Tag Archives: Great Depression

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up: Richard Hallas (1938)

“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.

you play the redAlthough 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.

you play the blackDick 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.

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They Don’t Dance Much: James Ross (1940)

The Riverbend Roadhouse. Dine and dance. Drink liquor and make love. Slot machines and high dice. Name your sin and your favorite utensils. We’ll have it.” 

Originally published in 1940, They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross is back in print again thanks to Mysterious Press. James Ross, who died in 1990, published just one novel and a few short stories before making a permanent career in journalism. They Don’t Dance Much didn’t exactly make a splash when it was first published, but the novel’s reputation as a rare gem is gaining momentum. My digital copy comes with a grabber intro from Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone):

So we are sitting in a greasy spoon, a tavern, a living room, talking about books that we love that didn’t catch a break, hard-luck books of such obstinate appeal that, though they died early, just won’t stay dead.

After reading They Don’t Dance Much, a very dark, gritty tale, it’s easy to make the literary connections between James Ross and Daniel Woodrell, and it’s clear why this “country noir” set in rural North Carolina in the depression years of the 1930s has a timeless appeal. The story is told in a no-frills, laid-back style by a young man, Jack McDonald, who’s inherited a small farm but is about to lose it thanks to $40 back taxes. Drowning in petty debt, including the cost of his mother’s funeral, Jack jumps at the chance at a job at a roadside tavern owned by local bad boy Smut Milligan who has somehow, and somewhat suspiciously, made good after disappearing for a few years and then reappearing with some cash.

When Smut was twenty-one or twenty-two he left, and I didn’t see hair nor hide of him for three or four years. Then in 1935 he came back. One Saturday afternoon I walked into the City Bowling Alley. He was running the joint just like he’d been there all the time.

He had some money–he was bound to have had–and it wasn’t long before he bought out the River Bend filling station. There was a murder down there. The boy that owned the place was mixed up in it and had to go to the pen. I heard Smut got it at a bargain.

Before he blew town, Smut Milligan had a hot and heavy relationship with town sexpot, Lola, the daughter of the local horse doctor, and in common with Smut, Lola also wanted the good things in life. Smut plans to hit the big time by expanding his filling-station business with a roadside diner, backroom gambling, and illegal corn whiskey. In addition, since the human vices are always lucrative, Smut’s crafty plans include several secluded cabins rented by the hour for adulterous assignations or for courting couples who’ve been drinking too much. Lola doesn’t have the same business opportunities as Smut, but she does have a killer body, so using her natural assets, she’s managed to snare the town’s richest man, Charles Fisher, the only son and heir of the region’s richest man who owns the local hosiery mill.

they don't dance muchThere’s nothing pretty or marginally decent about any of the characters in the book; this is a hard-scrabble town during the Depression with people ready and willing to do whatever it takes to get by, so there’s no quibbling about feeling guilty or wavering in a moral dilemma. A couple of the regular customers are Bert Ford, a reclusive man, a former strike buster, who’s rumoured to have a fortune buried in his back garden, and Wilbur Brannon, a disbarred doctor and former jailbird caught selling morphine as a sideline. Smut’s employees are a motley bunch of hard characters whose desperate lives careen into criminality; there’s Rufus, the cook, fresh from a chain gang, Catfish Wall, maker of bootleg corn whiskey, and Badeye Honeycutt as the bartender. The attitudes of many of the characters in They Don’t Dance Much reflect the racial attitudes of the times, so the black characters are ridiculed and seen, not so much at the bottom of the food chain, but outsiders tolerated for their usefulness more than anything else.

The town is run and controlled by various shady figures with an inflexible hierarchy in place. When Jack loses the family farm at the beginning of the novel, the scene is set for the idea that wealth and assets are sucked upwards, so Jack’s only means to make a grueling marginal living are seized by the government. Fletch Monroe, the town’s perpetually drunken newspaper editor who disappears on “three-week benders” is a tool for the moneyed classes, and his “news,” when it’s not months behind, reflects the interests of the local power-barons, who include the unsavory Smathers family who own and operate the Smathers Furniture and Undertaking Company as well as the Smathers Finance Company. By starting the Riverbend Roadhouse, Smut is trying to move out from the underclass, and become a man of substance. The Roadhouse, with its card games (some crooked), dance floor, steaks, and spittoons, has a hopping business, and that, unfortunately, brings attention to the joint. The sheriff “You do a little remembering for me and I’ll do a lot of forgetting for you,” turns a blind eye to Smut’s illegal corn whiskey operation. The banks are itching to call in any late loans, and then there’s Astor Legrand, a lawyer who has the local and state government in his pocket, and if anyone wants anything done in the region, Legrand gets a piece of the pie. Smut’s success attracts the murky, shadowy power structure in the county, and on the cusp of belonging to a different class of citizen, he knows it’s just a matter of time before someone tries to take the roadhouse away from him. Smut drags Jack into some very unsavory business, and this begins a sequence of violence and greed.

