Tonight noted fiction writer and critic Ed Lynskey takes a look at an overlooked writer:
“Film Noir on the Page”: Inside William Krasner’s Imaginative World
One of life’s quaintest joys is ambling into your favorite used bookstore and digging out the book from an unfamiliar writer. Later while reading it, you see your find is a gem. I had that experience with William Krasner’s The Gambler. I’d never heard of William Krasner. So, I bought the yellowed paperback on a whim and, once home, stashed it for a snowy day. Last winter it snowed a lot.
The suspense author of eight novels, William Krasner was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 8, 1917. He died of a heart attack on October 29, 2003 in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. He was 86 and survived by four sons and grandsons. His employment included gigs at a department store, post office, and hospital while attending Washington University in the 1930s. During World War Two, he volunteered for the Army Air Force Corps and saw action in the Central Pacific. He graduated from Columbia University with a B.S. in Literature & Psychology in 1948.
Krasner’s war correspondence and a war journal (both from 1944) are housed at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The William Krasner Papers (mostly materials associated with his first four novels) are housed at Washington University in St. Louis. The New York Public Library contains his television script for Walk the Dark Streets filmed for Studio One (1950).
The first four novels by Krasner during the 1950s earned the respect of such critics as Anthony Boucher and James Sandoe. Krasner’s three 1980s novels attracted some notice from Newgate Callendar at the New York Times. Jacques Barzun admired the Sam Birge books, both in the 1950s and later in the 1980s.
Walk the Dark Streets made the checklist in Geoffrey O’Brien’s Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir. Charles Willeford praised Death of a Minor Poet. Also Krasner’s champion, Raymond Chandler in a 1951 letter to Frederic Dannay (one part of the Ellery Queen duo) wrote, “And it may also happen that single book, such as . . . Walk the Dark Streets by William Krasner . . . will immediately put that writer above and beyond a whole host of writers who have written twenty or thirty books and are extremely well known . . . ”.
Prolific and versatile, Krasner took a hiatus from writing novels (“My first four books did not earn enough to keep us going,” he said in a later interview) and freelanced for various scientific and social science magazines and journals. He also did a great deal of radio and TV work, including a TV show on the Salem witch trials. His pieces appeared in Harper’s Magazine and Saturday Evening Post.
During the 1980s after a disability in 1978 freed up his time, Krasner staged a comeback by writing three more novels. None sold in the numbers sufficient to land another publishing contract, and his last book, Look for the Dancer, only came out in Germany where he was always more popular than in the U.S. Krasner also kept a current listing in Poets & Writers Directory until his death.
The Gambler (Harper, reprinted in H&R Perennial Mystery Library, 1987), Krasner’s second book, first appeared in 1950 and definitively earned him his "film noir on a page” accolade. The narrative details the rise and fall of Ben Wulfson, a two-bit gambler residing in some provincial Midwest city. It’s the spring and Ben’s conflicts quickly emerge.
Ben rescues a pale, sickly young lady, Alice, abandoned on a park bench. He soon collaborates with an old pal, Tim Coogan, to run a covert craps game out of an old storehouse. Ben’s ambitions soon antagonize Stanley Malec, the big fish running the gambling racket on “commission row”. Meantime Ben encounters family difficulties with his bossy elder brother, Jack, and Jack’s harridan-wife, Millie.
The interplay between The Gambler’s light and dark imagery -- many scenes depicted half in light and half in shadow -- at first struck me as heavy-handed and even intrusive. Then it dawned on me: duh, it’s a noir, dummy. With this new perspective in mind, I began to admire and enjoy how Krasner manipulated light and shadows in the various scenes to spawn his noirish atmosphere. I’m sure other writers have aped Krasner’s innovation, and perhaps he wasn’t a real pioneer in using it. But it impressed me as a reader.
But consider this key passage (the novel’s original title was The Skylight Room) describing the sunlight streaming through a skylight in a seedy attic apartment where Ben holes up:
At about eleven each morning a diffused shaft reached down and
struck the baseboard of the north wall. Shortly after one it had moved
as far east as its angle of entry would let it, and slowly and painfully
then thinned out and disappeared. The rest of whatever sunlight there
was during the day, from wherever it entered, remained captive in
the shaft, searching tediously and strenuously over and over the same
little areas of streaked paint and plaster before giving up each evening.
