Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Time Travel : My 1995 Review of Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories

I've fallen down on the job -- again. In order to assure my few readers that I am slothful, not dead, I thought I'd make a quasi-reappearance with a reprint of my review of Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian. First, a short explanation...

A month or so ago, while searching for something else on the Web, I found a bibliographic reference to a review of mine that ran in the academic journal Studies in Short Fiction in the Fall 1997 issue (it ran two years after I wrote it). I remember writing the review but was under the impression that it never ran -- that it had fallen through the cracks of the editor's desk. Apparently it did run, and the text is available online (in CBS's FindArticles database). When I wrote it, I had been reading some -- but not a lot of -- crime fiction. So, like a good junior academic, I sort of feigned greater expertise than I had. I was eager to have some sort of publication in an academic journal -- if only to show that I was trying (it didn't do any good). Previously, I had published (and been paid for) a few general reviews that ran in The Daily Californian in Berkeley. Anyway, here's the review; please forgive my pretensions...

HARD-BOILED: AN ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN CRIME STORIES, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. vii 532 pages. $25.

This collection serves as a reminder that some of the strongest American writing of the twentieth century has appeared in the genre of the hard-boiled. It also demonstrates the range of the genre and the problems with identifying criteria that make a story truly hard-boiled.

With academic and general interest in American crime fiction continuing to mount, Hard-Boiled provides a selection of twentieth-century stories by decade from the twenties to the nineties. The best stories come from the twenties, thirties, and, in what may be a surprise to many readers, the fifties. The stories of the first decades are identifiably fueled by prohibition, depression, and gangsterism. The stories from the fifties illuminate the strong undercurrent of anomie, misogyny, and racism that colored the predominant cultural picture of postwar middle-class prosperity.

Many of the usual suspects appear in this anthology: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, two Cains (Paul and James M.), two MacDonalds (John D. and Ross), Mickey Spillane, Evan Hunter, and Jim Thompson. Editors Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian have also searched for new and lost voices, as well as unexpected stories by writers now well known in the field. Of the latter, the best find is a story called "Trouble-Chaser" by Paul Cain, one of the hardest of the hard. Cain's only novel, Fast One, and his story collection, Seven Slayers, are minor classics, both recently reissued; "Trouble-Chaser," on the other hand, has not seen the light of day since its 1934 appearance in the seminal pulp, Black Mask. A Hollywood story, "Trouble-Chaser" compresses some of the genre's best elements into fewer than 20 pages: a booze runner, his hooking wife, a Hollywood studio head, his heroin-addicted, jealousy-stricken starlet wife, and a trouble-chasing, on-the-make hero whose wit matches his cynicism. The story accumulates three bodies, showcases two staged suicides, and ends tightly with a nice nod to the reader: our hero curls up with a book as he waits for the police to arrive.

Cain's story exemplifies with the strongest of the collection that the hard-boiled is at its peak when it is pitiless, plotted at breakneck speed, a touch droll, and well aware of its generic confinement to amoral entertainment. With the exception of Gil Brewer's grim, sketchy story, "Home" (1956), about a black man run down by a car, the stories driven by social issues fall flat. A case in point, Lawrence Block's 1990 story, "Batman's Helpers," follows Block's detective, Matthew Scudder, and his compatriots as they hassle immigrants hawking unlicensed Batman togs on the streets of Manhattan. The story ends with Scudder leaving the easy assignment after a day--a hard-boiled man with no stomach for leaning on the disenfranchised.

Strangely enough, Block's oddly saccharine story made its original appearance in Playboy. This late venue for the hard-boiled story stands as a reminder of the genre's targeted male audience, a fact most evident in the name of the genre's main vehicle of the fifties: Manhunt. The stories of Manhunt can be exceptionally brutal. David Alexander's "Mama's Boy" (1955), for instance, follows a narcissistic bodybuilding gigolo as he searches for, finds, and kills an older woman. Hard-Boiled's editors should be applauded for including this story, which displays the seaminess of the genre's best writing.

In spite of all my boy talk, two women wrote and published some of the finest stories in the 1950s men's magazines. Helen Nielsen does a fine job in "A Piece of Ground" (1957), a stark, almost archetypal rendering of the rustic undone in the big city. Leigh Brackett also appears with a story that is stronger than its title, "So Pale, So Cold, So Fair" (1957). Brackett's place in this anthology also draws the link between the hard-boiled and film noir: she co-authored the screenplay for Howard Hawks's adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1946) and nearly 30 years later scripted Robert Altman's version of Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1973).

Pronzini and Adrian's introduction provides a good thumbnail sketch of the genre's history. They do better discussing publishing history than literary genealogy. Tying the hard-boiled hero to Huck Finn, Ahab, and Natty Bumppo only goes so far. They also rightly confess the collection's limitations, and indeed several strong hard-boiled authors are absent. Nevertheless, the collection serves as both a useful introduction to and distillation of the hard-boiled.

No comments: