10 Mar 2006
What in the name of Harold Bloom is going on at The Library of America? Over the last few years, the good people there have been issuing, alongside the expected volumes of Henry James, Mark Twain and Edith Wharton, some decidedly unexpected selections: a two-volume set devoted to Raymond Chandler, the recent offering on Nathanael (“Day of the Locusts,” “Miss Lonelyhearts”) West, and now this: Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s and Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s. Two volumes devoted to crime novels. This is hardly the material found in a college-level survey of literature course.
Yet here they are, books that formerly appeared in paperback, some with the lurid covers that forced boys of that time to hide under their pillows in case mom found them, now gussied up, shined to a fare-thee-well, bound between covers with the trademark ribbon bookmark attached and offered to the reading public at $35 a throw.
While some of the works are fairly well known to either the general public (James Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice”) or readers of this genre (Cornell Woolrich’s “I Married a Dead Man” and Patricia Highsmith’s wicked “The Talented Mr. Ripley”), the set contains some surprises that have been out-of-print for a long time. Chester Himes’ “The Real Cool Killers” takes readers into the black Harlem of the 1950s and confronts them with racist attitudes and police brutality that would be shocking these days, even in post-Rodney King Los Angeles. Open “Thieves Like Us,” by Rodney Anderson, and follow a gang of prison escapees through Depression America that seems like another country.
Although these novels were written for the widest possible consumption, they don’t have the smell of calculation that you see these days in best-sellers, the scent found in “Deja Dead” or “The Horse Whisperer,” of books cloned from previous successes. “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” begins with the sentencing of a man for murder, and his story is told by alternating between his story and the judge’s traditional sequence of question and statement (“Does the prisoner have anything to say?”), each sentence growing bigger on the page until the concluding sentence of “May God have mercy on your soul” fills the entire page.
One also forgets how short these books are. “Postman” weighs in at a compact 90 pages; its brevity lends a powerful assist to its memorable climax, and it is this power of noir in general that has made it an influential force in American culture, particularly in movies. This alone makes these novels ripe for inclusion into the Library. I just wonder what would Henry James make of this?