Thursday, August 04, 2016

My Bouchercon 2016 panel: Odds Against Tomorrow

The New York Times was right: William P. McGivern's 1957 men-on-the-run novel Odds Against Tomorrow is "a powerfully exciting action-melodrama." Let's look at the last part of that description.

Melodrama fell out of favor in the middle of last century, perhaps after French movie critics came up with a fancier name for the mid-century American movies that were called melodramas when they first appeared. The French called them films noirs and unleashed a wave of cultural cachet that swept up everything in its path.

So, what's melodramatic about Odds Against Tomorrow?: Two men, one white, one black, thrown together when a bank heist goes wrong and forced to overcome mutual hatred and suspicion and yadda, yadda, yadda (McGivern's novel was the basis of the 1959 movie starring Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan and produced by Belafonte.)  What saves the novel from being a brave, dated relic? Astonishing characterization like this:
"He wasn't worried about failure, because he didn't have the imagination to picture disaster in vivid and personal terms."
The taut professionalism of McGivern's work. The repetition of certain words that work through, with, under, and around the narrative, reinforcing it and building suspense: Confused. Confusion. Unconscious (impressions).  Co-protagonist Earl Slater's invocation of his military background. Johnny Ingram's cool. Some delicious plotting, much of it involving the interpersonal dynamics between Slater and Ingram.  The canny decision to add a brief coda so the novel does not end on the somewhat schmaltzy note that brings the main action to a close.  McGivern knew what he was doing.

(Poster by Jon Jordan)
(McGivern also wrote the novels on which the movies Rogue Cop and Fritz Lang's classic The Big Heat were based.)
Eric Beetner will discuss William McGivern as part of a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans in September. The panel is called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras," and it happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans. The room is LaGalleries 1. See you.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Blogger Prashant C. Trikannad said...

William P. McGivern is a new author for me, Peter. I particularly enjoy reading paperbacks of mid-20th century and later. The plot reminded me of the 1958 black-and-white film "The Defiant Ones" starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. It was released a year after "Odds Against Tomorrow" which means it may have been influenced by the novel. This is just a theory of mine.

August 04, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

McGivern was new to me, too, though I had seen movies based on his books. I knew about The Defiant Ones, and my guess is that the two simply reflected things that Americans were thinking about at the time rather than a matter of one influencing the other. But that's just a guess. But McGivern is the real thing, not just a writer of the literary equivalent of Movies of the Week about headline issues of the week.

I am tempted to attribute the economy and professionalism of his writing to his background as a newspaper reporter, part of that background right here in Philadelphia.

August 04, 2016  
Blogger Paul D Brazill said...

I only know the film, which I remember liking a lot. The book sounds great, though.

August 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Let's try this again.

Paul, I'm tempted to say the novel transcends its genre of melodrama, but that's wrong and shortsighted. Rather, I would say that it reveals that the debased melodramatic form can be quite effective in the hands of an author who knows what he's doing.

August 05, 2016  
Blogger Paul D Brazill said...

It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it ...

August 05, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It ain't the literary meat, it's the authorial motion.

July 30, 2017  

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