Sunday, 10 January 2010


I returned to BBC Radio 4's Open Book today, in what amounted to an almost-to-the-day anniversary performance (see last year's appearance here). I was there to answer a listener query about 1920s gangster fiction, and you can link to the programme at IPlayer here; it's the last five minutes or so of the show. The listener said he'd enjoyed Damon Runyon's gangsters and was looking for more. Hard-boiled-egged on by Mariella Frostrup, I apparently broke some sort of record for most titles recommended within the all-too brief time, far too short to read snatches of dialogue like this (from Raoul Whitfield's Green Ice):

'I just didn't want you to think the dame had sucked me in. She's been playing me—and I've been playing her. She doesn't know what it's all about. I gave her my last coin and told her to break for the dirty burg...' Or how about: 'You were wise to the fact that when I got out prison I was going to shove in on some big-time crime breeders. Donner figured you were white—and he made a mistake. I figured the same way—and I made a mistake...but I hadn't gone all the way with you.'

The dilemma in making suggestions was whether the reader was looking for the real stuff, the kind of fiction turned into the classic crime movies of the early thirties, or whether it was Runyon's special mix of fast-talking and off-beat characters which appealed to him. You could go either way with Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest remains my favorite crime novel, hard-boiled and politically-aware too, and the Continental Op is the hallmark for all detectives who followed. But The Thin Man, if not as crackling as the film versions with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, certainly has its own share of Runyonesque charm.

If we walk down the mean streets of hardboiled fiction, Whitfield and Paul Cain are worth the effort. Whitfield wrote only two tough crime novels, and was dead at 47, but Green Ice and Death In The Bowl both get reprinted sporadically when people start revisiting the hard-boiled genre. Fast One is Cain's only novel (he was born George Sims but wrote as Peter Ruric for the movies) and it is exactly what the title implies, a headlong rush toward hard-boiled oblivion.

The producers had suggested W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel on which Little Caesar is based, and a number of other classics besides, like The Beast Of The City and The Asphalt Jungle. I thought hard about Horace McCoy, who moves from Burnett-style newsman's cynicism (No Pockets For A Shroud) to out and out nihilism in works like They Shoot Horses Don't They or I Should Have Stayed Home, arguably the greatest ignored Hollywood novel.

The stories I thought the questioner might really like are Frederick Nebel's tales of Kennedy and McBride, the former being a cop and the latter a hard-drinking newsman. They've never been collected in their own book, though they always pop up in Black Mask anthologies and other volumes of pulp fiction, but they are really funny, full of staccato cracking wise and entertaining.

Of course, if the reader were more interested in Runyon's style, Ring Lardner would be the obvious place to start, although he's not writing about gangsters per se, but then neither was Runyon most of the time. Lardner's only book-length narrative, You Know Me, Al, is about baseball, and as we said on the programme, baseball is central to America in the Roaring Twenties, presided over by the larger-than-life figure of Babe Ruth. The scandal of the Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series was made into Eight Men Out, based on Eliot Asinof's non-fiction book, but Harry Stein's Hoopla is a fine novel about the same subject. James Thurber's 'You Could Look It Up' is very much in the Runyon vein. And of course Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Front Page is a classic of 1930s cynicism, filmed well by Lewis Milestone and then brilliantly by Howard Hawks, with the reporter changed to a woman, by Howard Hawks.

Among contemporary writers, Elmore Leonard's The Hot Kid and In Honey's Room are Twenties gangster stories that sound as if they're authentic period pieces. Stuart Kaminsky's Toby Peters series, is set in 1940s Hollywood, but is also authentic; I had him in mind as I had written his obituary for the Guardian recently (you can link to it here). I had wanted to also mention Max Allan Collins' Nate Heller books, which start off (time wise) in 1920s Chicago with Ness and Nitti as characters, but time didn't allow; my apologies to Max, because the Heller books (which move up through the 60s) have long been favourites of mine.

We talked about E.L. Doctorow whom I praised all over the place, particularly Ragtime, which of course is set before the 1920s, but Billy Bathgate is specifically about gangsters. I thought Glen David Gold's Carter Beats The Devil, which is set in the same time-frame as Ragtime, was a remarkable first novel; I haven't got to Gold's follow-up, Sunnyside, about Charlie Chaplin, yet, but his debut is a hard act to follow.

Obviously, far more than could be squeezed into the time slot. But it was exhilarating just to be able to mention personal favourites like Whitfield and Cain, and to go all hard-boiled on the BBC. Without anyone even mentioning bourbon, or roscoes, or frails...

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