Category Archives: Reviewing The Classics

Book Review: “On The Waterfront” by Budd Schulberg

No discussion of On the Waterfront, the novel, can be undertaken without at least mention of the movie. The book was highly praised when it was released in 1955, a year after the film received eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. On its own, the novels was a best seller.


Originally, the book was titled just Waterfront, it was no simple novelization of the film, “that bastard word for a bastard byproduct of Hollywood success”, as Budd Schulberg states in his Introduction in the 1987 edition. The book was compared to the works of Émile Zola and Theodore Dreiser by the critics because of its use of the ‘naturalist style’. The naturalist school featured detailed realism, that in this case, suggested that social conditions, heredity, and environment had inescapable force in shaping the characters that populate the book. The critics, after all the awards, praise and kudos the film received, were surprised that there was still so much to say than a 90 minute movie could suggest.

Originally inspired by a 24-part series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson, titled “Crime on the Waterfront,” Budd Schulberg wrote a long piece for The Saturday Evening Post, titled “Father John Knows The Score”. Schulberg took an unorthodox approach to writing the screenplay by not spending a month or two, but literally years absorbing the unique atmosphere of the New York Waterfront. He hung out at the westside Manhattan and Jersey bars that were the unofficial headquarters of the waterfront racketeers and Irish and Italian “insoigents”. He spent nights drinking beer with longshore families in their $26.50 a month railroad flats. Along the way he interviewed longshore-union leaders and the outspoken labor priests from St. Xavier’s in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, one of which the book is dedicated to; Father John Corridan described as “a rangy, ruddy, fast-talking, chain-smoking, tough-minded, sometimes profane Kerryman”. A welcome antidote to the stereotypical Barry Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby “Fah-ther” that Hollywood was so fond of. Father Corridan’s speech was a unique blend of Hell’s Kitchen and  baseball slang and he expressed an encyclopedic knowledge of waterfront economics and man’s inhumanity to man.  This maverick priest was the Father John of Schulberg’s article for The Saturday Evening Post. Schulberg was surprised to find that just a few blocks west of comfortable watering holes like Sardi’s there was this entire world that the rest of Manhattan didn’t know existed.

Schulberg’s ‘escort’ or protector and his cover was one of Father John’s most staunch adherents, Little Arthur Browne, Brownie as he was known. Brownie was one of the standup “insoigents” in the Chelsea local run by the fat cats and their “pistoleros.” Brownie was probably the model for Runty Nolan of the book and Kayo Duggan of the film. Browne had been beaten up, had his nose flattened by “the cowboys” – the local union enforcers – been thrown through a skylight and even tossed in the river unconscious, all things that Runty endures in the book. Schulberg got most of the local dialect that he would write into the screenplay as well as the novel during Runty and his forays into the local bars which were, in places, ten to a block.

“On The Waterfront” Official Trailer

Schulberg had discussed with director Elia Kazan his research into the waterfront, and Kazan urged him to write a screenplay, which was thrown back in Schulberg and Kazan’s faces by one of Hollywood’s leading moguls. So, he set out after this to write a novel when some smarter Hollywood mogul accepted the screenplay. The film was made, after a few changes to the script, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. The film was an astounding success. Filmed over 36 days on location in various places in Hoboken, New Jersey, including the docks, workers’ slum dwellings, bars, littered alleys and rooftops. Furthermore, some of the labor bosses goons in the film – Abe Simon as Barney, Tony Galento as Truck and Tami Mauriello as Tullio – were actual former professional heavyweight boxers. Terry Malloy’s (Brando’s) fight against corruption was in part modeled after whistle-blowing longshoreman Anthony DiVincenzo, who testified before a real-life Waterfront Commission on the facts of life on the Hoboken Docks and had suffered a degree of ostracism for his deed.

The historical context of the film and the book are rooted in the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) which was established from the ashes of 19th century labor unions that organized dockworkers. In 1895, the ILA grew to  adopt the Chicago (Great Lakes) Longshoremen’s Union ideals as a model and encompassed all of the U.S. and many Canadian longshoremen. By the turn of the 20th Century they became affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). By 1916, the ILA had become based in The Port of New York, which took in all of the harbor shore, including New Jersey. In 1918 Joseph Ryan became the president of the ILA’s “Atlantic Coast District.” Joseph Ryan was elected International president in 1927 and it is him that the character of “Weeping” Willie Givens is based. Under Ryan’s leadership, the ILA had become corrupt and was affiliated with Mafia characters such as Albert Anastasia and the Irish gangs. By the late 1920s, Anastasia had become a top leader of the ILA, controlling six union local chapters in Brooklyn. The character of Tom McGovern in the film and movie were modeled on the mobster Anastasia and the like, and Anastasia’s Murder Inc. also figures promptly in both. Under the mobsters were the local union bosses; the Johnny Friendly of the story.

These corrupt men ruled “the greatest harbor of the greatest city of the greatest country in the world” and they ran it like their own private grab-bag. After the largely successful 83-day 1934 West Coast longshore strike, Pacific coast longshoremen, who had rebelled against Ryan’s leadership,  first organizing the membership to reject the contract that Ryan had negotiated, then leading the strike over his objections, voted to secede from the ILA and join the Congress of Industrial Organizations as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Soon longshore locals in Baltimore (the 6th busiest port in the world) , The Great Lakes, New Orleans and everywhere else except the Port Of New York Harbor, had bolted.

“Karl Malden as Father Barry in On The Waterfront 1954

Longshoremen obtained work through a ‘shapeup’ in which bosses chose a workforce on a daily basis. Longshoremen often worked only a day or less per week as a consequence. Work was especially uncertain for those who unloaded trucks and ships and had to appeal to gangsters who controlled this work for employment. The ‘shapeup’ figures prominently in the story, as it lays out how the gangsters and local bosses controlled the work force. They got to pick and choose who worked to put bread on the table and who didn’t. Complain about anything ; safety – and longshore work was the most dangerous in the country and suffered more casualties than miners – pay, theft, literally anything and you did not get a work assignment. You kept your mouth shut and went along if you wanted to eat.

This also tended to tie the longshoremen to their neighborhood. If they moved, they wouldn’t get work anywhere else because they were ‘outsiders’. And naturally, the bosses made sure the workers didn’t earn enough to even consider moving. And when they’d be short on money, there were the loan sharks, who were also the same bosses, to lend you enough to feed your family at 10% interest per week. If you got behind they’d make sure you got your tag to work for a few days and have your pay-packet sent straight to the guy who hired you to pay your debt. The gangster went even further by owning or controlling (by providing protection) the local businesses. Then there was the ‘short gang’. If a crew of 22 was required to unload a ship and turn it around,  the bosses would ‘short gang’ the load. They’d only send 16 or 18 men to do the work, then charge the shipping company for the full 22, pocketing the wages from the ‘ghost’ 6 or 8 longshoremen. The gangsters even controlled the bars in the neighborhoods surrounded by the railroad flats (so called because the rooms were strung together back to back, like the cars of a train. You might enter a flat through the kitchen and to get to any other room in the apartment, you walked through one room to another).

The 1950s was a decade of turmoil and trauma for the ILA. Several sensationalist articles, like those published by Schulberg and Malcolm Johnson, were  printed in New York City newspapers and  focused on “alleged” rampant gangsterism on the City’s waterfront. In 1953 Governor Thomas E. Dewey ordered his New York State Crime Commission to conduct a full investigation of the ILA. They in turn formed The Waterfront Commission of the New York Harbor which put a lot of pressure on Ryan and his gangster associates and eventually led to his resignation after the ILA was suspended by the AFL. It is during this period that the story – both the movie and the book – take place.

Set in the fictional port of Bohegan, NJ the story opens centered on Terry Malloy, a retired prize fighter who just goes along and has no real ambition other than to earn a few bucks to keep himself in beer and dames. Terry Malloy is a half-vicious hoodlum caught between the waterfront mob and a groping, anxious awakening of his conscience. But Terry’s inability to look into himself or to experience anything but the immediate pleasure or pain of life on the waterfront are nothing but sloth. Terry’s brother is Charley Malloy, the dockside lawyer and right hand man of Johnny Friendly, the local pier boss who exercises iron-fisted control of the waterfront. Terry is used to coax a popular dockworker, Joey Doyle, out to an ambush  preventing him from testifying against Friendly before the Crime Commission. Terry thinks that Friendly’s “pistorleros” – the men he keeps around him who are “on the muscle” – picked for three qualities or rather two of three qualities; they have to be rough or brainy AND loyal – are just going to put a scare in to Doyle, maybe work him over a little, but they throw Doyle off the roof. Terry resents being used as a tool in Joey’s death but is still willing to play  “D and D” – deaf and dumb. Terry meets and is smitten by the murdered Joey Doyle’s sister, Edie (Katie in the book) who has shamed “waterfront priest” Father Barry into fomenting action against the mob-controlled union. Father Berry convinces Runty Nolan (in the book, Kayo Duggan in the film) to testify after Father Barry’s promise of unwavering support. Duggan is killed when Friendly get’s word of Runty’s agreement and his body thrown in the river. See the scene above with Karl Malden giving the speech when Runty/Kayo is pulled from the river. As Father Barry says, “In his mind the river and Johnny Friendly were one, endlessly dangerous and never sleeping.” Silent partners as it were.

“I could have been a contender”

Terry, tormented by his awakening conscience, increasingly leans toward testifying, Friendly decides that Terry must be killed unless Charley can coerce him into keeping quiet. Charley tries bribing Terry with a good job, and finally threatens him by holding a gun up against him, but recognizes he has failed to sway Terry, who places the blame for his own downward spiral on his well-off brother. In one of the most famous scenes in film history, Terry reminds Charley that if it had not been for the fixed fight, he “could’a been a contender”.

Charley gives Terry a gun and advises him to run. Friendly has been spying on the situation, so he has Charley murdered, his body hanged in an alley as bait to get at Terry. Terry sets out to shoot Friendly, but Father Barry obstructs that course of action and finally convinces Terry to fight Friendly by testifying.