“If you start out on the bottom you got to be tougher than all the folks that’s between you and the top,” Smut said.

They Don’t Dance Much is one of those novels with a deceptively simple style–so simple, in fact that there are times when it’s easy to gloss over the underlying talent. Ross creates and gathers together a simmering cauldron of desperate characters with murder, greed and violence gnawing away in the shadows of the plot. When murder occurs, it’s grueling, hard work but casual violence–the manipulation of a body to a financial purpose:

It was lightning off in the northwest, but it was too far to hear the thunder. Most of the time it was still, but sometimes a little breeze would spring up and rattle the leaves on the oak trees. They sounded dry as dust. It was late July or early August, and the leaves weren’t supposed to sound like that then. But that’s the way they sounded; brittle. That was the way I felt that night too. Brittle, and dry-mouthed, and a little uneasy. Like I was going to do something that didn’t have anything to do with anything I’d ever done before.

Review copy

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Hard Twisted by C. Joseph Greaves

“You got a problem with that, you let me know right now, and I’ll give you a ride straight back to your daddy.”

Written with a growing sense of menace, Hard Twisted from author C. Joseph Greaves is based on a true story and concerns homeless drifter, Dillard Garrett and his 13-year-old daughter, Lucile. It’s 1934, and homeless people travelling across America looking for work are a common sight, but what happens to Lucile is unusual. She becomes involved in the 1935 “skeleton murder” case and subsequent trial.  

Lucile’s story is interrupted by transcripts of the trial, so questions about Lucile’s complicity are followed by the fictionalized versions of events. Leading questions regarding Lucile’s relationship with the accused murderer, for example, insinuate that this 13-year-old girl went along for the ride,  but the narrative tells another story–a story of deprivation, a subsistence existence, and a complete lack of social agencies for a homeless 13-year-old to apply to for aid. Weigh that against the promise of a permanent home, baths and regular meals.

The novel wastes little time showing the dire circumstances in which Lucile Garrett and her father Dillard are living when they meet a persuasive drifter named Clint Dillard who gives the Garretts a ride in his slat-sided Ford Truck which is packed with gamecocks.

The man looked across her lap and studied her father’s shoes. He said his name was Palmer, and that he was a Texan, and a cowboy. He wore sharp sideburns and a clean Resistol hat cocked forward over pallid eyes gone violet in the fading glow of sunset, and she could see that he was small–perhaps no taller than she–and that something fiercely defiant, something feral, was in his smallness.

Although Palmer is crafty about it, it’s soon obvious that giving a ride to the Dillards was not motivated by altruism but by lust for 13-year-old Lucile, but the question becomes how to separate father and daughter? This is achieved in subtle, sly stages and coated with promises to a desperate couple who have no prospects for anything better.

Written with an authenticity that seeps from the pages, we feel the half-starved Dillards spending endless sunbeaten days on the dusty roads and sleeping rough at night, as author C. Joseph Greaves very effectively recreates a hellish period in American history:

They’d built a fire in the lee of the ruined house, and her father squatted before it stirring red flannel hash with a spoon. The temperature had dropped with the sun and she wore a mackinaw now like a mantle while he sat on his heels and rubbed his hands and warmed them over the skillet, the tumbled walls around them shifting and changing, moving inward and the outward again as though breathing in the soft glow like a living thing.

With passages such as that, there’s an unspoken question ‘how long can the Dillards survive?’ so initially it seems like a stroke of luck when they meet Clint Palmer and he wants to go into business with Lucile’s father. But at the same time, there’s a growing sense of unease.

For the rest of the story, well you have to read the novel. At the end of the book there’s a section ‘author’s notes and acknowledgements’ in which the author explains how he became interested in the Skeleton Murder Case when hiking in John’s Canyon, San Juan County, Utah. Through a history of the region, the author heard about the Garretts and Palmer along with the disclaimer that there are several versions of events. Greaves, clearly obsessed with the story (you’d have to be to take on the required research) establishes his own narrative of events with Hard Twisted.

