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Reading: The Return of the Tough Guy 

The revival of 30s hard-boiled fiction has trickled down to some fascinating minor works, including one--by the author of Lassie, Come Home--that seems especially appropriate in the 80s.

There is no mystery about the current revival of vintage hard-boiled fiction. It is the stuff of nightmares, not dreams--unrelentingly grim stories about people who are hopelessly, helplessly mired in circumstances beyond their control. They struggle, they scheme, they try to cope; often, they feel that they have achieved a separate peace, or even, occasionally, a true triumph of will over fate. In the end, though, they are always defeated, usually by their own worst, often subconscious fears coming true. As a genre, it has a passionately steely way of saying that what goes around comes around, that no matter what we deserve, we're actually going to get something worse. And so, although it was invented 60 years ago, hard-boiled fiction speaks to the karmic essence of the 1980s.

From the late 1920s through the 1930s, this tersely written genre flourished through such tough guy writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. Then, except for a brief revival in the 50s (particularly by Jim Thompson and Mickey Spillane), hard-boiled fiction became the modern, fictional equivalent of the dinosaur; it had an antediluvian cuteness to it, sort of like a cartoon character, but it was definitely extinct. Except for Hammett and Chandler, most hard-boiled writers (Cain, Thompson, Horace McCoy, David Goodis) were out of print; no library carried the major works of the genre, most of which had originally been published in pulpy paperbacks, and even used book stores provided very slim pickings.

In the last few years, though, this situation has begun to change. Several paperback publishers have reprinted some major lost works; most notably, Thompson and Goodis are now available with a little searching. Now this hard-boiled revival has started to trickle down to include some of the more fascinating minor novels, such as Edward Anderson's Thieves Like Us and Paul Cain's Fast One.

Each reprint may not be a classic, but it expands the genre, allowing readers--many for the first time--to understand and appreciate the appeal of hard-boiled fiction: the distillation of passion and anger into an economy of word and image, the precise definition of character as action not thought, the use of language in its briefest, most hotly potent form--so that the words are almost microwaved onto the page.

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, currently reprinted by Black Lizard Books, falls into such a category--a once well-known novel that's been "lost" for almost 40 years. First published in 1938 under the nom de plume Richard Hallas, You Play the Black enjoyed a moderate commercial success; it also generated much controversy over its intent.

To many critics, both then and now, You Play the Black is something of a poseur; they read it as a burlesque or satire of the hard-boiled novel instead of the genuine article. In his essay "The Boys in the Back Room," Edmund Wilson called it "a clever pastiche of [James M.] Cain." In the New York Herald Tribune (1938), reviewer J. Fenwick wrote, "This book is a phoney, but it is a pretty slick job." And in the 1968 anthology, Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, You Play the Black is dismissed as "an imitation."

All these criticisms raise a central question: How does one distinguish an authentic hard-boiled novel? Does it work on a point system? And if so, where is the line drawn? Can a book that has three out of five essential characteristics, for example, be considered genuine while possessing only two renders it a phony?

Certain traits remain unarguably constant. Hard-boiled novels deal with subjects of great passion--love, death, sex, money, fatal attractions, obsession, repression--but always they're handled with great stylistic distance. So, probably the true test of authenticity--and one of the most subjective--is the lack of self-consciousness found in an author's flattened-out style. Also, this is essentially an urban fiction; it tells the stories of cities and all the corruption that can be found there. In "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler summed it up best with the line "Down these mean streets a man must go." What he didn't say, because it was assumed, was that these are mean American streets. Hard-boiled writing is an American genre; it reflects American attitudes and fears. In many ways, it could be summed up as the American Dream gone haywire.

And there, perhaps, lies the source of some critics' complaints about You Play the Black. It's a hard-boiled crime novel written by an Englishman.

In his essay (which condemned all hard-boiled writers, including Hammett and Cain), Edmund Wilson wrote, "It is indicative of the degree to which this kind of writing has finally become formularized that it should have been possible for a visiting Englishman--the real author is Eric Knight--to tell a story in the Hemingway-Cain vernacular almost without a slip." Wilson was not entirely correct; the "visiting Englishman" Knight came to the U.S. when he was in his teens, studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and worked for several newspapers in Philadelphia. In 1932, he moved to Hollywood and wrote film scripts. Eventually, he quit the film business, returned to Pennsylvania and wrote novels. You Play the Black was the only crime or hard-boiled novel he wrote. In 1941, Knight had a best-seller, This Above All, about life in London during the Blitz. But he is probably best known for his 1940 novel Lassie, Come Home, which on the surface is a little like discovering that Mickey Spillane wrote Winnie the Pooh.