The novel bares many differences from the film. Mainly, the film is centered on Terry Malloy, Marlon Brando’s character and is told almost entirely from Terry’s point of view. The novel, on the other hand, is narrated by Father Barry, and though Terry Malloy is a main character, he is but one of many. Schulberg stated the reason for this being the two “art forms” are very different. “Film is an art of high points. It should embrace five or six sequences, each upping the tension and mounting to a climax. In film,” he states, “there is no room for multiple points of view, for ‘digressions’ into complicated, contradictory character traits or an exploration of social background.” In short, the film must “act” and employ action where the novel can meander into things like background, motivation and historical context. The film, in Schulberg’s view, must go from significant episode to more significant episode.  So, the film makes no effort to explain the social background. It simply ‘shows’ the mob controlled docks, simply mentions the Water Front Crime Commission and gives no background of why it existed in the first place.

The novel does all of these things, and Father Barry in the novel art form, is the ideal narrator. Terry Malloy becomes, in the novel, just a single strand in the rope, a major strand among the characters to be sure, but not the central strand. The novel allows Schulberg to work ‘veins’ of the story, the social conditions, Father Barry’s inner dialog with himself as he wrestles with his conscience,  that the film could not. It allows the struggle of Father Barry’ as he weighs obedience to the church and his social responsibility to his flock  just as St Francis Xavier of Goa had to weigh his conscience against his Portuguese masters and martyring himself for the Hindu Pearl Divers being exploited by the European colonizers.

“On The Waterfront” Final scene

As good as the film is, which hardly need’s my support at this stage in life, the book is a more educational and deeper look into a place in time. It fleshes out the story in a way the film didn’t even try to, and makes for a great read with a basis in history. Although Schulberg as a novelist, is no Émile Zola or Theodore Dreiser and Schulberg claimed no membership in that great company, the novel is written in that tradition and deserves its place in the literary canon.

On the Waterfront is a powerful  retelling of an iconic American story that stands apart from the great film as an unforgettable vision of crime, politics, and class in the twentieth century. This eBook from Open Road Media features an illustrated biography of Budd Schulberg including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate.


  • File Size: 1789 KB Print Length: 336 pages Publisher: Open Road; Reprint edition (July 31, 2012) Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English ASIN: B008JVJJ4U Text-to-Speech: Enabled X-Ray: Not Enabled Lending: Enabled


Article first published as Book Review: On The Waterfront: A Novel by Budd Schulberg on Blogcritics.

The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

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Book Review: “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” by Horace McCoy


Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Midnight Classics)

The second of Horace McCoy’s noir classics, republished in April by Open Road Media in a nicely formatted eBook with perhaps the most extensive biography of McCoy available. Published in 1948 at the start of what scholars consider the beginning of the Noir/Paperback era in crime fiction (and the end of the hardboiled era of authors like Dashiell Hammett, Chandler and the pulp magazines and their authors) , Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye leans towards the hardboiled genre, that had just past, but enters the noir era. The book is full of lively dialogue and tough guys and femme fatales that were also “tough gals”, and though it comes nowhere close to Raymond Chandlers snappy, cynical wit, it stacks up nicely with most of the hardboiled writing of the era.

McCoy, from Tennessee, served in the first world war. After the war he relocated to Texas where he spent the years between 1919 and 1930 as a sports editor for the Dallas Journal . It was while he was in Texas that he got bitten by the acting bug which led him to acting in local theater that eventually saw him move to California in an attempt, at first to become a movie star. This experience was put to good use in his novels and short stories which often depicted central characters that were either involved, usually with little success, in the budding film industry. In the late ‘20s he started his writing career by selling short stories to various pulp mystery magazines such as Amazing Stories, Black Mask and Dime Detective. He went on to publish his first novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in 1935. Between ‘35 and 1961 (Corruption City was published posthumously in 1961) he published 5 more novels. He spent most of his efforts working as a script writer after the success of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (which we reviewed last week)  from 1935 until his death in 1955.  Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, is among his best efforts and was turned in to a film starring James Cagney as the protagonist, Ralph Cotter. the film, and the book were widely banned because it was "a sordid, sadistic presentation of brutality and an extreme presentation of crime with explicit steps in commission." I guess they didn’t want little Johnny learning step by step criminal schemes.

“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” 1950, starring James Cagney









The movie received mixed reviews by the American critics, and was often compared unfavorably to White Heat which features Cagney in a similar role. Nevertheless, the film had a great influence on the French filmmakers who loved pulp fiction and gave the genre the name, film noir, and can be seen, for example, in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Made in U.S.A, in which one character is reading this novel in its French translation, Adieu la vie, adieu l’amour. Indeed, the influence led McCoy and other writers such as David Goodis and James M. Cain ,works to be relabeled ‘noir’ differentiating them from the classic ‘hardboiled’ detective novels of Hammett, Chandler and others.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is the story of Ralph Cotter, an unquestionably amoral man who sees himself as intellectually superior because of his Ivy League education and his having been born into an upper class family, although his pedigree is questionable and he avoids any proof when challenged by his minions, one exchange;  “Does it matter?” (where he went to college) “You’re not ashamed of it , are you?” “I think the college might be. I’m sure my career doesn’t reflect too much credit on the school. It does prove one thing, though it proves that I came into crime through choice not through environment. I didn’t grow up in the slums with a drunk for a father and a whore for a mother and come into it because it mistreated me and warped my soul. Every criminal I know – who’s engaged in violent crime – is a two-bit coward who blames society. I need no apologist or crusader to finally hold my lifeless body up to the world and shout for them to come observe what they have wrought.” It’s easy to take this book as nothing more than a great ‘genre story’ but McCoy’s use of the then topical subject of “nature verses nurture” is important to the times he lived as many of the “folk lore” criminals of the day such as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson  were raised in ‘broken homes’ and the apologists of the day explained their antisocial behavior on the hard times of the day.

The book opens with Ralph, along with a fellow inmate, Toko, breaking out of prison on a chain gang. They are aided by Holiday, the buxom gun moll cum femme fatale of the piece. Once successful, Ralph immediately starts pulling robberies in the unnamed town where he is hiding out. On his first job, he ends up being double crossed and when confronted by the police who at first seem about to shoot him, Holiday and Jinx, who had aided in the escape, but take their money instead and tell them to take the first bus to Phoenix.

Horace McCoy

Ralph comes up with a scheme to turn the tables on the crooked cops by recording them on a phonograph talking about a bigger heist and presumably aiding the gang in the crime. He uses this to blackmail the high ranking Inspector Webber and along the way meets and employs the lawyer, Mandon to help him setup his blackmail scheme. As he carries on a tumultuous relationship with Holiday, and plans bigger and bigger capers, Ralph (having taken on the alias of Paul Murphy) is soon revealed as not only wanting to gain riches but to climb socially as well. While trying to locate a con artists that can help him pull off his blackmail scheme he meets Margret, who he sees as a step up the social ladder. But after being caught In flagrante delicto with Margret and coming up with the excuse they had just been married, Ralph figures he has bitten off more than he can chew and consequently turns down $35,000 in bribe money to sign an annulment.

As Ralph, showing disdain for his loosely formed criminal gang,  now with the aid of the crooked police and the shyster Mandon, plans to hold up, and kill, the bag men for a local mafia don, he details a complex and involved strategy. When the crime goes off without a hitch, he is at his most egotistic in the false belief that his superior intellect and planning were the reason for their success. He lords it over Holiday, Jinx and even Mandon, and instead of sowing respect earns more and more resentment from his compatriots.

But Margret and her wealthy  industrial giant of a father has a new found respect for Ralph because he turned down the bribe. He offers Ralph a million dollars to marry Margret, who is infatuated with Ralph. Ralph has no desire to be married, but a million dollars and the respectability the offer could bring him tempts him. But he soon learns that he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is and that old barb about a woman scorned combined with karma can be a bitch.

McCoy drew the story in a very Hammett like way. The unnamed town, the prevalence of crooked small town politicians and superficial upper crust characters are all devices that Hammett used to great effect in his Continental Op stories. But McCoy adds to that many elements that would become in the coming decade of the ‘50s typical of the ‘noir’ genre. Instead of the lone good guy against the array of bad guys – crooked cops and crookeder crooks – and the damsel in distress femme fatale, McCoy introduces the tough gal in Holiday and nary a character is admirable. Everybody has their own motivations and most of those are deplorable and the characters are thus, beyond redemption. Further, though Ralph on occasion displays competence, his ego wants to see his successes as brilliance on his part when what it is is mostly luck.

McCoy also rises above the typical hardboiled/noir fare by introducing many topical subjects of the day; the deplorable conditions in prisons, “Not much of the morning could get into the place where I was, and the portions that did were always pretty well mauled and no wonder: they had to fight their way in through a single window at the same time a solid shaft of stink was going out. This was a prison barracks where seventy-two unwashed men slept chained to their bunks, and when the individual odors of seventy-two unwashed men finally gather into one pillar of stink you have got a pillar of stink the like of which you cannot conceive; majestic, nonpareil, transcendental, K.” (I’m not sure whether the ‘K’ is a misprint or an obscure term.). He also alludes to male rape in prisons and homosexuals who Ralph comes to accept as fellow rebels, he thinks to himself at one point “ We all had a little twilight in our souls; in every man there are homosexual tendencies, this is immutable, there is no variant, the only variant is the depth of the latency….They were rebels too, rebels introverted; I was a rebel extroverted. theirs was the force that did not kill, mine was the force that did kill.”  . There is also the subject of “nature verses nurture” which was very much in discussion at the time the book was written. Further, he reveals much about Ralph and uses a plot device that would become stock in noir fiction through Ralph’s inner dialogs which are almost as numerable as the tough guy banter between the characters. This also portrays Ralphs rising mania to not only out wit the system but to rise above the typical slow witted crooks he is forced to employ in his schemes.

Altogether, not only a tour de force of hardboiled noir fiction, but a literary triumph of genre fiction from one of the grandfathers of the style and a wonderful edition now available in a nicely formatted eBook with an extended biography of the author.

Article first published as Book Review: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy on Blogcritics.



The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

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Book Review: “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” by Horace McCoy


They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?: A Novel (Serpent’s Tail Classics)

Horace McCoy’s, along with James M. Cain and a few other authors of the ‘20s, ‘30s & ‘40s, was labeled early on as a hardboiled authors, in the same vein as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and others. But, in retrospect, most of his novels didn’t fit the classic description of hardboiled. First, they weren’t detectives. Secondly, the main protagonists were not mainly dealing with solving a mystery and often the main characters were flawed, and if not totally beyond redemption, at least of questionable character. Of course, now these writers are most identified with the ‘Noir’ genre; the ‘roman noir’ or “dark books’ as they would finally be labeled after many of them were made into film noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Reissued in April by Open Road Media, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is McCoy’s most well known novel, perhaps because of the Academy Award Nominated film (it won one Oscar for Gig Young as supporting actor, and was nominated in eight other categories, including best director- Sydney Pollack and best actress – Jane Fonda) starring Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda.

