Nolan's Reviews > Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s

Crime Novels by Robert Polito
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Mar 19, 2010

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This is one of those massive omnibus-type novels that, if dropped on a body part or on someone else's body part, would probably do serious and real damage. Every novel was a gripping, haunting experience. In "The Killer Inside Me" by Jim Thompson, a deputy sheriff who appears to be respectable outwardly is an internal horror of a creature. Before that novel ends, the deputy's girlfriend will die along with others. In Patricia Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," a young American fast-talking con artist type commits murder and gets away with it. In Pickup, former art teacher Harry Jordan brings home a girl he meets in the late-night cafe where he's working, and his troubles grow based on that decision. This novel ends with a fascinating racial twist.

My only problem with this book was that it forever shattered for me the myth that the 1950s were some kind of sweet and innocent time. What do you think of when you think of the 1950s? A young President Eisenhower praying vocally at his inauguration perhaps? The pleasant tones of June Cleaver reassuring the Beaver in the midst of some kind of innocent juvenile angst? There's nothing of the sweet innocence of that decade in these novels, written in that decade. There's a higher dose of profanity in this collection than I would have thought one would read from stuff published in the 1950s; the sexual descriptions aren't explicit in the way you might think of when you think of a 21st-century writer, but it's not exactly Robert young and Father Knows Best either. Think Ritchie Cunningham (Happy Days) gone wild, and you'll have some approximation. I found myself skipping paragraphs here and there. One of Highsmith's characters is rather blatantly homophobic, and that may have been a prevailing attitude of her time; but if that kind of character bothers you or offends you in some way, you may want to consider just dropping this one rather than reading it or perhaps simply leave it unopened.

That said, I must confess that these novels haunted and fascinated me. I read an audio version of this book, and the narrator did an outstanding job. If you also read the audio version, plan to spend more than 31 hours on this if you can't speed up your audio player in any way.

The bottom line: If you like mysteries, most of which became movies, and especially if dark mysteries appeal to you, this book may be what you're looking for, especially if length doesn't intimidate you. Just brace yourself to come away with a view of the 1950s that is far darker and seamier than you might have had going into this. The up side of this is that all of these authors are highly talented, and if you enjoy reading books that are carefully crafted with writing styles that keep you turning pages, this one may work for you. Just beware that the network editors who made sure that Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds are nowhere to be found in this collection of novels. If you know that going in, you may well find the writing styles and the plots of these books interesting enough to keep you cruising toward the back cover.
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March 19, 2010 – Shelved
March 19, 2010 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Fledchen (new)

Fledchen Thanks for the detailed review, Nolan. I read three of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels a few years ago and they're still lurking in the back of my mind. I think it's much harder to forget a book and have it fade into the background when the protagonist is such a masterfully rendered monster. It's relatively easy to create an engrossing sympathetic character, but it takes a special talent to make an interesting, non-cookie-cutter sociopath. I might have to dust off my cassette player for this and the companion book: Crime novels American noir of the 1930s and 40s. RC046413

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