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Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s Vol 2 (Library of America) Hardcover – 16 Oct 2014
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About the Author
ROBERT POLITO, editor, is a poet, biographer, and critic whose "Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson" received the National Book Critics Circle Award. He directs the Graduate Writing Program at the New School and is the editor of "David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s," also from The Library of America.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The first story is from the demented mind of Jim Thompson. This story, called The Killer Inside Me, is much better than The Grifters, a book by Thompson that I read some time ago. The Grifters seemed to be pretty one-dimensional with respect to its characters. This story is the exact opposite. A deputy sheriff in a Texas city has a terrible secret. He plays dumb on the outside, but inside he is a cunning sociopath. A long simmering resentment leads to a terrible revenge. Bodies quickly stack up as a result. This seems to be the story that Thompson is best known for and it's no surprise why. This is a dark, twisted tale with a grim ending.
Patricia Highsmith wrote a whole series of stories concerning Tom Ripley. The one included here is The Talented Mr. Ripley, probably better known due to the recent film with Matt Damon. This tale isn't as noir as I would have liked, but it still has enough twists and turns to keep anybody in suspense. Ripley is a low class conniver who ingratiates himself into a wealthy family who wants him to go to Italy and bring back their son. Ripley sees the potential for bucks and meets up with the kid and his lady friend. Of course, things take a turn for the worse and the bodies start stacking up. This story was probably my least favorite out of the entire collection.
The next story, Pick-Up, by Charles Willeford, is a depressing tale about two alcoholics who go bump in the night. The story follows the adventures of this alcoholic couple as they attempt suicide, check themselves into a mental hospital, and drink themselves into a stupor. After the female half of the couple dies in another suicide pact, the story switches to a prison tale. The end is somewhat of a twist, but really doesn't impact the story that much, in my opinion. Again, not really noir as noir can be, but still a fine story that can stand by itself.
Down There, by David Goodis, is a wild ride of a tale. Full of suspense and death, this is a great story that deserves to be included here. A family of ne'er-do-wells drags their talented piano-playing brother into their personal problems. The background information on Eddie, the piano player, is phenomenal. The tragedy that has struck him once is bound to repeat itself again. This story has great bit characters that really liven up the background.
The final story, by Chester Himes, is The Real Cool Killers. This is noir on acid: pornographic violence, massive doses of grim reality, and characters you're glad to see get killed. The story is set in Harlem and involves two tough cops named Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Someone kills a white guy in Harlem and the cops try and track them down. This story contains one of the funniest descriptions of a person falling off a balcony that I've ever read (and I've read a few, disturbingly enough). The writing has enough similes and metaphors to give Raymond Chandler an apoplectic fit. A cool story that certainly deserves a place in this book.
If you like noir, read these two LOA novels. They are long (together they're almost 2000 pages) but it is definitely worth the effort. These kinds of stories are just a great way to while away some free time and relieve stress.
"The Killer Inside Me" - Jim Thompson's most popular work is a memorable tale of a Texas law enforcer with a sinister past whose dark and psychotic nature is cunningly veiled behind a genial facade that barely contains "the sickness" which the main character has successfully concealed. A sudden turn of events unleashes the beast inside leading to a tragic odyssey of disillusion, violence, and murder. Pioneering in it's time for revealing the inner mind of the serial killer, the bracing prose and chilling character development makes this work one of the best in the genre.
"The Talented Mr. Ripley" - Tom Ripley is a con artist successfully making ends meet through one of the most reprehensible professions in New York City. A drifter and social outcast, one night in a bar he comes across a parent of an old acquaintance he barely recalls and is asked to do a favor. When he consents, his true nature unfolds in this story of murder, sexuality, and identity. Made into film in 1999 starring Matt Damon in the leading role, this cosmopolitan travelogue with a Decadent touch in the end introduced the world to one of the most oddly sympathetic and diabolical characters in Literature.
"Pick-Up" - Charles Willeford's winning style successfully conveys the sad and tragic tale of two lost alcoholics in the skid row section of San Francisco in the 1950's. Scene by depressing scene the author chronicles the faith, hope, and disillusionment of a couple whose time revolve around the contents of a bottle. The engrossing prose is marred unfortunately with an unbelievable twist and dissapointing ending.
