Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Descent into Death: A glimpse at 1950s American crime fiction

Are the 1950s the most luridly masochistic, twisted, self-obsessed, self-voyeuristic decade in American history? Based on the period's crime fiction, yep.

I've been reading a fair number of crime novels and stories from the 1950s, reissued by Wonder Publishing Group with suitably lurid covers after original publication in magazines of the time, notably Manhunt. Two highlights have been "As I Lie Dead" by Fletcher Flora and We Are All Dead by Bruno Fischer. In each, a first-person narrator relates a tale that takes him exactly where you'd expect from the title, and it's hard to imagine anything more self-involved than imagining one's own death.

Why did these authors have their characters do it? Is lurid embrace of death really more prevalent in American crime writing of the 1950s (and late 1940s) than in that of previous and succeeding periods? If so, why?  As a gross generalization, I'd say that characters in 1950s crime melodrama embraced the forbidden when doing so could still exact a tremendous toll in guilt, psychological dissolution, even death, and that this lends stories of the time their giddy, nasty kick. Shed one's inhibitions, as we've all been doing since the 1960s, and you shed the possibility of writing such stories.
***
This is a fine time to ponder such questions. On Thursday I'll attend two events celebrating the Library of America's publication of David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 1950s.  The durable, handsome volume includes Dark Passage, Nightfall, The Burglar, The Moon in the Gutter, and Street of No Return, and you can meet the book's editor, Robert Polito, for a program at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The fun starts at 5:45 with a screening of The Burglar, for which Goodis wrote the script, and Polito takes the stage at 7:30. Visit the library's website for information.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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15 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

If anyone should be at a Goodis celebration, it is you, Peter.

April 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know about that. Many of Philadelphia's Goodis-heads have read far more of the man's work than I have, and I suspect that many will attend tomorrow's festivities.

April 18, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

It should be a lot of fun, in any case.

April 18, 2012  
Blogger Jerry House said...

Reactions to the threat of atomic bombs, fear of communists, economic properity for some but not all, a vague glimmering of the wide social change that would follow WWII, an ever-increasingly mobile populace no longer locked into a small area of the country, exposure to many different types of people with many different values, painful memories a Depression, two horrific wars,and a Dust Bowl, a war in Korea -- all this while trying to rebuilt Europe.

The world just became closer and more intimate. Fiction writers found mad scientists and monsters couldn't compare to the monsters buried just below the skin. Those fears, horrors, and experiences spoke to a new kind of American reader through a darker kind of stories.

April 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I've already had some of the fun. One of the functions is a reception high above Philadelphia, business attire required. Since I have another function coming up, and since it had been a long time since I dressed fit to be seen, I bought two suits last week and did a bit of accessorizing today. This has been great fun.

April 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I wonder when the idea of the 1950s as a wholesome, well-scrubbed suburban decade became widespread.

April 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jerry, I wonder if so much has ever gone on at the same time under the watchful eye of so many in the United States as was the case in the 1950s.

Your comment could keep entire history and American studies departments going for years. Your remark about economic prosperity for some but not all certainly applies in Goodis' case, to his characters if not to the author himself. Interesting that Goodis, who was from a background well-off enough that he had a family to come back to live with after he flamed out in Hollywood, should choose to people his stories with those who had been left behind by post-war prosperity.

April 19, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

That event sounds like one of those rare occasions where one could honestly say:
"On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia"

I've got a paperback anthology which features at least three of those novels
I think all but the last-named were made into films; 'The Moon in the Gutter' being by French director Beineix.
The others by Hollywood directors

April 19, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Just checked: the only one of the LofAs I don't have in my (Black Box) anthology is 'The Burglar'
Its got a nice cover painting, by Robin Harris

April 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, the French are said to have embraced Goodis before Americans did -- or are only now getting around to doing. The proverbial French attitude of black-and-white existential doom probably owes much to Goodis.

The invitation to the events included material from the Library of America edition along with reproductions of fine, lurid paperback covers from editions of all the books.

The Library of America books are wonderful things: attractive, durable, and printed on such thin but strong pages that they hold massive amounts of material. Pick one up and, without opening it, try to guess how many pages it contains. Then open the book and see if you were right. You'll likely be shocked.

April 19, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

French film directors have also embraced Jim Thompson, with particularly outstanding adaptations of 'Pop. 1280' ('Coup de Torchon'), and 'A Hell of a Woman' ('Serie Noire')

And I own a whole bunch of LofAs, including two crime-writing anthologies, in addition to Hammett and Chandler
They not only occupy pride of place in my 'display cabinet', but are also well-thumbed.

btw, speaking of 'lurid covers', I've finally got my hands on one of my late father's crime novels, 'Dames Are No Dice', which got itself banned in Ireland in more innocent, or less enlightened, times; the cover art, and the title, were probably enough to shock even the most liberal of censors

April 19, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

I actually had what I thought was a comment worth posting, but Jerry beat me to it. And wrote it better,

April 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, Philadelphia is dotted with markers that recognize sgnificant people or events associated with a given site. These include one to W.C. Fields, in front of the former department store where he worked when he was "a lad."

April 19, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Watched 'The Burglar' tonight for the first time in over 20 years (my second viewing)
I note Goodis did the screenplay (his only one?)

The film was slightly better than I remembered it but it was still too self-consciously arty at times.
(even if the director's lack of experience had its pros and cons)

But the heist, - in the best tradition of 'Asphalt Jungle', and 'Rififi', as Martin Scorsese noted, was cooly done, and the tension was cranked up when a couple of unexpected parties tried to muscle in on the action.

Particularly effective use of Atlantic City locales: an impressive, if somewhat self-conscious, performance by a young Jayne Mansfield, but Dan Duryea's eponymous 'anti-hero' was the heart and tortured soul of the movie
(and I'm sure he nailed it good)

October 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The launch party for the book overlapped the start of the movie, so I saw only the film's end. But what I saw was enough to make me want to see the rest, so thanks for reminding me.

October 11, 2012  

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