Saturday, February 14, 2015

Bill S. Ballinger and hard-boiled writing in the 1940s, with a question for readers

1949 was an in-between time in mass-market hard-boiled crime fiction, at least the variety written by men. Black Mask was nearly dead, and Manhunt had not yet appeared. Raymond Chandler was almost done writing, and Mickey Spillane was one book into his career.

Into the breach stepped The Body Beautiful by Bill S. Ballinger, who liked the letter b. (The novel's predecessor is The Body in the Bed, and their protagonist is a private investigator named Barr Breed.)

Photo by your humble
blogkeeper of a kind of
sign Bill S. Ballinger
might well have seen in
Appearing as it did in between two well-defined eras, The Body Beautiful looks like a pastiche of trends, motifs, and narrative techniques from the 1920s through the 1950s. Breed is a tough dick who clashes with the cops, one of whom is a friend. The Body Beautiful contains at least one passage as chilling as anything Jim Thompson wrote, but the story takes place in and around a theater, decidedly a nod to an earlier era.

At the resolution, the dick gathers all the suspects at the theater, and he relates in detail how he had solved the crime, like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. But the crime and its rational solution are more in the manner of a traditional mystery.

Breed and occasionally other characters say "coulda" and "woulda" and "gotta" and "lotta" and "kinda" and "outa" and "musta;" you know Ballinger and audience shared a common grounding in the tough-talking 1920s and '30s. The novel is also shot through with the yearning romanticism of the 1950s David Goodis sort.

And I like to think Barr Breed might have had
 drink here. This one's also by your humble
Ballinger does almost all of this well. (My only complaint concerns the climactic revelation scene, where we know tension is high because Breed/Ballinger keep telling us tension is high.) Ballinger could plot well; the mystery was nicely laid out and would have kept me turning the pages had I not been reading an e-book. Ballinger also knew his way around a theater or else did a convincing job persuading me that he did. The backstage details made for terrific color and background.

OK, now you know Bill S. Ballinger. Your next job is this: Sum up 1940s hard-boiled crime writing in just a few words.
The Body Beautiful is part of a useful, exciting list published by 280 Steps. The catalogue includes new books, older ones both neglected and not, and critical works. I've been reading their editions of Harry Whittington, and I have a few more of their titles lines up.
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Blogger Dan_Luft said...

The stories were usually still urban and government corruption was containable. Just tossing it out there.

February 14, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mmm, so it maintained patterns that had been laid down earlier? An interesting thought.

The wild card, of course, is all the domestic fiction women were writing at the time, which is why I specified fiction by men in that first paragraph. I don't know all that much yet about Charlotte Armstrong, Dolores Hitchens, Dorothy B. Hughes, and so on, and I don't know what their critical reception was, where their work appeared, how their books sold, whether they would be mentioned in discussions of hard-boiled fiction, and so on.

February 14, 2015  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

Gangsters, guns, gumshoes, and femme fatales.

February 14, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Accurate, but if you threw decades at me in a crime-fiction word association game, I'd probably say "gangsters" for the 1920s or '30s and femmes fatales for the '50s. I'm not sure which decade I'd associate most strongly with gumshoes. Maybe the '40s for that.

I wonder if, once I've read a bit more, I'll associate particular motifs or themes with the 1940s.

February 14, 2015  
Blogger new improved gorman said...

Portrait in Smoke by Ballinger is one of my all-time favorite noirs. Several of his novels offer original takes on various sub-genres.

February 14, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Ed. The Body Beautiful was good and interesting enough that I would like to read more of him. I hope my discussion of the book did not appear dismissive. The book may have aspects reminiscent of any huber of style and periods, but he does just about all of them well, and that's impressove/

February 14, 2015  
Blogger Unknown said...

You've piqued my interest. I have no answer now as I am too naïve about the genre's history. However, I am going to do some research and get back to you. A quick glance at titles and authors suggests a mirroring of the movies of the time. If I were to apply one phrase (now without having further educated myself), I might say this: "angry crusaders."

February 15, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Angry crusaders is pretty good, and it covers lots of territory. Or maybe some the crusaders didn't start to get angry until the late '40s or early '50s.

February 15, 2015  

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