"Down There" - The best selection of the entire series, "Down There" is an unforgettable account of a barroom piano man whose days of glory were ended by tragedy. Rendered indifferent to life by his soul-breaking experiences, he meets an equally lost soul and together they encounter adversity supporting each other as only similarly dark-fated individuals can. The heartbreaking ending still haunts me whenever I think about it.
"The Real Cool Killers" - Blaxploitation on speed! The talented Chester Himes vividly conjures this adrenaline yarn of two black detectives taking on the streets of Harlem in no holds barred action. Race, violence, and loathsome scenemakers feverishly grapple in this heat-inducing neon nocturne of urban society. Black humor at one of it's very finest.
Flawed but highly readable, these long forgotten and out of print works have been handsomely restored and given ample tribute by the laudable Library of America. Wanting to familiarize myself with the enduring genre, reading the two vols. of the "Crime Novels" series has been a pleasant introduction and reading experience to me.
Noir derived in part from cheap pulp and detective magazines. Many of the novels were first published in paperback editions with gaudy, suggestive covers and were not expected to last. By the time the novels in this collection were published, the genre had a substantial history and was in danger of becoming formulaic and stereotyped. Yet the novels in this collection have their own distinctive characters. The six novels in the opening LOA volume were set in different places, but all took place during the Depression, a fitting period for a dark, crime novel. Each of the five novels included here is set in the 1950's following two major wars. The 1950's differed markedly from the Depression-era, and these novels, in their different settings, have the ambience of their era.
Jim Thompson's (1906 -- 1977) "The Killer inside Me" , written in 1952 is among the best in this collection. Set in a west Texas town called Central City, this book is a study of the internal life of a psychopathic killer, Lou Ford, 29, who narrates the story in the first person. Ford is an apparently mild-mannered and dull-witted deputy sheriff, but he is in fact highly intelligent and a brutal killer. The book delves insightfully into the sources of Ford's compulsion to kill. Thompson's sharply written novel captures Ford's growing sense of guilt and his deterioration into illusion and madness as he struggles to escape detection for his crimes.
The longest novel in this collection, Patricia Highsmith's (1921 -- 1995) "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1955) is set primarily in post-WW II Italy and shows the strong influence of Henry James' classic novel "The Ambassadors". As in James' story, a young man is sent to Europe in the hopes of persuading someone he knows to return to the United States and to assume a life of responsibility. At the behest and expense of a wealthy businessman, a ne'r do well named Tom Ripley travels to Italy to retrieve the man's son, Dickie Greenleaf, from his dreams of becoming an artist. Ripley murders Dickie instead and tries to evade detection from shifting his identity back and forth between himself and his victim. Ripley is smooth and imaginative in this modernistic story of double identity.
Charles Willeford (1919-- 1988) had a long career as a writer and his 1956 novel "Pick-up" is an early effort. This book is set in the bars and rooming houses of San Francisco and includes as its chief theme a short love affair between a frustrated artist Harry Jordan, 32, and a woman he meets, Helen Meredith,33. Jordan narrates this story of loneliness and drifting, of city streets and suicide. The book also has a racial theme not far from the surface.
My favorite work in this collection was David Goodis' novel "Down There" (1956), which became a movie called "Shoot the Piano Player". Set during a cold Philadelphia winter, "Down There" tells the story of Eddie Lynn who makes a subsistence living playing the piano in a bar called Harriet's Hut. The book captures the atmosphere of lonely streets, shattered dreams, the power of love, family, and music. The LOA has recently published a volume devoted to Goodis (1917 --1967) David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (Library of America) in his own right.
The final novel in this collection, "The Real Cool Killers" (1959) by Chester Himes is the only one that is a who-done-it. Set in Harlem, the book centers upon two African American detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Jones, who investigate the killing of a white man, Ulysees Galen, who frequents the area's streets and bars. A street gang of African American young men also plays a major role in the story. The story features sadomasochistic sex, sharp dialogue and social observations, and many surprising turns of plot. The primary character of the book, however, is Harlem itself. Himes (1909 -- 1984) wrote this book while living in Paris where his works were considerably better received than in the United States.
While the books in this collection all have a noir atmosphere and involve crime, each has its own individuality. These books are fast-paced, tense, and show understanding of place and character. They are worthy additions to American literature. I was pleased to have the opportunity to get to know these books in this volume and in the LOA companion volume. For readers wishing more detailed reviews of the individual titles. I am attaching links below.
The Killer Inside Me
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Shoot the Piano Player
The Real Cool Killers