Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950sby Robert Polito
This adventurous two-volume collection presents a rich vein of modern American writing too often neglected in mainstream literary histories. Evolving out of the terse and violent hardboiled style of the pulp magazines, noir fiction expanded over the decades into a varied and innovative body of writing. Tapping deep roots in the American literary imagination, the
This adventurous two-volume collection presents a rich vein of modern American writing too often neglected in mainstream literary histories. Evolving out of the terse and violent hardboiled style of the pulp magazines, noir fiction expanded over the decades into a varied and innovative body of writing. Tapping deep roots in the American literary imagination, the novels in this volume explore themes of crime, guilt, deception, obsessive passion, murder, and the disintegrating psyche. With visionary and often subversive force they create a dark and violent mythology out of the most commonplace elements of modern life. The raw power of their vernacular style has profoundly influenced contemporary American culture and writing.
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It must have been around a quarter to eleven. A sailor came in and ordered a chile dog and coffee. I sliced a bun, jerked a frank out of the boiling water, nested it, poured a half-dipper of chile over the frank and sprinkled it liberally with chopped onions. I scribbled a check and put it by his plate. I wouldn't have recommended the unpalatable mess to a starving animal. The sailor was the only customer, and after he ate his dog he left.
That was the exact moment she entered.
A small woman, hardly more than five feet.
She had the figure of a teen-age girl. Her suit was a blue tweed, smartly cut, and over her thin shoulders she wore a fur jacket, bolero length. Tiny gold circular earrings clung to her small pierced ears. Her hands and feet were small, and when she seated herself at the counter I noticed she wasn't wearing any rings. She was pretty drunk.
"What'll it be?" I asked her.
"I believe I need coffee." She steadied herself on the stool by bracing her hands against the edge of the counter.
"Yes, you do," I agreed, "and you need it black."
I drew a cupful and set it before her. The coffee was too hot for her to drink and she bent her head down and blew on it with comical little puffs. I stood behind the counter watching her. I couldn't help it; she was beautiful. Even Benny, from his seat behind the cash register, was staring at her, and his only real interest is money. She wasn't nearly as young as I had first thought her to be. She was about twenty-six or -seven. Her fine blonde hair was combed straight back. Slightly to the right of a well-defined widow's-peak, an inch-wide strip of silver hair glistened, like a moonlit river flowing through night fields. Her oval face was unlined and very white. The only make-up she had on was lipstick; a dark shade of red, so dark it was almost black. She looked up from her coffee and noticed that I was staring at her. Her eyes were a charred sienna-brown, flecked with dancing particles of shining gold.
"This coffee is too hot." She smiled good-humoredly.
"Sure it is," I replied, "but if you want to sober up you should drink it hot as you can."
"My goodness! Who wants to sober up?"
Benny was signaling me from the cash register. I dropped my conversation with the girl to see what he wanted. Benny was a flat, bald, hook-nosed little man with a shaggy horseshoe of gray hair circling his head. I didn't particularly like him, but he never pushed or tried to boss me and I'd stuck it out as his counterman for more than two months. For me, this was a record. His dirty eyes were gleaming behind his gold-rimmed glasses.
"There's your chance, Harry!" He laughed a throaty, phlegmy laugh.
I knew exactly what he meant. About two weeks before a girl had entered the cafe at closing time and she had been pretty well down on her luck. She'd been actually hungry and Benny had had me fix her up with a steak and french fries. Afterwards, he had made her pay him for the meal by letting him take it out in trade in the kitchen.
"I don't need any advice from you," I said angrily.
He laughed again, deep in his chest. "It's quitting time. Better take advantage." He climbed down from his stool and walked stiffly to the door. He shot the bolt and hung the CLOSED sign from the hook. I started toward the kitchen and as I passed the woman she shook her empty cup at me.
"See? All finished. May I have another?"
I filled her cup, set it in front of her and went into the back room and slipped into my tweed jacket. The jacket was getting ratty. It was my only outer garment, with the exception of my trenchcoat, and I'd worn it for more than two years. The elbows were thin and the buttons, except one, were missing. The good button was the top one and a coat looks funny buttoned at the top. I resolved to move it to the middle in the morning. My blue gabardine trousers hadn't been cleaned for three weeks and they were spotted here and there with grease. I had another pair of trousers in my room, but they were tuxedo trousers, and I used them on waiter and busboy jobs. Sober, I was always embarrassed about my appearance, but I didn't intend to stay sober very long. I combed my hair and I was ready for the street, a bar and a drink.
She was still sitting at the counter and her cup was empty again.
"Just one more and I'll go," she said with a drunken little laugh. "I promise."
For the third time I gave her a cup of coffee. Benny was counting on his fingers and busily going over his receipts for the day. I tapped him on the shoulder.
"Benny, I need a ten until payday," I told him.
"Not again? I let you have ten last night and today's only Tuesday. By Saturday you won't have nothing coming."
You don't have to worry about it."
