Allan Guthrie on Noir
(Old DTM post, originally posted on August 13, 2007)
When TBP played in Scotland a couple of weeks ago, I got to sit down with Allan Guthrie and talk books. He also gave me a copy of his first novel, Two-Way Split, which was the only one I hadn't read. I rectified this oversight on the plane ride home, and it proved to be just as good as the rest of his output. (It has also just won a major prize.) For those who want to be up on their 21-century noir, reading Guthrie is essential.
Allan has published a wonderful list of 200 noirs that covers a lot more ground than this brief discussion.
AG: 1929 was a good year. That was the year of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, W. R. Burnett's Little Ceasar, and Erskine Caldwell's The Bastard.
EI: I don't really know Caldwell.
AG: Early Caldwell is very important. The Bastard is arguably the first noir. Poor Fool, which followed, is not that good, but it is really extraordinarily bizarre! I also love Tobacco Road. Noir and absurdity are easy bedfellows. Noir is "you're doomed," and absurdity is "life is meaningless." Not so far apart when you stop to think about it.
EI: It is amazing how well Hammett's Red Harvest holds up. So fresh, even today.
AG: Yes! He never tells you what to feel. The reader is allowed to engage with the text. Look at The Maltese Falcon or The Glass Key – you’re never told what the protagonists think or feel. Very participatory for the reader.
EI: Contrast that with Raymond Chandler, who always is always so sentimental.
AG: Right. Well, I don't read so many of the detective or police procedurals, where a murder has to be solved. Chandler was a major writer, though, undoubtedly.
EI: I think the best Chandler is Farewell, My Lovely.
AG: I'd agree. I see four noir strands with Hammett, Chandler, Burnett, and James Cain. Possibly Cornell Woolrich is a fifth strand.
EI: That's true, isn't it? Hammett gave us hard-boiled language plus "is he a good or a bad guy?" heroes, Chandler perfected the knight-errant with a gun (notice how Marlowe always protects the rich), Burnett invented the gangster novel, Cain explores men doomed by circumstance (especially greed and women), and with Woolrich surrealism and terror are invited to the table. I suppose all reasonably tough crime, mystery and noir authors are in one or more of these traditions.
AG: James Cain is probably my favorite writer. After the first two famous books (The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity), I also love the very provocative Serenade and The Butterfly. The economy! He did away with dialogue tags: there are no "I said" or "she said" in his books. Cain is classic thirties material. The thirties (or really 1929 on) and the fifties are probably my favorite decades for noir.
EI: What about the other thirties Cain, Paul Cain? Do you like Fast One or Seven Slayers better?
AG: Seven Slayers, only because I have never been able to understand Fast One.
EI: Me neither!
AG: Someday I'm going to outline that damned thing and see if I can figure out what happens in it! Paul Cain did take the hard-boiled style to the extreme.
Something from that era I always recommend is the unjustly neglected Bodies Are Dust by P.J. Wolfson. What an incredible book.
EI: I've never even heard of it.
[Here is a bit more of Allan on Wolfson.]
AG: What about The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin?
EI: That one I do know.
AG: That is the strangest mystery novel of all.
EI: Yeah, although another contender for that prize is Cameron McCabe's The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, which is also from the thirties, and totally surreal.
AG: There are lots of interesting books from that era, like They Don't Dance Much by James Ross, which is the first "country noir," and Thieves Like Us, by Edward Anderson. Although some would consider it a straight novel, I think that Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts is a great noir. Then there is You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, by Richard Hallas, the pseudonym of Eric Knight, author of Lassie Comes Home. It is just brilliant, even if we don't really know if it is a parody or not. Frankly, I don't care. It's great!
EI: I've read the Ross and Anderson books, but not the West or the Hallas. I remember that the language in the Ross book is very strong, and the Anderson was eventually the basis of a Robert Altman film.
AG: We are sort of in the 1940's so we need to mention the great Horace McCoy for Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.
EI: I need to give that another chance. Talk about your weird noir…I do love They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Is there other W.R. Burnett that you like besides Little Caesar?
AG: Let me see... well, there is High Sierra. What else of his have you read?
EI: Asphalt Jungle is the only other really well-known title, but the best ones that I've read are probably Vanity Row and Dark Hazard. You should give Dark Hazard a try, which is about dog-racing. (Donald Westlake recommended it to me.) A man loves his dog more than his woman in that one – sounds like it might be weird enough for you – and it's from 1933.
Vanity Row has some of the fullest exploration of corrupt local government in a crime novel since Hammett's The Glass Key.
