Thursday, December 01, 2011

Forgotten Books: Hardboiled American by Geofrrey O'Brien

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
posted by Ed Gorman @ 3:21 PM 7


Heath Lowrance said...

This book is ESSENTIAL. There's no other way to put it. Really glad to see your take on it, Ed.

mybillcrider said...

I bought this as soon as it was published. Now I own two copies in case something happens to one of them.

Ed Lynskey said...

I enjoy reading this book and got my own copy years ago. O'Brien covers the gamut -- noir, hardboiled, even mobster novels, I believe. Thanks for covering it in your blog today.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Ed, probably no surprise but I've read 100s of 50s paperbacks.


Anonymous said...

Dave---or was that 50s of 100s paperbacks? ;)

Jeff P.

Gary Lovisi said...

Ed, This is one of the best books about hard crime writers and their books ever written, a sheer joy to read and full of valuable info -- and just as good today as when it first came out. I also bought it when it first came out.