Friday, March 07, 2008

Hardboiled America

One of the books about hardboiled fiction that rarely gets mentioned is Hardboiled America by Geoffrey O'Brien. He's a literary writer of real distinction (as well as the editor of The Library of America) but he's not slumming. He loves and understands the material. And he writes with real elegance.

His assessment of such major writers as Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, Gardner are very much his own, and all the more fascinating because of it. He also takes the time to illustrate how literary fiction influenced hardboiled and how hardboiled influenced literary and mainstream.

For me he's at his best with the second generation of hardboiled writers, namely the Gold Medal girls and boys and how they spun off into Lion, Graphic, Ace, etc. I wish he wasn't so dismissive of John D. MacDonald. Here he takes the familiar path of the neo-noir critics who complain that JDM wasn't tough enough in his viewpoint. Most of his books concern middle class or working class men and women confronting crime. They're not gumshoes, they're not criminals. They bring their manners and mores with them when they try to extricate themselves from their problems. It's not that he isn't hardboiled; it's that he doesn't use all the cliches of hardboiled.

O'Brien shines when discussing Day Keene, Harry Whittington and, especially, Charles Williams. In fact I think his piece on Williams is definitve. Hard to imagine anybody handling Williams' career any more shrewedly.

The Hardboiled Checklist at the back of the book (1929-1960) is the most intelligent, exhaustive such list I've ever seen. Makes you wish you had three lifetimes just to read every book he takes note of.

This belongs on the shelf of every hardboiled reader and writer. It doesn't get any better than this.


Unknown said...

This is one of my all-time favorites, too. I re-read it at least once a year.

Anonymous said...

I have both editions and couldn't be persuaded to part with either.

The closing chapter, just before the epilogue, transforms into a prose-poem, illustrating the importance of the original noir and hardboiled fiction to those who read it back in its heyday. It's heady, moving stuff.

The checklists vary a bit from the first to second edition. But I've tracked down just about everything on each.

John Hocking

buckycatt said...

Thanks for the suggestion. Just added it to my big fat wishlist. Travis McGee didn't strike me as that middle class & he was a PI so I'm confused, but maybe I should read the entire article. Keep up the lively work. Thanks Ed.

Ed Gorman said...

Hi Buckycatt

Like many JDM fans, I consider the McGees among the least of his novels. Stand-alones such as The End of The Night, Soft Touch and Dead Low Tide are, for me, his best books. I once caught some flack for saying that McGee was a Rotarian's version of an adventurous stud. I still think he was.

Anonymous said...

I use the Hardboiled Checklist to scout for reading selections. ILL has come in handy for tracking down the older stuff. DEAD LOW TIDE is one of my favorite JDM titles. Thanks for review of HBA, Ed. Enjoyed it.

Ed Lynskey

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the quiet middle class in the upper midwest. McGee's marina life seemed a delicious escape into hedonism for me. John D. MacDonald had an MBA from Harvard and was in the OSS during the war, and these played a part in the type of crime McGee was dealing with. The McGee novels resonated in me, precisely because they weren't hardboiled and rose from a world I could fathom.

Richard Wheeler