The story opens up with the narrator and protagonist confessing to murder, thus quickly shedding any aspirations to a mystery. He confesses that he "killed her," and that he doesn’t "have a leg to stand on." alluding to the title of the book. In his youth, he saw the favorite family horse break its leg, after which it was shot and put out of its misery, also leading to the conclusion as well as the title.

The main characters are Robert Syverten, who came to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a great director, and Gloria Beatty who ran away to Dallas from a farm in West Texas where her uncle always made passes at her. In Dallas, she tried to commit suicide, then ran away to Hollywood with dreams of being in movies, but is finding only rejection. The pair meet on the morning when they have both failed to get parts as extras.

The setting for the novel is in the shabby La Monica Ballroom, perched over the Pacific Ocean on the Santa Monica Pier, near Los Angeles. Gloria talks Robert into participating entering a marathon dance contest believing the contest may be a way to get noticed by studio producers or movie stars. The novel was written in 1935, at the height of the dance marathon craze. Dance endurance contests attracted people to compete to achieve a type of cheap celebrity or monetary prizes. McCoy, whose life story very much  resembled Roberts, had briefly worked as a bouncer at contest just like this in California.

Official movie trailer, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” directed by Sydney Pollack

The book also differs from the of hardboiled books of the era in that the plot is nonlinear, being told back to front as well as flash back scenes that reveal the characters back story and histories. From the start we know that Robert killed Gloria and the plot reveals why. Further, the flash back scenes to Robert witnessing the shooting of the families pet horse and how that affected him, his hopes and dreams of becoming a great film director, and the failure he feels in just hanging on and excepting bit parts, to Gloria’s life with the lecherous uncle, her despair in trying to make it as a single girl at the height of the depression and why she tried to kill herself in Dallas before coming to Hollywood to become a movie star. All of this reveals why Gloria, from the start has a fatal outlook for her future, and maybe everyone’s future. From the start, Gloria tells Robert that she wishes she were dead, a point she repeats in most of their conversations. She also feels she has had to resort to unsavory acts, one of which will come out later in the dance contest, just to survive. One hundred and forty four couples start the contest. Robert and Gloria, like most of the contestants, are young, jobless, and drawn as much by the free food as by the $1,000 prize money (raised to the ‘princely sum of $1,500 in the movie).

The book was also printed in a dramatic fashion in that the story begins with Robert’s sentencing for murder. He confesses that he "killed her," and that he doesn’t "have a leg to stand on." He is advised to beg for mercy from the Court. The story of his relationship with the  Gloria  is then intercut after every few chapters with short excerpts from the judge’s sentencing. The excerpts of the judge’s words are written in larger and larger type until the last page of the book concludes with the words written in small print: "And may God have mercy on your soul".

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? has long been considered, along with The Grapes of Wrath as one of the most convincing—and heartbreaking—fictional portraits of America during the Great Depression. It is a stunning portrait of poverty and powerlessness during the Great Depression, as Robert and Gloria, along with the supporting cast of characters risk everything I the grueling dance marathon, to ever more desperately keep their dreams alive, and as those dreams die in the face of the times, just survive. As the dance goes on, into the second and third week, the crowds grow larger and the media come out, as hoped for by the contestants, to cover and sensationalize the contest. Also, the rich and the Hollywood stars that have made it, also come out to watch, almost like people stopping to look at an auto accident. As the contest grinds on, couples break down physically and drop out, and some plot desperately to gain an advantage. The sponsors also stoop to new lows in the hopes of profiting from the desperate dancers. There are rumors of the contest being fixed half way through, and then they weather an attempt to shut down the contest by the local morals society, and Gloria, angry, bitter and outspoken in her desperation, angry, curses the women as spoiled, interfering hypocrites..

I believe that what makes the novel a classic isn’t just it depiction of life in The Great Depression, but its larger parody of life in general, in every generation. It reveals how easy it is for dreams to crumble, and also how our egos can work against us by giving us goals that are beyond our capability to achieve. Gloria dreams and searches for redemption by becoming a Hollywood starlet, when in reality she is not that attractive.  this universal theme is what makes the novel a classic and not just a snap shot of a desperate time in history.

It’s wonderful to see the book republished by Open Road, who released this book in eBook at the same time they republish McCoy’s other masterpiece of classic noir, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which I will also be reviewing. Both eBooks feature an extended biography of Horace McCoy and are nicely formatted.


Article first published as Book Review: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy on Blogcritics.


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Book Review: “David Goodis : 5 Noir Novels of the ‘40s &’50s” Robert Polito, Editor


David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (Library of America)

David Goodis established himself as the successor to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler with the publication of his first book Retreat from Oblivion in 1939. The year before he had graduated from Temple University, so Retreat boded well for a young author. Unfortunately, his career began at a time that many consider the twilight of the Hardboiled era in fiction. Additionally, the world was on the cusp of yet another Great War.

During the 1940s, having moved to New York City, Goodis scripted for radio adventure serials, including Hop Harrigan, House of Mystery, and Superman. Novels he wrote during the early 1940s were rejected by publishers, but in 1942 he spent some time in Hollywood as one of the screenwriters on Universal’s Destination Unknown. His next novel wouldn’t come until 1946 when Dark Passage was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, published by Julian Messner and filmed for Warner Bros. with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall heading the cast.

Now, The Library Of America who in ‘97 issued the books, Crime Novels: American Noir gathered, in two volumes, eleven classic works of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s––among them David Goodis’s
moody and intensely lyrical masterpiece Down There. Now, they  have teamed with editor Robert Polito to gather five of Goodis’ seminal works of the genre that became known as Noir. Goodis, along with James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, are today considered the ‘godfathers’ of Noir and for good reason. They wrote of ‘the mean streets’ but the people that populated their novels were doomed. They had very few redeeming qualities and the lines were often blurred between right and wrong, good and evil, and hero and villain.

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This volume opens with Dark Passage, considered by some as his masterpiece, but regardless, it was his first big break through in 1946, and later on, it made history in a copyright lawsuit. More on that in a minute. The story centers on Vince Parry, who is in prison, convicted of killing his wife. Parry was a decent sort of guy, quiet, never bothered anybody, not too ambitious and worked as a clerk in an investment house bringing home $35 a week. He’d only been married for sixteen months when his wife was found by a neighbor, in her house with her head bashed in. But, before the wife died she supposedly whispered to the neighbor that Parry had hit her with a heavy glass ash tray. The police found the wife’s’ blood on the ash tray and Parry’s fingerprints on it. To make matters worse, as they are wont to do in noir novels, it came out at trial that Parry hadn’t been getting along with his wife and was seeing other women, the fact that the wife had been seeing other men didn’t make much of a difference to the jury. With no alibi, Parry is sentenced to San Quentin.

He plots an escape, and after carrying out the careful plan, he makes his way out of the prison in a very harrowing and realistic way. But, after the escape, while attempting to hitch a ride, he ends up killing a man. Finally picked up by a woman, Irene Jansen, he hitches back into the Bay area and Irene confesses that she suspected who he was, having followed his case in the papers, and then, hearing on the radio, of his prison break had gone looking for him, guessing his route. Irene agrees to hide him in her apartment and provide him with the means to go looking for the real killer.

The tension, and psychological suspense that Goodis paints during these scenes would become a trade mark. Parry is divided between being grateful for the help Irene provides him and the fear of leaving behind a witness who could provide the police with clues as to his activities. Finally, having difficulties staying hidden at Irene’s apartment because of  Madge Rapf, the spiteful and melodramatic woman whose testimony sent him up to prison, keeps stopping by. It seems that Irene has been simultaneously carrying on a friendship with Madge and an affair with Madge’s husband. Irene gives Parry money, and he leaves her apartment, where he starts his quest for the real killers. Along the way he meets a helpful cabbie, who gives him a tip on a plastic surgeon who can inexpensively change his appearance to help him elude the cops.

The novel, with a boost from the Bogart/Bacall movie the very next year, put Goodis on the map as a serious novelist of noir. One interesting aside is that the novel became the set piece in a legal battle between Goodis estate and United Artists Television. The Goodis estate claimed that the UA series The Fugitive constituted copyright infringement. United Artists claimed that the work had fallen into the public domain under the terms of the Copyright Act of 1909 because it had been first published as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post, and that Goodis never obtained a separate copyright on the book. The court found in the estates favor and stated that the law only defined the standing of a work, and should not operate to completely deprive a claimant of his copyright.

In 1947s Nightfall, Goodis would continue to expand his reputation as a master of the genre.  Continuing with the man on the run from the law themes of Dark Passage, Nightfall  also adds the element of the protagonist on the run from some bad guys. Artist Jim Vanning is on the run in New York City, working as a commercial artist. Three gangster hoods are after him, thinking he has a suitcase full of $300,000 of their money. Vanning doesn’t have the money, but this fact won’t deter the hoods as Vanning did have it, but lost it. From there, the plot get complicated. A detective Fraser is on to Vanning, and though he suspects that Vanning may have stolen the money, he doesn’t picture him as the killer of the man who had the money. Naturally, there’s a dame involved. There always is a femme fatale in these great stories and Vanning has to decide whether the alluring Martha is with the crooks or if she is just a dupe for the crooks and being used for bait. The prose are taut and well crafted as you would expect from an author who achieved cult status. It’s packed with action and scenes that would become standard fare for the authors after Goodis that worked in the noir genre.

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The other works chosen here are The Moon in the Gutter (1953), which tells the story of a street hardened man whose sister commits suicide after being raped. With  his marriage on the rocks and questions to be answered in his quest for the man that drove his sister to despair,  he meets a rich woman. The beautiful Loretta provides him with an escape route out of the mean streets of “Filth-adelphia” , but he learns you can take the tough guy out of the alley, but you can’t take the alley out of the tough guy. The dialogue is perhaps some of Goodis’ most hardboiled. The Burglar (1953) is the story of Nat Harbin, the scion of a family of Burglars who upon finding love looks for a way to leave his ‘family’ and past behind. As Ed Gorman wrote in The Big Book Of Noir, Goodis didn’t write novels, he wrote suicide notes. At heart the novel has themes of crime, honor, loyalty and a futile search for redemption. And finally, 1954s Street of No Return tells the story of Whitey, a singer with a million dollar voice. With that voice, women came under his spell and would sacrifice their body and their soul. He could have been another Sinatra until he met a woman who would prove to be his downfall. The story is told as a tale of Whitey’s past to his wino buddy’s in the present and we follow Whitey from that once glorious future through a nightmare descent into oblivion. Whitey now has no future, and only wants the next drink. Along the way Goodis paints the times with hard boiled pictures of Philadelphia and life on the streets and uses historical events such as Puerto Rican race riots as a back drop.