The story that Hallas/Knight tells in You Play the Black is, in many ways, a familiar one in this genre. The protagonist, known only as Dick, trails his runaway wife and son to California. It's a hard journey, conducted by hopping freight trains, and by the time he crosses the Rocky Mountains, he has lost any hope or possibility of salvation. (Later, a wacky film director tells Dick, "No one is sane here and nothing is real. And you know what it is? It's the climate--something in the air. You can bring men from other parts of the world who are sane. And you know what happens? At the very moment they cross those mountains . . . they go mad.")

Once he's in California, things go even worse for Dick. A film director of hazy sexuality tries to have Dick killed and then becomes his friend. Dick lets himself be talked into a holdup that ends in a man's death. A calculating divorcee latches on to him and they "marry" in a joke ceremony at an orgy. There is a mean little satire on evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and Upton Sinclair's EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign for governor in 1934. At the end of the novel, there is a grand total of three homicides, a robbery, a suicide, several illicit and sometimes twisted love affairs, a gambling den, and a murder trial full of surprises.

Admittedly, the first third of the book seems, at times, to owe more to self-conscious formula than a genuine affinity with hard-boiled sensibilities. But partway through, a change comes over Dick and with it, the writing itself. It happens after Dick meets Sheila, a goofy young woman who's almost half mermaid, half tranced-out angel. Her appearance is a turning point for both Dick and the novel, for from that point on, Knight's writing achieves a quirky and intensely sad power.

An example is this scene, where Dick wanders down to the beach to think things over.

I went down to the beach and watched the people down there, sitting there with fires going. There were some Japs on a party with some Hawaiians. The Hawaiians all had guitars and were singing. The Japs were getting the Hawaiians stewed. The Hawaiians began dancing. One fellow and one girl were good. They were dancing close together, but not touching; wiggling their fingers round each other like they were stroking each other, but never really touching. They were dancing like the strip acts, only they danced facing each other.

The Japs kept feeding them more liquor till they got plenty drunk.

Then someone shouted, "Come on, Kehoni. Do us a Siva."

The big fellow that was so good got up and started dancing, slow. All of a sudden he stopped and went over and grabbed a guitar and smashed it. Then he started to cry.

He was crying and he said, "I'm homesick enough as it is."

He was plenty drunk.

The fellow whose guitar he busted didn't get sore.

After that they all went home, and I hung around until there was only one fire left down on the beach, where a fellow and a girl were wrapped in a blanket.

I don't know why, but I felt awful bad.

In many ways, You Play the Black might find more of a sympathetic audience today than when it was first published. For although Knight obviously explores the same territory as Cain (and, to a degree, as Theodore Dreiser), the way in which he does it--with a mixed style that's both tough and tongue-in-cheek--seems more in tune with 1980s sensibilities.

Knight's material is the stuff of bourgeois tragedy; his protagonist isn't a white knight who's trying to right society, procure justice, or save a woman in distress. He is a man of modest desires. He wants a little business of his own, a quietly satisfying job, a nuclear family, someone to talk to. A small amount of money and maybe a little more sex. It's a simple American dream of self-actualization if not outright fulfillment, and when it goes wrong it's a tragedy not of Aristotelian but bourgeois proportions.

Once that's understood, it's not such a big leap from a hard-boiled novel to the wartime sentimentality of Lassie, Come Home. Both involve a pornographic use of emotion--that is, emotion wrested from us only for effect--albeit in completely different ways. One, Lassie, uses an excess of sentimentality; You Play the Black touches us through its flattened-out, almost deadpan way of looking at life. That confused, sad, and satirical approach is pure 80s; it speaks to us much like the David Letterman show does--that is, in spite of our ability to know better and to rise above easy shots. And so, perhaps, Knight's quirky little novel of middle-class despair might finally find its audience in this decade. We can understand it because we watch it every night.

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, by Eric Knight (Richard Hallas), Black Lizard Books, $3.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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