On the down side, once the story is underway there’s not a great deal of tension–although we know something bad, something horrible is going to happen–it’s just a matter of when, where, and who. Lucile, nicknamed ‘Bonnie Parker’ by Palmer, is a limp character, beaten down by circumstances to expect little and demand nothing. As such she makes a perfect, sad victim for Palmer, but not a very interesting character.

On the positive side, the book very successfully establishes, through its atmospheric descriptions and its use of language, a specific time and place in history. These are characters who are forced out of society but need society to exist, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that excursions into society ultimately ended in murder. Lucile Garrett met a psychotic killer at a unique time when drifting anonymously through the country was not something that raised eyebrows. Try taking a 13-year-old across country now, sleeping out in the open. See what happens, how it long it takes before someone drops a dime and you find yourself tasered and wearing one of those orange jumpsuits.

Back in Lucile’s day, it was an everyday occurrence for families to trek across the United States looking for non-existent work, and that brought them to a subsistence mode of survival, living for the next meal, and expecting to skip a few. Lucile and her father were vulnerable to hope and that’s where Clint Palmer and his gamecocks came in. In the final evaluation, the author succeeds in recreating a desperate time which unleashed both good and bad people from society–a time in which it was impossible to differentiate those with bad intentions from those who were just trying to get by.

American author Russell Banks makes the point in his novels that those who live in poverty have lives that are open to crime–not that they commit crimes but that they have a difference range of vulnerability than the affluent–they lack the defenses of those who have more resources. Hard Twisted is one such example of lives of poverty having no barriers against crime.

Review copy

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The Secrets of Grown-ups by Vera Caspary

When reading a biography (or an autobiography), it seems impossible to conclude the book without getting an idea of whether or not I’d like the person I’m reading about. Sometimes the life story of another is incredibly sad (Barbara Peyton) or spectacularly disastrous (Nancy Spungen & Sid Vicious), but after reading the wonderful autobiography The Secrets of Grown-ups, I concluded that I would have liked Vera Caspary very much indeed. I liked her for her determination, her versatility, her intelligence and also for the fact that she frankly admits to telling some whoppers.

For those who’ve never heard Caspary’s name, she was an author, screenwriter, & playwright and is arguably most remembered  for her novel Laura (made into that very famous noir film), and there’s also Bedelia (made into a British noir film). But apart from those two novels, there are many more–now sadly out-of-print.

Vera Caspary was born in 1899 and died in 1987. That’s not so long ago, and yet when Vera’s story begins, she gives us a glimpse into another world. Her relatives were second generation Jewish German-Prussian emigrants, and Vera was the youngest of four children. Vera details her early childhood in Chicago in just a few pages, and while there’s nothing too unusual here, a picture begins to emerge of a strong, determined personality and an early attraction to writing stories.

Vera’s elder sister, Irma, who gave “second-rate candy to little girls whose grandparents had Russian or Polish accents” was 15 years older than Vera, but it was from Irma that Vera learned some valuable lessons about snobbery:

 Prejudice is as destructive to those who employ it as to its victims, and [that] devotion to material possessions is a waste of life.

The family seemed to be fairly affluent in Vera’s early childhood, but when her father suffered a series of financial setbacks, she enrolled at a business college rather than university, and it looked as though she faced a dreary, predictable future.

Vera started as a stenographer but always wanted a “writing job.” Most doors were closed to her because she was female, and she was never content with that–even though many of the jobs she had paid well and granted her a certain amount of autonomy. She worked her way into the advertising business, and at one point crafted a correspondence class in ballet dancing taught by the legendary (read mythical) Sergei Marinoff. Her adventures in advertising are absolutely hilarious; this woman had a natural talent for fabrication, so it’s no wonder she went on to become a writer. Inevitably Vera, who was far too intelligent for anything rote or repetitive, grew bored with advertising:

Whether I wrote coy sales letters in the name of the spinster sisters who manufactured cold cream, plotted a chicken tonic campaign or exploited a new sex book, it was all the same. I worked like a computer that produces variations when different buttons are pressed. I had considered my work creative until I realized that I was merely manufacturing sales devices.

 When writing the story of her life, Vera often seems to go for conveying the atmosphere of the times rather than offering intense detail. She describes her connection with the Leopold-Loeb case, the energy & insanity of prohibition, shoot-outs between rival cab companies, and the dreariness of the Depression.  The story is light on family details and the romances in her life (although men are mentioned). This is not a tell-all, gossipy bio; a few of men appear to have been significant for a various periods, but then they fade without mention. Not that I care how many men Vera slept with or when, but I had questions about a couple of people mentioned who then subsequently disappeared from the pages.

