“And I knew there was something I had to do and something I had to wait for, and it wasn’t till I saw it that I knew.”
Richard Hallas was the pseudonym for Eric Knight (1897-1943)–the man who created the character of Lassie. I’m still trying to get my mind around that. Lassie Come Home is …well… touching and a bit weepy, but here’s You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, pure noir fiction, a superbly dark, hardscrabble tale of crime and moral corruption. Eric Knight was born in Yorkshire but emigrated to America in his teens. He was a Hollywood screenwriter, but in 1943 while a major in “the film unit of the U.S. Army Special Services,” he was killed in a plane crash. You Play the Black and Red Comes Up, published in 1938, was his only crime novel.
Although the book begins in an Oklahoma mining town, this is primarily a California novel. The book begins with the narrator, Dick, leaving his midnight shift to discover that his wife, Lois, has run away from the family-owned roadside diner with their child. The tiny roadside diner is an iconic American image–a drab place of tarnished, shriveled dreams where the owners wait, hoping for customers as life passes them by. There’s a quaintness to this particular diner that’s submerged by its sad ordinariness. While Dick mentions that he’d “painted the front in blue and yellow squares like a checkerboard so that the truck-drivers on the way down to Dallas would always remember it,” we know that the diner is bigger in Dick’s mind than to the drivers who pass by on the highway. Dick immediately guesses that Lois has run off to Hollywood as she’s “crazy to get in the pictures” and has cousins living there. Perhaps we don’t blame Lois for ditching the diner and the long, lonely hours.
Dick doesn’t hesitate, he hops aboard a westbound freight, laying on the top of a box car and watching “the glow of the smelters a long way off” slowly fade as he gains distance from the town. He’s in the company of a “bunch of floaters” all headed for California and the myth that “there was a man there going to be elected Governor who would take all the money away from the millionaires and give fifty dollars a week to every man without a job.” In one town, police herd hoboes out of jail and onto the freight train beating the men with their billy sticks as they mount into a box car. The train trip becomes a hellish journey with the strong bullying the weak, the old and black.
It’s funny, when you’re in the dark you can’t get things very straight. Sometimes I knew it would be daytime, because I could see light through chinks in the boards. I tried to figure out when we’d get out, but I couldn’t tell where we were. Sometimes I’d smell desert and alkali dust, and I’d think we were in Arizona. Then we’d feel them coupling another engine and we’d be going up a mountain and we all like to froze to death because it went down to zero and only being crowded together kept us alive.
Once in California, fate, and fate plays a large role in this noir story, throws Dick into the path of eccentric, probably insane, movie director, Quentin Genter. This meeting leads to a number of twists and turns in Dick’s life, and while Dick sees Quentin as his friend, it’s apparent that Quentin is a collector of people, an expert in poison, and an arch manipulator.
Penniless and with no prospect of employment, Dick turns to crime to make an easy buck. This is another event that leads to yet another fateful meeting–this time with divorced lush Mamie and her friend Pat–women who’d “both decided to be blondes.” Mamie sticks like glue to Dick and while Dick is soon ready to move on, she may or may not have the knowledge to send him to prison. This uneasy alliance, with Dick unsure whether or not Mamie knows the truth about his criminal act, keeps him behaving, stuck with Mamie, and on edge. Are the comments she makes threatening or is he just reading this into the situation?:
Then I got to thinking she acted like she knew all about it anyhow. I kept going back over what she’d said and remembering her words. And one time it would sound sure as if she knew everything, and the next time I could prove to myself that she’d said nothing that wasn’t just an innocent remark. And that’s the way it went, back and forth, I could prove either way I wanted; things she’d done, and the next minute proving she could have done and said everything by chance.
That’s the way I sat there, not saying anything, and Mamie sitting there in her new dressing gown, brushing her hair and smiling. Then that got me to worrying whether her smiling meant she had me cornered or that it was just an innocent smile meaning she wanted to be pleasant and make up again.
That’s the way it was.
You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up is a quintessential California novel. California has always had a certain mystique and undeniable lure: from the Gold Rush to the dream of becoming a film star in Hollywood. This novel was published towards the end of the Great Depression, but that period in history is still seen in these pages–from the hoboes travelling west towards their dreams and opportunities to Dick whose poignant memories of his desperate parents become another dream to pursue for entirely different reasons. Everything that happens to our narrator once he arrives in California has a dream-like, hallucinatory quality to it, an artificiality, a movie set feel to it. Film director Quentin argues that everyone becomes crazy in California, and if he’s anything to go by, well there might be something to it. There’s a bit of a joke behind this, as I learned not long after moving to America. You can live in California and imagine that you know America. You do not. California is unlike anywhere else in this vast country. And yes, some Americans do think that California is off the deep end–an extreme place for its attitude and acceptance of beliefs rejected elsewhere in the country, so I was pleased to see that even back in the 30s, California was seen as an anomaly when compared to the rest of the country. Here’s Quentin on the subject of what happens to people when they come to California:
“It’s the climate–something in the air. You can bring men from other parts of the world who are sane. And you know what happens? At the very moment they cross those mountains.” he whispered real soft, “they go mad. Instantaneously and automatically, at the very moment they cross the mountains into California, they go insane. Everyone does. They still think they’re sane, but they’re not. Everyone in this blasted state is raving mad. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
Dick’s experiences in California begin with a hunt for his wife and child, there’s a detour to crime, and that’s when everything gains momentum. There are twists of fate: a change of fortune, love (with a possibly insane woman), and a cult (even then) but there’s also a lot of darkness and deceit. While often a noir character takes one false step that takes him deeper and deeper on the narrow path of no return, Dick’s one misstep creates ever-widening spaces of tainted relationships, hypocrisy, falsity and moral corruption. Quentin seems to be Dick’s friend but he’s a satanic figure, and if he’s a satanic figure then the novel has an allegorical quality. Told in a deceptively simple style by a narrator who accepts what happens to him, not in a naïve way, but rather after the fashion of an Everyman, You Play the Red but the Black Comes Up, a title that hints at chance, good, and bad luck concludes with a spectacular, and surprisingly moving ending.
It was pitch-dark but I wasn’t afraid of losing my way. I knew where I had to go, and somehow it was like something would be sure to tell me how to get there.
One of my best of 2013.