There were no windows. (p. 164-5)
Elsewhere, Krasner enriches his narrative with detailed descriptions, often with laser-like precision. At one point, Ben Wulfson tracks his winnings during the course of a craps game: “the arithmetic that worked in his mind like knives trimming a piece of meat”.
In a late chapter, Ben tries to make a call to Tim Coogan from a pay phone. This scene runs on for five pages. The reader experiences Ben’s sheer desperation as he fumbles with his coins, clears his throat, and argues with the sullen operator. This profusion of details establishes Ben’s futility. The Gambler’s plot doesn’t offer flashy prose or slambang action.
Rather classic noir, as Krasner rightfully demonstrates, is more about the protagonist’s final defeat, mounting in a slow, inexorable process we the readers are powerless to halt. Critical opinion on The Gambler varied. Herbert Mitgang at the New York Times wrote of The Gambler, “A cut above the ordinary tough-guy novel,” while Jacques Barzun saw it as “a first-rate tale of meanness and crime in dingy streets.” The Gambler probably isn’t Krasner’s best fiction, say as Walk the Dark Streets, but it is representative of early American noir: stark, uncompromising, and fluent.
Barzun, Jacques and Wendell Hertiz Taylor, editors. A Catalogue of Crime. Harper & Row, 1989.
Book Review Digest. H.W. Wilson Company, 1949, 1950, 1954, and 1957.
Bourgean, Art. The Mystery Lover’s Companion. Crown, 1986.
Chandler, Raymond and Frank MacShane (editor). Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler. Columbia University, 1981.
Contento, William G. The Fiction Mags Index. (http://users.ev1.net/~homeville/fiction-
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 86. Gale Research. 2000.
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. #120, November 1953.
Kerkhoff, Claus. Review of On Dark Roads (German trans. Walk the Dark Streets). www.x-zine.de.
Krasner, William. “Biography & Bibliography.” www.x-zine.de.
New York Public Library Digital Library Collection, Miner (Worthington) - Studio One Production Files, 1948-1955, Series I: Television Scripts and Production Materials, 1948-1952. Box 12, Folder 3. “Walk the Dark Streets” (Television script).
Obituary for William Krasner.” Life in Legacy.com. (http://www.lifeinlegacy.com/2003/WIR20031108.html).
Obituary for William Krasner. Philadelphia Daily News. November 8, 2003.
O’Brien, Geoffrey. Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir. Da Capo Press, 1997.
Poets & Writers. “Directory of American Poets and Writers.” New York.
William Krasner Papers. WTU00065. University Libraries. Washington University. St. Louis, MO.
World War II Special Collections. MS 1881, Box 14, Folders 23, 24. James D. Hoskins Library, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, KY.
William Krasner’s papers are also archived at Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, MA.
William Krasner Selected Bibliography
Sam Birge Mystery Series
Walk the Dark Streets (Harpers, 1949)(Edgar nomination for Best First Novel along with Bart
The Stag Party (Harpers, 1957)
Death of a Minor Poet (Scribners, 1984)
Resort to Murder (Scribners, 1985)
Look for the Dancer (Rowohlt Verlang, 1990)(published only in Germany)
The Gambler (Harpers, 1950)
North of Welfare (Harpers, 1954)(first chapters a short story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
with Erskine Caldwell and Hugh Pentecost in the same issue)
Co-authored Francis Parkman: Dakota Legend (historical novel) with Randall King. Banbury, 1982.
Contributed to French Omnibus Polars Années cinquante -- Tome 2 (Presses de la Cité, 1992) along with Helen Nielsen, Eric Ambler, Ursula Curtiss, and William O’Farrell.
Children at Risk. National Institute of Mental Health. 1978.
Drug-Trip Abroad: American Drug-Refugees in Amsterdam and London. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.
Labeling the Children. U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration, 1970.
Training Foster Parents to Serve Dependent Children. National Institute of Mental Health. 1978.
Victims of Rape. DHEW Publication No. ADM 77-485. 1977.
End of Essay