That book is from the 1950's, when only a few major crime and noir authors were doing essential work in hardcover. It was the new breed of paperback originals put out by Gold Medal and Lion that have stood the test of time. They were quite a revelation to me when I discovered this era…I know you are a fan.
AG: Oh yeah, I'm pretty sure I have the biggest collection of paperback originals in Scotland! My favorite is David Goodis, but only because I'm a miserable son of a bitch.
EI: Truly the most despairing writer ever! I need to read more of him…what would you recommend?
AG: The Street of No Return. The Wounded and the Slain. The short story "The Professional Man" is kind of the ultimate Davis Goodis statement: An underling in the mob is love with the same girl as his boss. The question is, who is he going to support? Himself? The Girl? The boss? See, he really considers himself a professional. Therefore, he takes the girl out to the park, kills her, and then kills himself. Ah, Goodis…
EI: Where would I find this story?
AG: Serpent's Tail reprinted it along with some other shorts and the novella Black Friday. After that, I guess you would need to get that issue of Manhunt from 1953. I actually have that magazine, courtesy of the very generous Duane Swierczynski.
[Woody Haut has written about this Goodis collection.]
EI: Do you like Jim Thompson, too?
AG: Yes. Not so much his most famous book, The Killer Inside Me (although that's good too) but things like A Hell of a Woman, Savage Night, Pop. 1280, and Texas by the Tail. The Coen Brothers' first movie, Blood Simple, is absolutely placed in Jim Thompson's world. The private eye is just like Lou Ford from The Killer Inside Me.
EI: There is no doubt that the Coens know their crime authors. I didn't realize that Blood Simple was a Thompson pastiche, but that completely makes sense. Of course, The Big Lebowski is a Raymond Chandler pastiche, The Man Who Wasn't There is James Cain, and Miller's Crossing is arguably the best Dashiell Hammett on film.
AG: You're right: maybe it is the best Hammett on film!
[See also this article by Paul Coughlin.]
EI: Back to Jim Thompson: I just reread Savage Night, and I have to say I found the whole conceit so ridiculous it was hard for me to fully engage. I mean, a midget hitman who starts living with his target in a small town and for cover starts attending the college next door? Not to mention erotic liaisons with the target's showgirl wife/hussy AND the crippled virgin maid in the same house…
AG: The thing about Thompson or Goodis or some of these other 50's noir paperback authors is that, first and foremost, they deliver a world-view and an atmosphere. It's not always about plot. They wrote really fast (sometimes just taking the weekend and a whiskey bottle to do the whole book) and those first-draft manuscripts were published unedited. What is amazing is how compelling their fictional universes are today. Sure, there's some bad stuff. Some authors are REALLY inconsistent, making Goodis or Thompson look like real solid professionals in comparison. Gil Brewer, when he is bad, is really bad. But I love Brewer's 13 French Street and The Red Scarf. Likewise with Day Keene. I recommend Sleep with the Devil and Home Is the Sailor (which was recently republished by Hard Case Crime). Keene is very immediate, and (unusually) often wrote about the socially-excluded type.
EI: What about Peter Rabe?
AG: He changes point of view in the text too often for my taste. I want to stay in the mind of one character for longer--sometimes he changes a few times in one paragraph and all that head-popping can get confusing! Having said that, Graham Greene does it well. But I do really like Rabe's The Box, which has such a great idea to start a book with, and Anatomy of a Killer, where you slowly understand that the killer is going to pieces without Rabe telling you directly.
EI: I also admire Anatomy of a Killer tremendously. There are some beautiful sentences in Rabe, for sure. I would also mention Murder Me for Nickels and Kill the Boss Goodbye.
AG: The most famous paperback original author was maybe John D. MacDonald.
EI: The Travis McGee series has not aged well.
AG: The stand-alones are better. I must have read about twenty of them and Soft Touch is by far my favorite.
Ed McBain is like that too: I adore at least two of his stand-alones, Guns and Downtown, but have less feeling for the series books.
EI: This is possibly controversial, but I prefer the stand-alone Donald Hamiltons from the fifties like Line of Fire to the Matt Helm series, although the first Helm, Death of a Citizen, is pretty great.
AG: There is also a really early Hamilton called The Steel Mirror which is really good. One of the interesting things about Donald Hamilton is how he writes about World War Two. Almost all the other authors we are discussing write like it didn't even happen – they clearly considered what they were doing "escapism," or their publishers did, but Hamilton doesn’t shy away from the fact that WWII had an enduring effect.
