RARA-AVIS: 30's-40's Noir & a Social Theme

From: billha@ionet.net
Date: 26 Jul 2001

Been reading through the excellent Library of America CRIME NOVELS: AMERICAN NOIR OF THE 1930S & 40S.

A year late(?), finally read McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? It's quite a performance, building conflicts, tension, characters while restricting the action to the dance hall. Sort of reminds me of Ship of Fools or Grand Hotel
(the movie) or an Agatha Christi, where everyone is contained in one pressure cooker, while we wait to see how and who will blow next. The film, as I remember, it didn't successfully give the sense of social and physical claustrophobia.

Most impressed with William Gresham's Nightmare Alley and Edward Anderson's Thieves Like Us. I earlier commented on Nightmare Alley--a wonderfully depressing read, only disappointing in that Gresham doesn't reveal more of the tricks of the carny-spiritualist trade. Guess he saved them for his Monster Midway, which is, I gather, a sort of documentary of carny lore. Anyone read this one, or his second novel Limbo Tower? Anderson has a wonderful ear and certainly knows his characters--small town criminals, who don't see anything particularly wrong with what they are doing. At the same time, I felt I understood why they behaved the way they did, and would eventually be caught or killed. The way Bowie talks his way to certain decisions convinces you that he couldn't have acted otherwise, at the same time you know he's making the wrong decisions. Is Anderson's Hungry Men worth a read?

The title of Thieves refers to a theme I notice in a lot of 30s fiction, which still seems quite relevant: the higher-ups are "like us," except they get away with it or suffer much less for what they do. The lawyer in Thieves goes into a rant on how small town sheriffs and judges pick which folks will feel the heat of the Law; newspaper accounts create an atmosphere in which no one questions how and why criminals and prisoners end up dead. As I remember, both film versions of Thieves (Altman's and the earlier They Live By Night) contain little of this larger theme.

Jim Thompson is another writer who manages to stick social swipes of this kind in his novels. Loved the way Sheriff Corey, in Pop. 1280, digs at the Pinkertons' tarnished history:

[Commenting on how the agency broke a railroad strike] "...that really took nerve, " I said. "Them railroad wokers throwin' chunks of coal at you an' splashin' you with water, and you fellas without nothin' to defend yourself with except shotguns an' automatic rifles!"

Bill Hagen billha@ionet.net


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