but he evidently had a deep understanding of the motivations of very different kinds of people. This novel has the most suspense of the collection, and is a great and sophisticated read.
The most surprising and bizzare novel is "Nightmare Alley," a strange and memorable journey of an aspiring carnival charlatan. It defines Sleaze. The longest and most complex novel, it feels like a long-lost classic that's been hidden away because of its disturbing content. Some may think of it as too long, but the twisting journey through sweaty farming towns, railroad stations and addled big-city martiarchs required time to establish some crediblity: by the end, I was convinced that such a grotesque collection of stunts actually belonged in the story of this country. "Nightmare Alley" alone is worth the price of the book. Fans of Tarot might be a little offended, but this is especially recommended for understanding fans of Ray Bradbury.
Finally, "I Married a Dead Man" by Woolrich is a suspense novel set up by a tragic accident. The protagonist, literally and figuratively hungry, siezes the opportunity to substitute herself into a more fortunate woman's life. Excellently done, and more grounded in comparison to "Nightmare Alley."
Overall, there's no legitimately weak entry in this collection. The variety of content in these novels is enormous, and acquiring this book will allow the reader to experience the different flavors of American Noir. Most modern crime/suspense movies will seem ridiculous by comparison.
"They Shoot Horses..." was my favorite of the bunch for it's depiction of deperate people doing desperate things to survive in the form of a Dance Marathon. But are they doing this out of deperation (even the winner of the prize money, after months of physical torment , will end up having made less than a dollar a day)? Or becuase there is nothing else to do? What is futile and what is meaningfull, the story seems to be asking.
"Nightmare Alley" brought the Tyrone Power movie back home, only the ending seems more poignant. The author organzies each chapter along the 22 minor arcana of the Tarot, a device used by later authors like Robert Anton Wilson and Umberto Eco.
"The big clock", filmed at least twice with variations on themes, uses a unique writing style of shifting narratives from the main characters' points of view and has an awfully modern motive for the murder (probably a little too modern for that period).
"The Postman.." and "I Married a Dead Man" story were also very dood. The Noir theme of "Crime Does Not Pay" runs through most of theses stories, but when you read them, you realize that it's not as simple as that. In the end, who really wins and loses and does it matter?
I don't think one can do better for reading the greats of American Literature than through the Library of America seri