The emphasis goes instead to Vera’s incredible career. Frequently she opted for independence instead of a steady paycheck, and as a result, at times it seemed as though she faced running out of money, but work always appeared. That’s not to say that Vera sat and waited at home for fortune to knock on her door; she didn’t. This woman hustled, and at one point she even worked as a gypsy telling fortunes in a tea-room.

The book seems weakest in Vera’s explanation of her communist period. It reads like an apologia. Did Vera have unresolved questions about this period of her life or are there necessary gaps ( to protect others) here that weaken the explanation? Perhaps it’s because the sense of chagrin seems mismatched with the rest of her life. Vera’s interest in communism, which only lasted for a short period, seems perfectly understandable. At one point, prior to WWII, Vera says that stories were beginning to circulate about the fate of jews under Hitler. People told her this was Soviet propaganda. It’s fairly easy to see why Vera became a communist–many people saw a choice between being a Nazi or being a communist. Vera chose the latter. She paid the price for that when she was later gray-listed in Hollywood during McCarthyism. Sometimes moral decisions are difficult to unravel, but I still sense that the whole story just isn’t here. The Rosecrest Cell is described by its author as her “confession disguised as a novel.”

One of the marvellous things about this book are the vivid portrayals of people Vera knew who are now lost to history. Here’s one of Vera’s first bosses–a colourful character who recognised Vera’s intelligence and harnessed it for a while:

Schoenfeld was a man of the world, out of Bucharest by way of Paris, Berlin, and London. The books on his shelves and the periodicals that came to our office were in three languages. He wore a ring on his index finger, a fur-collared overcoat and a broad-brimmed black hat like artists in the Latin Quarter. As vice-president and manager of a wholesale grocery firm that specialized in imported delicacies, he ordered much of the merchandise through his own brokerage office, collecting commissions on goods he sold to himself. He felt no qualms about this double-dealing because he was a Socialist who enjoyed exploiting capitalists. So long as the system prevailed Schoenfeld profited by it. A middleman’s middleman, he practised the most cynical of capitalist tactics and laughed at the trickery. He subscribed to many Socialist papers, domestic and foreign, as were available in wartime and used their political prophecies to guide him in stockmarket investments. That he called his brokerage office Internationala was another of his jests. At the time I had not the slightest idea of its significance. Nor did his customers.

There’s also “New York legend,” Horace Liveright, one of the founders of  Modern Library. At the top of his game, and known as the “Casanova” of the publishing world, he off-handedly proposed to Vera with the fine print that he’d control her work. She laughily refused and within a few years, he was broke, alcoholic and dying when she saw him for the last time. There are glimpses too of the bizarre publisher MacFadden, a man who “collected freaks” and held an “unending opposition to the medical profession, devotion to muscle power and the sanctity of daily defecation.” Unfortunately, his opinions extended to his children, and it’s in these pages that Vera tells the tragic story of 19-year-old Byrne–a “story she always wanted to write.”

Here’s a quote I particularly liked from Vera after the death of her beloved father:

My father was dead. But the gold of the wildflowers was not dimmed and I could not be unhappy in May sunshine. It was a moment never forgotten, a lesson for the living. If I failed to relish the colors of the earth, to dance to its rhythms, I’d thwart the dear man whose last days had been lived in the hope of my happiness. That field of wild mustard, still green in my memory, has sustained me through disappointment and shock and a season of more grievous mourning.

The love of Vera Caspary’s life was Igee (Isidor) Goldsmith. He was a married man when they met, and sometime into their relationship, as a naturalised citizen, he was recalled to Britain (“All able-bodied males residing in foreign countries were called back to Britain” ). She gave him the “rights to Bedelia” with the understanding that she’d write the screenplay, and this agreement paved the way for her perilous journey by sea to Britain. She did not agree with moving the story from 1913 Connecticut to 1938 Monte Carlo & Yorkshire, but that’s what happened, and this marvellous gem of a film was made at Ealing Studios. Also detailed quite extensively is the production of Preminger’s Laura and Vera’s problems with the script and final product.

The book (published in 1979) continues for just one short chapter after the death of Igee in 1964, and yet Vera Caspary lived for 23 more years–a great part of her extensive body of work was produced in this lengthy, solitary period, so there’s the sense that life ‘ended’ in at least some fashion with the death of Igee.

Vera Caspary’s personality bursts from these pages, and I finished the book with the sense that I’d met her. This is a marvellous autobiography, a wonderful read for anyone interested in her work, and I’ll be reading some of her other novels before too long.

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