Upon Goodis return from New York in 1950, he lived with his parents in Philadelphia along with his schizophrenic brother Herbert. At night, he prowled the underside of Philadelphia, hanging out in nightclubs and seedy bars, a milieu he depicted in his fiction. He died in January 1967 a week after suffering a beating in a robbery attempt. He died at the age of forty-nine, one month after winning the “Fugitive” lawsuit. But during his life, The Pulp Poet of the Lost and The Prince Of The Losers made a mark on the world of fiction that many noir authors of the present day readily acknowledge.

LOA logoLibrary Of America is dedicated to preserving the nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions.

politopic_homepageRobert Polito, the editor is a poet, biographer, and critic whose Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson received the National Book Critics Circle Award. He directs the Graduate Writing Program at the New School.


The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved


Article first published as Book Review: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and the 50s by David Goodis, Robert Polito, Editor on Blogcritics.

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“The Kid Was A Killer” by Caryl Chessman

Kid Killer3

I will never again complain about dead lines or  crappy writing conditions. Caryl Chessman, for those of you out of the loop on your history was on California’s Death Row having been convicted as the Red Light Bandit when he penned this little bit of trivia. He reportedly finished his only novel (although he did write three non fiction books) while awaiting his execution in the gas chamber in 1953 but the manuscript was confiscated and locked in the wardens safe until 1960 when, as California’s longest serving death row inmate he was finally executed.

The book is actually not that good, but much like it’s author, it is brilliant in places, preachy in a lot more places, again, like it’s author is is ultimately undone by trying to get too cute; tries to justify anti social actions, takes off into a fantasy world, and has a morality that wouldn’t mesh with any non sociopaths ideology. Another important fact about the book, or really it’s author is that it was a major cause célèbre in the fight against the death penalty.

First a synopsis of the book, then we delve a bit into the man. The story is a boxing novel written when boxing novels were a major sub genre of the Noir or paperback era, AKA the second golden age of American Crime Fiction. It’s narrated by an old, wise sports writer, Charley Evans. Having been ordered by his editor to dig up, or for that matter manufacture some sporting news as there was a dead spot and people were starting do other thing besides read the sports page. Evans goes to the local gym where an old pal of his is training the next light heavy weight champ. Kid Killer2

The contender is Angelo “The Angel” Marino, and he is a can’t miss, scientific boxer. In walks “The Kid”, a nobody off the street who picks a fight with The Angel and allows himself to be beaten to  pulp, never even fighting back, but never going down either. All the time wearing a maniacal grin. Finally he dismantles The Angel. Not only does he embarrass him but he breaks him. Breaks his will to fight, breaks his ego and his image of himself. Then the kid disappears. Word gets out and from his hospital bed The Angel pretty much retires at the ripe old age of 23. Not that anyone would give him a title shot anyhow.

This first 25-30 % of the book is actually quite good. The Kid vanishes and nobody knows anything about him. He is painted almost like a Robert Johnson type character, in that he traded his soul for an unnatural fighting ability. Evans eventually consults a psychiatrist friend who has another theory.  And this is where Chessman starts to preach, rationalize his own behavior. Caryl paints The Kid as a killer, a man who can’t refrain from maximal violence, and he explains that the forces of society have made him this way; in other words he has lost his ability and his willingness to control his destructive impulses when he is angry or when an opportunity to kill arises. If society makes us furious enough, or exposes us to enough cruelty, we may become killers. And justifiably so.

chessman3 Evans, after consulting with his psychiatrist buddy first builds The Angel back up, convincing him that his utter dismantling at the hands of The Kid was a fluke. He then sets out to find the kid and to include him in a weird plot to  convince the current champ, a really despicable “hairy beast” of a character to give The Angel a title shot. He finds the kid a few moths later and convinces him to tell ‘old Evans’ his story.  The story is a doozey, The Kid is the product of a terrible home. His father was an ex boxer turned to booze and beating his wife and two children, The Kid and his younger sister. Finally his mother, a deeply religious woman has had enough and one night after a beating she shoots her husband with a borrowed gun.  The Kid, fooled by the cops (as Chessman himself actually was a number of times) into inadvertently  telling the truth gets his mother convicted of man slaughter. Of course, it is the systems fault, the laws fault for twisting the truth. His mother is sent to prison and The Kid and his sister to a home where his sister contracts TB and is on deaths bed for the next few years. In prison his mother also dies a tragic death. The Kid manages to escape, through his own ingenuity, the home and joins the Army and goes to Korea where his hate and killer ability is appreciated. He makes Rambo seem like a whimp as he almost single handily holds off the entire Chinese and North Korean armies as the allied forces retreat. He is captured and further helps the war effort by being able to take all his captures can dish out and generally being such a threat that it takes half the enemy army to keep him locked up. When the armistice is declared he is brought home and while he is in the hospital it is discovered that his homicidal tendencies and his sociopathic hate makes him a danger. Once again, through his genius he gets released. Society quickly reinforces his justification for becoming a natural born killer until the novel reaches the end and The Kid is shown to be not only justified but redeemed by his homicidal ways. There’s a lot of convoluted plot, and a lot of holes in that plot, involving reformatories, jail, bad cops, war, psychology, waterfront mobs, the dirty underside of boxing, religion and mom and apple pie.–much of it self serving. Even worse than the plot are Chessman’s “observations on the “human condition”.


As I said above, the book is filled with Chessman’s own attempt to justify himself. It’s not a well written book, but he hardly had access to an editor. It is very interesting if you know Chessman’s story as it gives great insight into an often brilliant, but scared sociopath.It really only differs in a few ways from his own life. Namely, by all accounts his father was a gentle, hard working man. Also, Chessman never killed anyone, nor was he ever accused or convicted of killing anybody and yet he went to the gas chamber.

Caryl Chessman’s mother, Hallie was an abandoned infant in 1900, raised by Charles and Abigail Cottle in Chicago and was by all accounts a model child raised by good people. In 1918 she graduated from high school and attended business college and soon was wed to Serl Whittier Chessman, Caryl’s father who was from St. Josephs, Michigan. Carol Whittier Chessman was born to the couple in 1921. Carol, who as a teenager changed his name to Caryl to escape the “girls name” teasing grew up uneventfully after the family moved to the Los Angles area. Serl found work as a carpenter in the fledgling movie business constructing sets. He worked for Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, Later came The Thief of Bagdad, another Fairbanks film and many more movies. In 1928, when Caryl was 7 years old he fell sick after playing near Devil’s Gate Reservoir in the Flintridge Hills. It was misdiagnosed as the flu, the doctor ignoring the fact he was covered from head to toe in mosquito bites. It was actually encephalitis, an acute inflammation of the brain. Could this have caused his later sociopathic actions? Who knows. With the start of the Great Depression, Serl lost his work in the movie biz, as great sets were cost prohibitive. He eked out a living as a handyman, but the family eventually had to sell their home. Later he ran a couple successful small businesses. The second event in his young life came in 1931 when a girl friend of his mothers took Caryl and his mother to a new drive in restaurant and when their little Ford convertible was smashed into by a 16 cylinder Cadillac driven by a religious cult member that didn’t believe in insurance. The girl friend was killed, Caryl ended up with a severely broken nose and jaw and his mother was left paralyzed from the waist down. Chessman2

Caryl’s father, now working at a service station 12 hours a day was of course strapped for cash and the family would suffer through the depression trying to afford doctors for Hallie. Soon after this Caryl started to get into trouble and his father tried to commit suicide twice.

He committed his first crimes in 1935 he attended Glendale High School, and was often dressed in thread bare clothes. He fell in with some other poor kids and they were soon committing thefts. When the lady of the house was in her backyard hanging out laundry, Caryl and his cohorts would dash in the unlocked, standing open front door and grab whatever wasn’t nailed down. A radio, pictures in silver frames, an alarm clock, a vase, what ever they could grab. A lot of the loot was really worthless, they stole for the thrill. Soon after this Caryl learned to hot wire cars and they were soon joy riding all over town.  In 1937, after stealing a Cord Roadster Caryl got busted for the first time. He eventually ended up in a boys home where he learned to con the authorities and play the system. He was a bright boy and learned easily. His IQ was measured at 128 and he quickly learned most subjects from reading. Over the next few years he graduated to bigger and bigger thefts, often getting caught when he’d get to cute. During his incarcerations he was always a model prisoner and because of his brains often landed cushy prison jobs even working for the wardens. It was during one of these stays that he started writing. After being convicted as The Red Light Bandit he would publish  four books, three about his life in prison and this one novel. In 1941 at the age of 20 he landed up in San Quinten, where he would eventually come back too live on death row. In 1943 Caryl was transferred to the new, experimental ""prison without walls" – Chino. Ten weeks after his arrival, at the age of 23 Caryl escaped, or walked away after perpetrating a ruse, again, being too cute about it. He had landed a job as an air plane spotter -America was at war and his job was to call a number in L.A. whenever he saw or heard a plane fly over the tower. He set up his escape by leaving a black shoe mark on the ladder leading up to the top of the tower and by cutting his finger and leaving blood at the scene. He then walked away and hitch hiked to L.A. where he soon was back to his old crimes of theft and burglary. He was busted three weeks later. At trial he tried to pretend that he had fallen while climbing the tower, the heel mark and blood was proof of that, and he had amnesia. It was pointed out to him that if he had amnesia he wouldn’t have remembered the heel mark and blood. Once again, Caryl Chessman was too cute for his own good. It was off to Folsom Prison for Caryl.  Again a model prisoner he was paroled, for the last time in 1947. cell 2455a

Caryl Chessman walked out of Folsom Prison on December 8, 1947. The Red Light Bandit crimes began on January 13, 1948 — just one month and five days later. 

