Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Forgotten Books: Hardboiled America

How's this for a resume (from Wikipedia): "Geoffrey O'Brien (b. 1948) is a widely published author, editor, book and film critic, poet, and cultural historian. In 1992, he joined the staff of the Library of America, (later) becoming editor in chief. He has been a contributor to Artforum, Film Comment, The New York Times, Village Voice, New Republic, Filmmaker and, especially, to the New York Review of Books."

With cred like this you might expect his writing to be hoity or at least toity. Nope. No matter what he's writing about O'Brien is a pleasure to read. He has a voice and style all his own. And he's never more compelling than when he's writing about "Lurid Paperbacks and Masters of Noir," the sub-title of Hardboiled America.

There is no equivalent to this study of the largely forgotten writers who were conduits to the present day likes of Lehane and Pelecanos and Zeltserman. Even if these men never read the paperback writers of the Fifties they could not escape their influence. It was everywhere, adapted to radio and movies and comic books. And O'Brien is masterful at tracing the hardboiled vision from generation to generation.

O'Brien takes seriously the writing of such people as Day Keene, Harry Whittington and Brett Halliday and many other paperback men and women. He's opinionated of course. His take on John D. MacDonald and Dorothy Hughes never fails to rankle me. But his observations on the work of Jim Thompson and W.R. Burnett and Ross Macdonald and Charles Williams are eloquent and so well reasoned I reread them several times a year. He also brings in literary writers whose work was sometimes in the spirit of hardboiled. Nelson Algren is a natural. But I'm glad he referenced Calder Willingham, too. A fine novelist whose short stories in particular are so dark they can disturb your sleep for a few nights.

Then there is a checklist of hardboiled novels from 1929-1960. Again there is nothing like this anywhere else. You'll encounter names you've never heard of as well as the paperback staples of the various eras. I was so taken with the checklist I once called O'Brien and asked him if he'd let me reprint it in a coffee table book I was editing on noir. He didn't bother to hide his irritation. His checklist, he said, was one of the selling points of the his book. Why would he let me reprint it? He was right of course. But what the hell, it was worth a try.

If you don't have this book in your collection then you don't have a serious collection. Period. O'Brien is a savvy and witty writer and his words are complemented by a healthy number of black and white paperback cover reproductions. Get this book


mybillcrider said...

I agree, Ed. An essential book.

Cullen Gallagher said...

That checklist taught me a hell of a lot. I still refer back to the book quite often.

Max Allan Collins said...

I think you know, Ed, that I'm a huge Calder Willingham fan. If END AS A MAN isn't a hardboiled crime novel, I don't know what is.

I don't recall what O'Brien thought of Mickey, but I have a general grudge against these books because of his treatment in a lot of 'em. But I own them all!

On the Bouchercon panel I was on, about the last four decades of PI writing, there was a general feeling that the latest generation of noir writers is populated by quite a few who have read Lehane and company, but not Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Cain, Thompson Ross MacDonald, and John D. And you can bet the likes of Gorman, Lutz and Collins aren't on their radar.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Max, it was kind of funny seeing Ed group me with Lehane and Pelecanos since I consider myself a pulp writer, and I doubt those other two would look at themselves that way. As a kid I was reading all the Robert E. Howard, HP Lovecraft, Asimov, Bradbury, Harlan Ellison I could get my hands on. When I was 13 and found a copy of "I, the Jury" at my uncle's houss I instantly became hooked on crime fiction, and before I got out of high school I had read everything Spillane, Hammett, Chandler, Rex Stout, Ross MacDonald, James M. Cain had in print at the time, as well as a lot of Westlake. It wasn't until after college that I discovered Jim Thompson, Dan Marlowe, Jonathan Latimer, Willeford, Goodis, Williams, and many others, and devoured their works also. So at least I'm one of them writing noir now who read the greats. Btw. Enjoyed both of your HCC Quarry books, and looking forward to the next.

Max Allan Collins said...

Great writer choices, Dave.

Anonymous said...

I keep both editions of Hardboiled America. The text of each is slightly different, and the hardboiled checklist is quite different.
I love the eerie prose poem that closes the first edition and the last chapter before the epilogue in the second. It is a pean to noir fiction and its place in the world.

John Hocking

Charlieopera said...

Great writer choices and Dave is a terrific writer himself ... but, oh, that imitation football team he swears allegiance to. The Cheaterfaces have bought and sold the refs ... roughing the passer has become "teasing" the passer (when Ms. Brady is on the field).