Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s
James M. Cain, Horace McCoy; Edward Anderson; Kenneth Fearing; William Lindsay Gresham; Cornell Woolrich
Here’s a recipe for creating literature: write to make a living (in other words, embrace the nakedly commercial), incorporate new things floating around the zeitgeist, ignore the professoriate and critics, sell to the movies, wait 50 years, put between hard covers and press. That, at the very least, is what the Library of America has done with 6 dime-store novels of the 30s and 40s that truly deserve to be part of our national literature.
“It was nothing but a roadside sandwich joint, like a million others in California.” That’s a very early sentence in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the barely-breaking-a-hundred-pages novel that kicks off the collection. The LoA editors chose a typically figure-free Hopper for the cover of this volume but that sentence does a much better job of establishing the mood and tone. Things are, at once, recognizably modern and mundane. The interiority I associate with the 19th century and before is gone. The pace has quickened. Observe, categorize, label, move on.
But our narrator doesn’t and trouble ensues in the form of murder, first botched then succesful. Also sex. Hot steamy sex that is suggested rather than described. There’s a reason that the B/W movie with John Garfield and Lana Turner will always be a classic and the Streep/Nicholson remake risible– filmmakers have forgotten the power of suggestion.
All of these novels, in fact, made it to the screen. That means you may think you know them and in a way you do. But you miss a lot in that transition. They Shoot Horses, for example, uses the judge’s delivery of the verdict as chapter breaks. Novel in both form and typography. (This was my least favorite piece in the collection if that matters.)
Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us belongs on any list of 1930s proletarian novels. (Sadly, I missed it when writing on that subject as an undergrad.) You can easily dismiss the rationalizations of the would-be-band of Dillingers but the bankers are clearly bad guys in their world view–one that quite a few people held in those days.
With the latter three titles the action moves East, giving in to the gravitational field of New York. The Big Clock, made twice as a movie, revolves around an interesting twist. It’s also set in what is a thinly veiled replica of Time-Life so you wonder what went on between Kenneth Fearing and Henry Luce. Fearing tells the story in chapters delineated by which character’s viewpoint you’re taking, a technique that heightens the tension. Similarly Cornell Woolrich’s tale of lies and truth, I Married a Dead Man, swings back and forth between the characters.
Nightmare Alley, by William Lindsay Graham, is the longest story in the collection and if it drags in places its ambition is obvious. Graham delights in applying a ridiculously Freudian framework to create a faux-Greek tragedy. Our man brings himself down as any Greek tragic figure would. As a bonus you get an inside look at how psychics ply their trade and carnivals work.
Tyrone Power starred in the movie version of Nightmare Alley. That picture stands out because in high school it provided a classmate with a new word to insult my lab partner: geek. The definition ain’t pretty and if tech weenies and too-cool Millenials want to embrace it they ought to understand its sideshow origins.
All of these writers lived hard lives. None made it past 65. All did stints on newspapers. All worked as screenwriters. All were alcoholics. All will entertain the hell out of you and maybe even expand your idea of literature.