If you want to read a detailed account of the individual crimes of The Red Light bandit follow this link. But a brief synopsis goes like this, the "Bandit" would follow people in their cars to secluded areas –Lovers Lanes -  and flash a red light that tricked them into thinking he was a police officer. When they opened their windows or exited the vehicle, he would rob them, usually of less than $20,  and, in the case of two women, force them to give him oral sex. One of these women was a young 17 year old virgin who was scared for life and spent the rest of her life after the trial in mental facilities . She died in 2010 and never recovered from the trauma. Maybe this warranted the death penalty, but the law didn’t state the death penalty for rape.

In July 1948, Chessman was convicted on 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape, and was condemned to death.

Part of the controversy surrounding the Chessman case stems from how the death penalty was applied. At the time, under California’s version of the "Little Lindbergh Law", any crime that involved kidnapping with bodily harm could be considered a capital offense. Two of the counts against Chessman alleged that he dragged a 17-year-old girl named Mary Alice Meza a short distance from her car demanding oral sex from her. Despite the short distance the woman was moved, the court considered it sufficient to qualify as kidnapping, thus making Chessman eligible for the death penalty.

At trial and throughout his numerous appeals Chessman, against the judges and expert legal advice, represented himself. At various time he claimed that it was somebody else and he knew the real rapists identity but he wouldn’t “rat”. It was against his principles. He also claimed to have been framed in a larger conspiracy and he further made assertions that the confession was beaten out of him. In a number of ways Chessman was effective as his own council, but as always he got a little too cute. It is very likely that the confession was coerced – by trickery or physical threats, if not actual beatings. And, there were a couple of things that should have made the trial declared a mistrial and garnered him a retrial. Namely that the clerk, who used shorthand instead of a transcription machine, died before he could transcribe the trial record and that the eventual transcription was done by a man who admitted he couldn’t decipher the original short hand. Further, all descriptions of the Red Light Bandit were of a shorter, smaller man and the only time that the rape victims actually picked him out of a line up was at trial, where it was obvious who the defendant was. Regardless, although Chessman postponed his execution for 12 years, at that time a record in California he was eventually put to death. Shortly after the pellets fell and Chessman started foaming at the mouth, but was probably still alive, the phone rang in the death chamber. The caller was Judge Goodman’s secretary. In her nervous haste, she had first dialed a wrong number, then had to hang up and redial San Quentin. When she quickly told Nelson the purpose of her call – that the Judge had granted yet another stay, he said simply, "It’s too late. The execution has begun." There was no way to stop the fumes, and no way to open the door and rescue the condemned man without the deadly fumes killing others. Ballad

While behind bars Chessman penned not only The Kid Was A Killer, but a critically acclaimed non fiction book (and two others that never got much press) called Cell 2455 Death Row, published by Prentice-Hall, in 1954 and quickly was a rallying point for death penalty opponents around the world. Ronnie Hawkins even wrote a song called The Ballad of Caryl Chessman and President Eisenhower is even said to have granted a temporary stay of execution because of an official trip to South America where Chessman had many supporters and the Secret Service was afraid of violent demonstrations if the President travelled there shortly after Chessman’s execution.

Today, Chessman would never have received the death penalty for the crimes he was convicted and accused of committing . A number of his appeals were against the Little Lindberg Law being applied. After all, his victims were never forcibly moved more that 20-25 feet from the scene. He never killed anyone, and he didn’t have a history of sex offenses in his past. Was he even the Red Light Bandit. Probably so in at least some of the crimes although it is possible and even likely that there were more than one Red Light Bandit. Further, the mistakes at trial and in his interrogation would have any case thrown out today. Still, he was undoubtedly a sociopath and a career criminal. Was that caused by his bout of encephalitis? How about being scared for life in the car accident that crippled his mother, or growing up hard during the depression? Who knows. And are those mitigating circumstances? Many people grow up hard and don’t become criminals. many people suffer the loss of a parent or growing up poor. The evidence shows that he wasn’t beaten, but given a decent home the hardships of the Depression aside.  Still, the suffering of Mary Alice Meza who spent her life in mental hospitals because of the trauma, maybe that justifies those pellets falling and that secretary misdialing the phone.


The Dirty Lowdown


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“Frenzy” by James O. Causey


The Capital Vices

Can a book be called Crime Fiction if there is nobody chasing the bad guys? Frenzy is such a book. All of the characters are bad guys. Not a single one, with the possible exception of the protagonists brother has the slightest bright spot in his soul to redeem him or her. It’s often labeled as “hardboiled” but there is no detective in the story. At least not one who is actually pursuing a crime or trying to solve a mystery. This is classic noir that would have made David Goodis or James M. Cain proud if he had written it.

The story is told by Norm Sands, a self described “two-bit grifter”.  How does a man become a “two-bit grifter”? That question is answered twelve years earlier. Norman Sands and his year younger brother, Matt were orphaned at the age of five when their parents were killed in a car crash. But that wasn’t the defining moment. They had insurance money and an aunt to take them in. They lived in a little town on the edge of the desert in southern California, Mason Flats. A five room room house. They were fed, clothed and cared for but Norm “was a dark child”, moody, got in fights, got in trouble. Boy kind of trouble. Matt was an honor student. Basketball star. People liked Matt. Matt was going to be a lawyer. Norm had a job setting pins in a bowling alley when WWII broke out. Norm ran with a fast crowd. They got in gang fights with the Mexican kids. Hung out playing pool in the backroom of Hermann’s. His brother was going places but Norm was sitting there at a fast idle until he fell in love in the eleventh grade with Laurie. Problem was Laurie was Hal Karse’s steady. Hal’s daddy was a big shot business man in town. Hal drove a sharp convertible, chrome headers, Carson top and all the girls were crazy about Hal. Until in a gang fight with some Mexican kids, Hal picked up a broken bottle and scarred one kid for life. Laurie dropped Hal and started seeing Norms brother, Matt. Hal was envious, but glad that Laurie was near.Frenzy

On prom night, Hal picked a fight with Matt, really beat him up. Norm finds out and takes a knife to Hal’s fine ride. Slashes the top, the upholstery, the dash. Pours dirty in the engine, took a brick to all the glass and gets caught. In the fight, Norm is being beat mercilessly when a free hand finds a brick and and hits one of his attackers, Claude, in the head. Suddenly the fight is over, apparently Claude is dead. What started as boys fighting ended in a murder. Norm flees town. Hops a freight destined for a life on the lam. You learn fast when you are on the run, a murderer at 16. You learn about degenerates, about filth, about hunger. You learn about sadistic brakemen, fond of crippling hobos. You learn to survive. You hustle in poolrooms in East L.A. At twenty you graduate to floating crap games. You discover you have good reflexes and a natural talent for cheating at cards. You celebrate your twenty-first birthday by having your ear drum punctured to avoid the draft. Your friends are con men, pimps and thieves.

Most of all you embrace the Seven Deadly Sins – that is really the message here. Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. AKA The Capital Vices and they will each, in its time undo Norm Sands.

The story opens twelve years later. Norm has become that two-bit grifter. he knows all the cons and can stack a deck. Norm is dealing cards in Gardena, a city out side of Los Angles that took advantage of state laws to operate poker parlors. Norm is shilling and dealing in one of these between betting on sure things that never come in, at Santa Anita on race days.

He is working for a shady character named Garth Anders and answering to Garths muscle, Angelo Ventresca. Norm has plans, such big plans but his own ambitions and schemes derail him every time. The Capital Vices.He plays hanky panky with Ingram’s girl, Robin. When he is caught, because of slothful ways, he is beaten.Nothing more.  In this kind of business there are various types of beatings, this wasn’t a beating that left you with ruined kidneys and a broken soul. Just an object lesson. Norm could have learned a lesson and gotten on with his small life, but lust, greed, envy, a touch of wrath – a need for revenge, and pride won’t let him. And sloth, time after time does him in. The Capital Vices, and Norm has them in Spades. Frenzy 3When a cop named Mallory finds out that Garth is planning on taking a delivery of Heroin he co-ops Norm. Norm decides to finger Garth and Angelo. And at the same time, rip off Garth for a sizable chunk of change….and steal his girl. Naturally it all goes wrong, and Norm this time is on a one way trip to being fitted with a wooden suit, when he escapes, hops a train, not a plug nickel to his name.

After a ten day lock up in San Bernardino for vagrancy he drifts south, eventually landing in his home town, Mason Flats. He initially plans on bumming a couple hundred bucks from his brother but soon is involved in real estate scams, oil speculation, murder, political corruption, and every imaginable vice from gambling to prostitution to drugs and racketeering,

Maybe he sees Mason Flats as his last chance at redemption, read the book and decide for yourself, but he’ll do anything, commit any sin, embrace all the Capital Vices – and betray, use and abuse anybody for this big opportunity to ‘win’.James O Causey  Friends, screw ‘em.  Family, sorry brother. He’ll lie, cheat, steal and no one is safe from his ambition. Not family, not the women he lusts for, not allies. No one and nothing.  Just when you think he has sunk as low as humanly possible, Norman Sands finds new depths of depravity and a new scheme. The Capital Vices rule Norman, and the ending  will answer the question, does crime pay? And what are the wages of sin?

James Oliver Causey was born in Los Angles in 1924 and died 2003. His first writing credit is from Weird Tales, "The Statue," from the January 1943  issue.

Weird Tales Causey’s writing career picked up again after the war. At least four of his stories were published in Street and Smith’s Detective Story Magazine between June 1945 and March 1947. In the early fifties, Causey tried his hand at science fiction with stories in Galaxy Science Fiction, Science Stories, and Orbit Science Fiction. Frenzy was written in 1960.There is a pretty good bio on him at Teller Of Weird Tales web site.

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“Johnny Staccato” by Frank Boyd

A smooth man on the ivories, hot on the trigger, and cool in a jam – he’s the toughest private eye to hit America in a decade.  From the great new television series starring John Cassavetes comes this novel of love in Greenwich Village, murder in midtown, beats on the Bowery, sex on Sutton Place and blackmail, racketeering, and violence in the worlds most savage city.

Johnny StaccatoTake a good novel, and someone will eventually turn it into a movie or TV show. But take a good (or even bad) TV show or movie and turn it into a good book? That rarely happens. There are plenty that go through that process now a days where mixed media is the norm; think Star Wars, Star Trek, The Monk books (which are actually pretty good, especially since one of the original script writers wrote the novels.)

After ten minutes of extensive research – counting the time mixing a martini –I can’t determine the very first example of a movie or TV show being turned into a novel, so we’ll just say that “Johnny Staccato” was it.