EI: Yeah, the one Hard Case reissued, Night Walker, is really a WWII-style spy story. (Not my favorite Hamilton, unfortunately.)
Who are we missing of the paperback original crew? Lionel White? Charles Williams? Dan Marlowe?
AG: Those guys and Lion author David Karp, who wrote the original Hardman and the really strange Brotherhood of Velvet. Good luck finding those! Well worth the hunt, though.
Lionel White's best-known book, Clean Break (filmed as The Killing by Kubrick) is pretty good, as is The Money Trap. For Charles Williams, the question is usually: do you like the ones at sea or on land? I prefer the sea ones…
EI: The nautical detail is pretty amazing…
AG: …but I like Hell Hath No Fury (and the movie version, The Hot Spot, despite Don Johnson) too. Williams also wrote one non-noir called The Diamond Bikini, which might be the best Williams book of them all.
EI: I know The Diamond Bikini! That is a really funny book, in the tradition of southern humor began by Mark Twain.
AG: Dan Marlowe's classic is The Name of the Game Is Death, but I (unusually for me) also appreciate his private eye series featuring Johnny Killan – the first of the series is called Doorway to Death.
EI: I don't know those, but I do admire The Name of the Game Is Death and also The Vengeance Man. They both feature really gritty and evil protagonists.
AG: Another writer from that earlier generation was Benjamin Appel, who's tremendous book Brain Guy was recently reprinted by Stark House. Another Appel book, Hell's Kitchen, is just about the best book of short stories I've ever read.
EI: Really? Appel is a new name to me.
AG: I bet you haven't heard of James McKimmey, either.
AG: Dell author and prodigy of James D. MacDonald. Try Squeeze Play, Cornered, and Twenty-four Hours to Kill.
[Allan's website has a lot more on McKimmey and other noir authors.]
EI: OK! Nice. Before we leave the fifties authors, I just want to bring up someone who published in hardcover, Fredric Brown.
AG: You know, I've never really read Brown.
EI: I really think The Far Cry is right up your blackest noir alley, Allan.
AG: I have the Black Lizard reprint at home; I'll have to move it to the top of the pile.
EI: In the sixties, the paperback original market dried up a bit. Someone who we both admire put out his first hardcover in 1960: Donald E. Westlake's The Mercenaries. I just reread that, and found it surprisingly good.
AG: The Mercenaries is a masterpiece! I included that book in a list of 100 great noirs I did once for a magazine. The fact that it is a first effort makes it even more amazing.
I've never read a Westlake that wasn't a great read.
EI: He is the master of the believable scenario.
AG: Well…some of them are even less believable than Jim Thompson, though, aren't they, like The Ax or The Hook?
EI: Oh, I don't know, Allan – I think The Ax is TOTALLY believable. Let me show you around prim and boring upstate New York sometime. Middle-class America will start killing each other to survive real fast, I think. (That's my favorite Westlake, by the way.) As for The Hook, well, I see what you mean, but even so, Westlake hardly ever gets a detail wrong. The details are always right when DW is typing!
AG: A master, for sure. But I don't think noir needs to be accurate to be compelling.
EI: Of course not. This makes me think of Charles Willeford. What do you think of Charles Willeford?
AG: His name is up there with God.
AG: The first line of Miami Blues describes the character as a "blithe psychopath." The working title of all my books beginning with Two-Way Split has been Blithe Psychopath. I also love Pick-Up, The Shark-Infested Custard, Cockfighter, The Difference, all the Hoke Moselys… He wrote all sorts of different kinds of books. The breadth of his writing is impressive.
EI: Have you read his autobiography, Something About a Soldier?
EI: It is possibly his best book. When I read it I wept. It really helps define what being male is all about.
AG: I must get it.
EI: Give me a few more titles to get myself – maybe by some of these more obscure authors you know so much about.
AG: Jack Ehrlich won an Edgar for a book called The Drowning, but you should look out for an outrageously violent novel of his called Bloody Vengeance. Paul Kavanagh's Such Men Are Dangerous is from 1970. I love that book! It is superbly matter of fact. (Kavanagh is actually the pseudonym of Lawrence Block, who has written one of my favorite detective series, the Matt Scudder books.) And, more recently from the 1980's, there is no darker writer than an English writer, Derek Raymond, and his Factory series. Off the scale! You know those authors?
EI: Not yet (except Block, of course). But now I can start looking.
AG: Good hunting and thanks for the chat. Did I mention how much I enjoyed the Bad Plus gig? Quite something. See you again next year.