From: William Denton ( buff@pobox.com)
Date: 16 Mar 2003

I thought we'd discussed this book, but a search of the archives turns up nothing. I recently read YOU CAN'T WIN (1926) by Jack Black (the old-time yegg, not the young actor). It's another on that short list of hardboiled nonfiction books.

The bad thing about this book is that Black isn't a great writer. He had an incredible life, and there are lots of exciting stories in here, but they don't always come to life. Sometimes I'd start skimming out of mild boredom, only to realize Black had just escaped from jail again, or blown another safe, or backed down from holding up Bat Masterson. Black could probably tell an incredible tale in person, and he's a good writer, but the autiobraphy should be as exciting as his life, which was jam-packed with action.

Black started riding the rails when he was young, and soon turned to crime. He blew safes, he conned, he robbed, he burgled, he did everything. He hung out in gin joints, he got hooked on opium, he did time in jails in the U.S. and Canada. He knew Foot-and-a-Half George and Salt Chunk Mary and he partnered with the Sanctimonious Kid for a while. The book's filled with slang and bizarre characters, and lots of tips on how to get by if you're riding the rails or holing up in a small town and you need to raise cash, fast.

YOU CAN'T WIN was a favourite of William S. Burroughs, who wrote an introduction for the edition that's in print now. He drew on it for JUNKY and other books. The writer that I really associate with it, though, is Hammett. The people in this book are the ones Hammett hung out with, and chased after, when he was a Pinkerton man. They're some of the ones the Continental Op met when he went into waterfront Frisco dives. The lingo, the names, the crimes, it all leads directly into early hardboiled fiction, when Hammett put crime back where it belonged.


William Denton : Toronto, Canada : http://www.miskatonic.org/ : Caveat lector.

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