From the mid 50’s on, television tried, and sometimes succeeded in cashing in on the popularity of “The Beat Generation” generally making it a parody and stereo typing it with only a superficial nod to Jack Kerouac. KerouacThis was a time when the parents of the “Baby Boomers” were starting to mature. They were, like the Beat Generation which they were a part of, throwing off traditional values, rejecting authority, anti-conformist, freer sexually, and creating their own art. This was the birth of be-bop jazz, coffee houses with poetry readings, drug use for recreational purposes was accepted in bigger and bigger social circles, but above all, they were cool. And, if you are on this page you know there was never a cooler cat in fiction than the hardboiled detective.  He was an individualist. Possessed only a grudging respect for the police, and had his own sense of right and wrong. Probably the first of this new generation was Richard Diamond, Private Detective played on radio from 1949-1953 by Dick Powell who reprised the role on TV from 1957 til 1960 starring David Jansen of The Fugitive fame.

Richard Diamond Private Eye

Sam, his secretary was played by Mary Tyler Moore, or more precisely, her legs. She revealed this “secret” in the 70’s and promptly lost her job selling Leggs panty hose in commercial. Richard Diamond was written by Blake Edwards. Edwards also gave us probably the most memorable, if only for the theme song, TV detectives of the era, Peter Gunn. Peter Gunn2 Peter Gunn is a private investigator in the classic film noir tradition, which was a popular genre on American TV in the late 1950s. However, a few traits differentiate him from the standard hard-boiled detectives, such as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Gunn was a sophisticated hipster, a dapper dresser who loved cool jazz; where other gumshoes were often coarse, Peter Gunn was portrayed as the epitome of cool. He operated in a nameless waterfront city, and was a regular patron of Mother’s, a wharf side jazz club. the theme song, composed by Henry Mancini is one of the most popular from TV.

Peter Gunn with it’s jazzy theme was shown on NBC and moved to ABC for the last season. when it moved to ANC, NBC tried to replace it with Johnny Staccato starring John Cassavetes. As you can tell from the ‘tag’ at the top, Johnny Staccato is a jazz pianist/private detective. The setting for many episodes is a Greenwich Village jazz club belonging to his friend, Waldo, played by Eduardo Ciannelli. The show featured many musicians, such as Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Red Norvo, and Johnny Williams, all jazz greats. Elmer Bernstein composed the main theme.

The show, like Star Trek in the 60’s, was one of those shows that acquired a cult following but didn’t do much else. It aired from September 1959 til March of 1960, 27 episodes. It did feature some great guest stars that would go on to TV and Hollywood stardom. Amongst them Gena Rowlands, Martin Landau, Michael Landon, Cloris Leachman, Elizabeth Montgomery, Mary Tyler Moore (she made the rounds of the detective shows), Dean Stockwell, Geraldine Brooks and Lloyd Corrigan.  It’s star, John Cassevetes didn’t care for the show and had only taken the job to pay off some personal debts. Cassavettes went so far as to publicly criticize the show in his successful effort to escape in his contract in the middle of the season. The big difference between Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato, other than the fact that, Peter Gunn tended to leave a lot of dead bodies lying around at the end of each episode where Staccato ended many episodes with no dead bodies,   is that jazz isn’t just something he hangs around to gather clues, but he’s truly a part of it as a musician. Staccato is a jazz pianist who, according to the TV show, wasn’t quite good enough, so he got his PI license. In the book, he gave up music as a living to make more money as a PI. The scenes of Staccato on the piano are priceless. The music of the late 50s, the “cool jazz” played by those all-star bands,  pulses through Johnny Staccato.A great majority of the episodes were classic, and well written by some very good writers.

Frank Kane

One of those writers was author Frank Kane aka Frank Boyd of the Johnny Liddell novels.  Frank Kane wasn’t a genius, a great innovator or the world’s greatest stylist, but he never failed to deliver the goods, constantly and consistently, in solid, workmanlike prose that always entertained, and rarely disappointed. As fellow crime writer Bill Crider put it on Rara-Avis in April 2000, if it’s a Frank Kane book, chances are "it’ll be a competent, straightforward P.I. story."  And that is what he delivered with Johnny Stacatto, the novel.

The novel actually deals with a social issue that was fresh in the public mind at the time the show aired. The Payola Scandals of the mid 50’s.  The story opens up with ex-girlfriend, blond bomb shell, and sultry singer, Shelly Carroll coming to see Johnny at Waldo’s, the basement jazz club. She’s got a problem. She’s going to be suspected of murder, Les Miller, a disc jockey who had the industry wrapped up tighter than Dick’s hat band with his ability, and inclination to make or break singers, song writers or record companies by pushing or burying their music. Shelley had gone to see Les and found him murdered and hasn’t reported it. But the clerk at the hotel saw her, and soon he will try and black mail her into “playing house” to buy his silence. When Johnny goes to the murder scene to look around, he finds a partial glass of bourbon as well as the dead mans glass. Then someone wearing tasseled loafers knocks him out and the police arrive.The police come quickly to suspect Shelley when the clerk reveals her name after she turns him down, with Johnny’s help, for a little hanky-panky. This alienates Lt. Phil Kovacs, his policeman friend when it is discovered that Johnny didn’t tell him that Shelley had been in the room. Johnny tells Kovacs that it couldn’t have been Shelley because of the glass of bourbon, and Shelley is allergic to bourbon, but this carries no weight with the police or the D.A.  Johnny Staccato2So, more suspects come into the picture. A mob type, named Dom Traina and one of his strong armed/wanna be Sinatra goons who wears loafer like the ones Johnny saw on the guy that slugged him. From there he ends up in the Brill Building, the home of “Poverty Row” – the Tin-Pan Alley of the story. We learn of Delia Moore, the singer that Les Miller had ruined when she wouldn’t “play house” with him.he black balled her in the music industry and gave all her good material to Shelley’s . There’s also Frank Seymour, a publisher who is a straw man; “only a beard-Les Miller owns his company” as Rudy Marcus, the A-R man tells Johnny. Marcus  had promised Shelley he’d talk to Les Miller about letting her back in the game and was supposed to see Miller the night he was killed. Marcus tell Johnny, “I’m going to his funeral. But only to make sure they screw the top down real tight.” Half the music industry, and the crooks in it have a reason to have killed Miller. Seymour stands to now make money from his company with Miller dead because he won’t have to kick back profits, It could be Dom Traina or his goon, since Miller refused to let Traina’s boy, Tony Varon have any good songs and everybody knows Dom gets what Dom wants. And Miller had made purposeful mistakes to embarrass  Varon  on the air. This is motive enough for Dom and Varon .Miller had driven Delia Moore right out of the business, so she had a motive. Rudy Marcus himself is a suspect because he was lusting after Delia, and by Miller being dead, she could be a star again. With this many suspects, and time out for some bit players, like Barney the clerk to distract us with dead ends, some suitable jive-jazz patios stirred in with hardboiled patter and similes that Chandler might just have employed, we have the makings of a first rate crime novel.

Syndacte Girl Frank Kane

Kane/Boyd’s dark descriptions of New York and it’s seedier parts is evocative of the noir atmosphere . The characters are very well developed and the intricate descriptions of the payloa driven music industry and it’s workings are educational. Johnny Staccato is well worth the read if you can find a copy and it is also available for free download in many eBook formats on Munsey’s. There is also a DVD Box Set available on Amazon that would be well worth having. 

For a nice bio on Frank Kane alias Frank Boyd, the prolific hardboiled writer, check out the Thrilling Detective site where they have  a memoir, exclusive to Thrilling Detective by Maura Fox and her reminisces about her grandfather. 

The Dirty Lowdown


Filed under Reviewing The Classics

“Room To Swing” by Ed Lacy

Room to Swing

Room To Swing is a classic for many reasons. First, it is a classic whodunit – a hardboiled mystery if you will – where the protagonist, a New York private eye is framed for murder, seemingly by his client. Next, it’s worth mentioning that the book won the Edgar Award for Best Novel for 1958, over such notables as THE LONGEST SECOND, by Bill Ballinger , THE NIGHT OF THE GOOD CHILDREN, by Marjorie Carleton  and THE BUSHMAN WHO CAME BACK, by Arthur Upfield .  Third, the detective fits the mold of what the hardboiled PI was supposed to be;  he, ’s a loner, a man who scratches for money, a veteran and decorated hero of two wars and he is no stranger to violence. But what sets this novel apart is Lacy, who was white, is credited with creating "the first credible African-American Private Eye" character in fiction, Toussaint "Touie" Marcus Moore.  Lacy doesn’t just present us with a credible “black” detective but a social commentary that is worth remembering today. 333px-101st_Airborne_at_Little_Rock_Central_High

Written in the same years as the Little Rock Nine took their stand, the novel is not only daring by virtue of ‘exposing’ racial issues of the day, but in presenting a realistic point of view of the African American protagonist. In “Touie” Moore we have a man who has distinguished himself in two wars, winning a Silver Star and a Bronze Stars and having risen to the rank of Captain. But, now in his 30’s, living in New York City, his career choices are limited to civil service jobs, domestic, or laborer. Not very good choices for a proud man who stands on his own. He shares a room with two other bachelors and runs his PI Practice in the same room he sleeps, getting “coloured cases” that the “white agencies” won’t take as well as the occasional bouncer gig or Department Store Detective job to catch shop lifters or repossess items, bought on credit, from other blacks in the ghetto.

Rm to Swing

The story is told in three part, opening in Bingston, Ohio – small, town near the Kentucky Border, and the segregationist south. Touie has come there on a hunch that the real murder must be connected to the victims home town. The victim was himself on the lam from a felony committed there. Bingston is a little town of a couple thousand, so Touie, a negro (and I use that term because at this period of history, Touie preferred Negro and considered being called Black and insult) draws instant attention and not a small amount of racial prejudice. He is refused service at the local lunch counter, where he has stopped to use the phone to try and track down names in the area that might be able to aid in his investigation. He is even refused use of the public pay phone and directed to a gas station on the edge of town where they let “coloureds” use the phone.  Of course, the local cop shows up Billy club smacking against his palm. Touie figures that his description and the fact that he may be wanted for the murder in New York City has already spread, but it turns out to be just small town racism, even though Bingston has a coloured section of town and a deeply entrenched coloured middle class. It is one of these citizens that inserts himself between the town bull and Touie, the negro postman tells Touie, “Relax, man.” as the cop asks Touie, “new in town, boy?” Touie thinks, “I have been called Boy more times in the last couple of hours than in my whole life.”  The cop isn’t there because he heard of a negro suspect in the killing of one of the locals, a black sheep himself, in New York. He is there to “explain a couple things” to a strange negro in town. Like you can’t eat here. It isn’t the custom. Touie gets a little mad at this and gets a bit tough with his language, tells the cop he wasn’t planning to eat the phone book. The cop doesn’t like Touies nice suit, and he doesn’t like the fact that he is driving a fancy, foreign car, a Jaguar, nor is he accustom to being talk back to by a Negro. Touie leaves, but the postman stops him outside the dinner and tells him that “Bingston ain’t a mean town for coloured, just a little old fashion.” Touie tells him to stop the race relations patter. Touie tells the postman he is looking for May Russell, Rm to Swing2one of the names on his list. The postman tells Touie that asking about May Russell will start real trouble, “she isn’t for coloured men.” So Touie pegs her as a loose woman, but a white loose woman.

The postman eventually invites Touie to stay at his home, since there are no hotels in town that cater to Negros.  Touie meets Frances, the postman’s daughter. Touie is considering becoming a postman back in New York, mainly so he’ll have a steady income and a “respectable job” which would make his girlfriend,  Sybil, happy.  Touie eventually confides in Frances, who he grows to respect, that he is investigating Bob Thomas’ murder, and that he is a suspect. Frances, accepts this and agrees to show Touie around the town and help him find the people that Touie needs to learn about.  She tells him that the town is not so bad, as long as your skin is pale, Most of the coloured population has good, solid, jobs. Like her postman father. The coloured population of Bingston has also just scored a ‘major’ victory, after a two year fight they are now allowed to sit in the orchestra at the local movie house instead of being confined to the balcony. Frances knows that there must be more to life than sitting in the balcony and has a yearning to leave, maybe go to college, but that isn’t likely for a Negro daughter in southern Ohio. Touie turns the conversation to Bob Thomas, the murdered man.  Frances tells him that people aren’t really concerned with his murder, they are actually pretty relieved. Thomas had broke out of jail after being picked up for rape and assault. Frances alludes to the fact that Thomas was framed, but doesn’t tell him much more at this point.

On a night time ride through the country, Touie runs the story of his involvement by Frances, and a friendship and trust begins to form and the story goes back to New York, three days earlier. Touie received a visit from a white woman, unusual in itself, since his PI business was almost always with other Negros. The woman is Kay Robbens and she is with a local TV station who has a plan to release a new TV show called “You—Detective” the premise is similar to todays “America’s Most Wanted”. But more scripted and devised. As Kay puts it, “It’s low-level, moronic, disgusting – and it’s my job.” The idea is to dig up cold cases on felons that have fled and not been captured. To find them using PI’s and then set up their arrest live, on TV, by private citizens that are actually unknown actors. Kay has tracked down the first episode’s “star”; Bob Thomas, and wants to pay Touie a small fortune, $1500.00 for a months retainer, to shadow him for  until the episode is ready to air.

Rom To Swng

Touie is seduced by this wind fall and the prospect of getting other lucrative jobs with the show and the TV station. In short, he has stars in his eyes and starts to think he can win Sybil without becoming a boring, postman. Sybil, who is a light skinned negro, thus of a “higher social standing” wants Touie to take the safe job, get a bigger “nice apartment” and be a respectable Negro. But as Touie gets drawn in deeper with Kay’s white friends, he dreams large. He even takes it in stride when Kay tells him, ‘I always try and give you people a helping hand, so I was surprised when you were a Negro.” Touie thinks, “okay, whites can sure say the jerkiest things, I’ve met the type before. At least she is jerky in a friendly way, so many are jerky in a nasty way.” The book succeeds as social commentary on scenes like this throughout and doesn’t sacrifice a great story told in a great way while doing it. Walter Mosley does this very well in his EZ Rawlins books,and surely owes a nod to Ed Lacy.

As Touie gets invited along to parties with Kay’s oh so liberal and socially conscious friends, he learn the other side of racism, the supposed intellectuals with so much concern for the ‘plight of the Negro’ in voice but not in action. At the same time he shines a light on the black community and their own divisions and social strata of ‘lightness of skin’ being the factor on just how far you can go and what you are allowed to achieve. But, Touie has white friends, ex army buddies, that completely disregard race and only look at a persons self worth and how they carry themselves, while still being realists in 1950’s New York. Touie also learns about Bob Thomas, who is living a quiet life, working steady as a machinist, taking correspondence courses and staying away from trouble and not acting the least bit like a fugitive on the run.

One night, Touie is lured to Thomas’ apartment, he thinks by Kay, at midnight only to find Thomas dead, and a cop showing up at just the right time to frame Touie for his murder. Touie slugs the cop and flees, eventually winding up in Bingston to try and find a motive for the murder and hopefully the killer, as he figures that is the only way to avoid death row. And he may not even be able to avoid the cops if he turns up the murder, since he slugged a white cop.

In Bingston, he finds plenty of suspects. Thomas was poor white trash, and raised pretty much without a mother. He was cared for and worked for black women, who fed him, but he eventually made enemies until he was accused of rape and assault.  Touie eventually  travels deeper into the heart of the segregation crisis, both in the north in Ohio, and across the border to the south which is Kentucky,  in order to find the truth that might clear his name. The search down many dead ends, and in fleshing out the early life of Bob Thomas he makes some discoveries that lead him back to New York to unwind the mystery. He has to make choices on who to trust, Kay, his white friends who just might want the publicity of turning up a killer, Sybil who is more concerned with what her friends will think about her dating someone accused of murdering a white man than with whether or not he is guilty, and finally  how to expose and trap the killer.

This book stands as a social document of the complex racial politics of the times–and also as a damn  good mystery and a classic of the genre that deserves to be remembered and read not only today, but in the future.

Ed Lacy, born Leonard "Len" S. Zinberg was probably best know for his stories with boxing as a back drop. In books such as Walk Hard, Talk Loud Walk Hardand 1954’s Go For The Body, where he chronicled “Boxing racketeers, loose-hipped blondes and chiselers” often featured African American protagonists – indeed Lacy was probably the preeminent writer of boxing fiction of the times and also contributed to Ringside magazine as well as other sports journals of the day – but Room To Swing gave us a very respectable black PI, and opened the genre to those to come. Lacy’s interest in African American culture and leftist politics stemmed from his 1920s Jewish heritage and he was married to a black woman and lived most of his life in and around Harlem and actually won many accolades from black writers groups. he died of a heart attack in a Laundromat in Harlem at the age of 56 (1968).

The Dirty Lowdown

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Filed under Crime Reports-Book Reviews, Reviewing The Classics

The Screaming Mimi–Fredric Brown (1949)

Screaming Mimi2

Now considered a minor master piece of the so called, “Noir Fiction” genre, the story has more in common with the “Golden Age of Crime and Detection” as the protagonist, though not a detective, is a reporter trying to solve a murder, or actually a string of murders.  The story also has some over tones of horror, though it probably would not be considered very horrific today, this was written before Hitchcock made horror a standard fare for mysteries. Even the title conveys this with it’s play on The Screaming Meemees-an extreme attack of nerves or ; hysteria – named after the WWI bomb which was launched straight up in the air and came down with a high pitched ‘scream’ before exploding over the target. Fredric BrownThe tale opens  with  a typical  Noir subject. A hopeless drunk, seemingly beyond redemption.  Then Brown does something daring stylistically –his  stylistic elements would become a signature for him – the story is told by a omniscient narrator who addresses the reader directly as we’ll see in a moment. It also involves an apparent ‘serial killer’ then known as a ‘homicidal maniac’.  Let’s get to the tale, which is really quite good.

“You can never tell what a drunken Irishman will do.You can make a flying guess; you can make a lot of flying guesses.

You can list them in order of probability. The likely ones are easy. He might go after another drink, start a fight, make a speech, take a train….You can work down the list of possibilities; he might buy some green paint, chop down a maple tree, do a fan dance, sing “God Save The King”, steal an oboe…You can work on down and down to things get less and less likely, and eventually you might hit the rock bottom of improbability: He might make a resolution and stick with it.

I know that’s incredible, but it happened. A guy named Sweeney did it, once, in Chicago.”Mimi

And that is the protagonist of Browns tale. Bill Sweeny. Sweeny is a drunk. He has been on a two week bender. His clothes are stinking rags, and his body isn’t much better. He hasn’t shaved in god knows when (actually God makes an appearance real soon) and he sleeps on a bench and is scheming where he can beg borrow or steal the next bottle.  But there is more to Sweeny than meets the eye.

“His name really was Sweeney, but he was only five-eighths Irish and he was only three-quarters drunk.

But that’s about as near as truth ever approximates a pattern, and if you won’t settle for that, you’d better quit reading. If you don’t, maybe you’ll be sorry, for it isn’t a nice story. It’s got murder in it, and woman and liquor and gambling and even prevarication. There’s murder before the story proper starts, and murder after it ends; the actual story begins with a naked woman and ends with one, which is a good opening and a good ending, but everything between isn’t nice. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. But if you’re still with me, let’s get back to Sweeney.”

As you can see, this is an unusual narrative style, it’s like you are gathered around a four-top in a smoky little bar and the guy has you leaning over, smugly telling his tale in an all-knowing tone in the hopes you’ll buy the next round.  And it works. Both the style, and the next round bit.  Brown has this  omniscient narrator  not only to open the story and close it, but he pops in from time to time throughout. It really works.


Sweeney is sitting on a park bench one summer night next to God. Sweeny rather likes God, although not many people did. God was a tallish, scrawny old man with a nicotine stained beard. His full name is Godfrey and he is another hopeless alcoholic. As Brown goes on to describe him, “He’s a little cracked. But not much. No more than the other bums his age that live on the near north side of Chicago and hang out, when the weathers good, in Bughouse Square.

“Bughouse Square has another name, but the other name is less appropriate. It is between Clarke and Dearborn Street, just south of the Newberry Library; that’s it’s horizontal location. Vertically speaking it is quite a bit nearer hell than heaven. I mean it is bright with lights, but dark with the shadows of the defeated men who sit on the benches, all night long.”

Soon Sweeney must go for a walk before he can either sleep or find a way to get another drink. It is a drunken stupor of a walk and soon finds Sweeney as witness to a bizarre crime, or the tail end of one. He sees through a lobby window a stunningly gorgeous woman with a knife wound on her belly. there is a rather large, wolf like dog and the police are about to shoot it when it rears up, seemingly to attack the woman. Only it doesn’t attack her it gently grabs the zipper on the back of her dress and lowers it, leaving her stark naked and Sweeney smitten. It is then that Sweeney makes the resolution. He will sober up, he will get his life back in order, because he must have this woman. It is then that we find out that Sweeney is actually a reporter for the Chicago Blade. He went AWOL and fully expects to have lost his job, his apartment and all his possessions, which he figures he probably hocked or sold for booze.  But, his land lady wouldn’t let him pedal his belongings and has kept his room even Screaming Mimithough he is behind on his rent. And his boss conveniently kept his job and listed him as “on vacation”. during his bender. He finds this out when he takes an eye witness account of this event, which turns out to be the latest attack of “The Ripper” and tries to sell it to his paper so as to stake himself on the road to recovery. Sweeney has the weekend, 72 hours to investigate the Ripper Killings, of which there has been three. Sweeney soon discovers,  as he tries to get his system clear of alcohol and struggles to drink lightly –a functioning alcoholic is our Sweeney – that the first victim, an ex-chorine living with a con man had sold a statuette to the  Ripper, shortly before she was victim number one. The statuette is The Screaming Mimi, so called by the art company that cast it. He finds out that there were only two of the Mimi’s sold in Chicago and quickly acquires the only other, a hauntingly strange work that could only appeal to a mad man. But, it appeals to Sweeney.

He then meets Doc Greene, a one time psychiatrist, and now a booking agent for night club talent. He is the agent for the beautiful and alluring Yolanda, the victim that survived, only because The Ripper was scared off by the dog. Greene is obsessively protective of ‘Yo’ and soon gloms onto Sweeney’s intentions, which aren’t altogether honorable. Sweeney suspects that Greene is the Ripper, even though the only evidence is his personal hatred of the man. Greene soon suspect Sweeney, since he was in a drunken haze at the crime scene. And the local cop, Bline soon investigate Sweeney as well. The dialog is swift, clever, and full of snappy, funny conversations as Greene and Sweeney swipe and snipe. And Brown fleshes out the characters rather well. We find that Sweeney is a connoisseur of classical music and that Greene is rather smart and a not all together bad business man. We are left to wonder about Sweeney’s motives. Does he really mean to capture and expose the Ripper, or is that only the path to the alluring Yolanda?

Mimi Poster

Sweeney’s investigation leads him to Wisconsin, where the original artist that sculpted the Mimi lives in his own drunken stupor, having modeled the statue of a real life event where an escaped mental patient attempted to slash his own sister, who got the “screaming meemees” from the event and ended up dying in a mental hospital from the shock. This seemingly dead end comes near the end of Sweeney’s 72 hours, when he’ll have to go back to work at the newspaper. Sweeney fills the hunt with twists, turns, dead ends and plenty of suspects and though all the clues are there, the ‘reveal’ will astound you.

Brown put together a classic, yet original hardboiled detective whodunit mixed successfully with a serial killer plot in this story. As a rule serial killers don’t work in a whodunit, but Brown was a master. Written in 1949, it was in the second year of Brown’s writing full time. Unfortunately, he was well into his 40’s and would only write full time for another 13 years. Brown never garnered the respect of the critics, or even the publishers during his life as he switched back and forth from crime stories to Sci-Fi, where he wrote classics that so impressed Phillip K. Dick that he praised some of his work as seminal to the genre. Brown was, however very popular with the readers and respected by more successful authors that were his peers. The book was turned into two movies, 1958’s vehicle starring Anita Ekberg and Gypsy Rose Lee. Mimi Movie PosterTitled, Screaming Mimi.

It was also the model for the classic Italian giallo film(or yellow, from the color of the cheap paperbacks the genre was named for in the crime fiction/mystery mode with horror and eroticism as main ingredients-similar to French Noir) ,the Bird with the Crystal Plumage from 1970, directed by Dario Argento and winning the 1971 Edgar Allan Poe award . Brown was unaccredited. for the film.

Crystal Plumage During the 30’s Brown became the King of the Short Short, short stories often published in the pulps and being between 1 and 3 pages long. Browns first novel, 1947’s The Fabulous Clip Joint won the Edgar that year for best first novel and introduced his series characters, Ed and Ambrose Hunter. he is truly one of the forgotten masters of the paperback era of crime fiction. By the way, this novel is available for free from Munsey’s, here.


The Dirty Lowdown


Filed under Reviewing The Classics

Cassidy’s Girl- David Goodis

Lundy’s Place, a port for rudderless boats.

Cassidy's Girl3

If ‘Noir Fiction’ is defined as a sub genre of the hardboiled with an “…emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters.” Then Goodis wrote that definition in ‘Cassidy’s Girl’. 

In deed, practically every character in this minor master piece is self-destructive and bent on the failure of the very idea of redemption for Jim Cassidy.Cassidy's Girl2

Jim Cassidy, the high school football star and All Pacific-Coast Conference Guard at the University of Oregon whose brilliant achievements in the halls of learning and on the grid iron left him third highest man in his class. Jim Cassidy, who piloted B-24’s in WWII through 80 missions and came home a war hero  to pilot commercial airliners. Capt. J. Cassidy whose steadiness led them to promote him to the transatlantic run was riding on top of the world. Wearing $125 suits and being invited to all the best parties where they served the best champagne and several of the more elegant post-debutants were wishing he’d turn his eye their way.  Then fate steps in and the big plane, on take off suddenly nosed over only to crash in the marshes at La Guardia leaving only eleven survivors out of seventy-eight passengers and crew. The copilot had suffered an emotional collapse,Cassidy says, but the review board does not believe him noting that Capt. Jim Cassidy had attended a champagne party the night before. The authorities label him a liar and a drunk. The families of the dead demand he be punished. The news papers splash his picture all over the papers, and blame him for the worst commercial air disaster of all time. It’s bad enough in New York, but even when he returns to his small Oregon home town, he is ostracized.

Cassidy's Girl

  Thus begins the downhill process and Cassidy begins to drink in earnest. No matter where he goes, they have seen his picture splashed across the nations new papers and they want him out. And they even attempt to throw him out bodily, but Cassidy is a big, strong man and fights them and ends up in jail for a week. He retreats from small town Oregon and lands in Nevada with his ten thousand dollars life savings from his years with the air lines only to see it fly away faster than his steady reputation, at the craps tables. Soon Cassidy is doing ten days for fighting and vagrancy and sixty days for assault and battery and putting men, and himself in the hospital as he drifts across the country. Cassidy's Girl art

He lands in Philadelphia, where so many of Goodis’ works always land. Cassidy is now piloting a bus for a three-bus company and making the run to Easton three times a day. He does his drinking at Lundy’s Place, a water front dive filled with “rudderless boats.” A place of dirty floors, cracked walls and disorganized human beings. But the shots of rye are cheap and one day, after his third drink he spies a bright purple dress wrapped around a woman with a body out of a Wagnerian Opera. Mildred. Mildred with bulges in all the right places. Mildred filled with violent sex. Mildred who can fight like a man and drink like ten. Mildred who would rather cheat on him than make him dinner. After nine or ten drinks they are married. For four years they do battle, physically and emotionally and sexually,  Cassidy’s only link to sanity is piloting that bus, maintaining that vestige of his control over his life and his value as a man.


Cassidy is doomed, irretrievably broken, life has killed him but forgotten to kick the dirt over the top until one night, in Lundy’s, he has a fight with Mildred and her latest lover. In the aftermath he decides he can save his life, he can climb out of the hole that life has dug him. And save the life of young Doris who has her own tragic story. A farmers wife who fell asleep smoking one night and burned her husband and children to death. Doris is in Lundy’s to ‘drink herself to death’ as punishment for her failure and Cassidy sees her as someone damaged as much as himself. He decides to never return to Mildred and that maybe, just maybe by saving Doris he can save himself. But Mildred has other plans.

When it seems that Mildred might let him part from her civilly he discovers that she has thrown all his clothes in the river . While he marches to Lundy’s bent on violence for Mildred and her lover and anyone else that would stand in the way of his redemption,  he encounters three thugs paid to do him an injury, but Cassidy is not so easily way-laid. And so begins the struggle for Cassidy to save the frail Doris and himself. But, naturally life stands in his way. GoodisHis final downfall is engineered by Mildred’s would be lover who causes Cassidy’s bus to crash and kill everyone on board except Cassidy and the lover. Cassidy is soon condemned by the authorities when his past is rediscovered. And even when he manages to escape from police custody and dreams of escaping with Doris as a stow away on a ship bound for South Africa. When he dares to plot a new life with Doris in a far away land where they will eat in decent restaurants and sip sherry after dinner and where there will be no need for ‘that other kind of drinking’, life and his doomed friends plot to hold him back and keep him in the gutter where he belongs.

When Cassidy’s Girl was first released in paper back it sold a million copies and established David Goodis as a successor to Hammett and Chandler in the second generation of hardboiled writers that would eventually be known as the paperback writers. The whole story and all the characters are a metaphor for everything uncontrollable in life that can drag a man down. Even the twisted,  Goodis, happy ending is no happiness at all but a validation of the dirty failure waiting for us all.

David Goodis was a prolific writer who sometimes turned out 10,000 words a day. Born to a respectable Jewish family in Philadelphia, and 1938 graduate of Temple University, he published his first novel Retreat from Oblivion in 1939. After the publication he moved to New York City where he wrote for the pulps. During the 1940s, Goodis scripted for radio adventure serials, including Hop Harrigan, House of Mystery, and Superman. Novels he wrote during the early 1940s were rejected by publishers, but in 1942 he spent some time in Hollywood as one of the screenwriters on Universal’s Destination Unknown. His next novel wouldn’t come until 1946 when  Dark Passage was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, published by Julian Messner and filmed for Warner Bros. with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall heading the cast. Goodis Boogie & Bacall  He worked in Hollywood, writing screenplays and adaptations with varying degrees of success until 1950 when he returned to Philadelphia where he lived with his parents and his schizophrenic brother Herbert. At night, he prowled the underside of Philadelphia, hanging out in nightclubs and seedy bars, a milieu he depicted in his fiction. He died in January 1967 a week after suffering a beating  in a robbery attempt. Cause of death was listed as "cerebral vascular accident," meaning a stroke .  Cassidy’s Girl is a lost master piece in what would be called the ‘Noir Fiction’ genre and a journey into dirty world.

The Dirty Lowdown


Filed under Crime Reports-Book Reviews, Reviewing The Classics