He took his copy-book from under the counter and turned to my page. After he entered the advance in the book he reluctantly gave me a ten dollar bill. I folded the bill and put it in my watch pocket. I felt a hand timidly tugging at my sleeve and I turned around. The little woman was looking up at me with her big blue innocent eyes.
"I haven't any money," she said bitterly.
"Is that right?"
"Not a penny. Are you going to call a policeman?"
"Ask Mr. Freeman. He's the owner; I just work here."
"What's that?" Benny asked, at the mention of his name. He was in the middle of his count and didn't like to be disturbed.
"This young lady is unable to pay for her coffee."
"Coffee is ten cents," he said firmly.
"I'll tell you what, Benny. Just take it out of my pay."
"Don't think I won't!" He returned to his counting.
I unlocked the door, and the woman and I went outside.
"You're a free woman," I said to the girl. "You're lucky that Benny didn't notice you were without a purse when you came in. Where is your purse, by the way?"
"I think it's in my suitcase."
"All right. Where's your suitcase?"
"It's in a locker. I've got the key." She took a numbered key out of the pocket of her fur jacket. "The main trouble is that I can't seem to remember whether the locker's in the railroad station or the bus station." She was genuinely puzzled.
"If I were you I'd look in the bus station first. You're quite a ways from the railroad station. Do you know where it is?"
"The bus station?"
"Yes. It's seven blocks that way and one block that way." I pointed down Market Street. "You can't miss it. I'm going to have a drink."
"Would you mind buying me one too?"
"Sure. Come on."
She took my arm and we walked down Market. It was rather pleasant having a beautiful woman in tow and I was glad she had asked me to buy her a drink. I would never have asked her, but as long as she didn't mind, I certainly didn't mind. I shortened my stride so she could keep up with me and from time to time I looked down at her. Gin was my weakness, not women, but with a creature like her ... well, it was enough to make a man think. We were nearing the bar where I always had my first drink after work and my mind returned to more practical things. We entered, found seats at the end of the bar.
"Say," she said brightly. "I remember being in here tonight!"
"That's fine. It's a cinch you were in some bar." The bartender knew me well, but his eyebrows lifted when he saw the girl with me.
"What'll you have, Harry?" he asked.
"Double gin and tonic." I turned to the girl.
"I'd better not have a double. Give me a little shot of bourbon and a beer chaser." She smiled at me. "I'm being smart, aren't I?"
"You bet." I lit two cigarettes and passed her one. She sucked it deeply.
"My name is Harry Jordan," I said solemnly. "I'm thirty-two years of age and when I'm not working, I drink."
Her laugh closely resembled a tinkling bell. "My name is Helen Meredith. I'm thirty-three years old and I don't work at all. I drink all of the time."
"You're not thirty-three, are you? I took you for about twenty-six, maybe less."
"I'm thirty-three all right, and I can't forget it."
"Well, you've got an advantage on me then. Married?"
"Uh huh. I'm married, but I don't work at that either." She shrugged comically. I stared at her delicate fingers as she handled the cigarette.
The bartender arrived with our drinks. Mine was good and cold and the gin taste was strong. The way I like it. I love the first drink best of all.
"Two more of the same," I told the bartender, "and see if Mrs. Meredith's purse was left here, will you?"
"I haven't seen a purse laying around. Are you sure you left it in here, miss?" he asked Helen worriedly.
"I'm not sure of anything," she replied.
"Well, I'll take a look around. Maybe you left it in a booth."
"Helen Meredith," I said, when the bartender left. "Here's to you!" We clicked our glasses together and drained them down. Helen choked a bit and followed her shot down with the short beer chaser.
"Ahhh," she sighed. "Harry, I'm going to tell you something while I'm still able to tell you. I haven't lived with my husband for more than ten years, and even though I don't wear a ring, I'm still married."
"You don't have to convince me."
"But I want to tell you. I live with my mother in San Sienna. Do you know where that is?"
"Sure. It's a couple of hundred miles down the coast. Noted for tourists, beaches, a mission and money. Nothing else."
"That's right. Well as I told you, I drink. In the past two years I've managed to embarrass Mother many times. It's a small community and we're both well-known, so I decided the best thing to do was get out. This morning I was half-drunk, half-hungover, and I bought a bottle and I left. For good. But I hit the bottle so hard I'm not sure whether I came to San Francisco on the bus or on the train."
"I'm willing to lay odds of two to one it was the bus."
"You're probably right. I really don't remember."
The bartender brought us our second drink. He shook his head emphatically. "You didn't leave no purse in here, miss. You might've thought you did, but you didn't."
"Thanks for looking," I told him. "After we finish this one," I said to Helen, "we'll go back down to the bus station and I'll find your purse for you. Then you'd better head back for San Sienna and Mother."
Helen shook her head back and forth slowly. "No. I'm not going back. Never."
"That's your business. Not mine."
We finished our second drink and left the bar. It was a long walk to the bus station. Market Street blocks are long and crowded. Helen hung on to my arm possessively, and by the time we reached the station she had sobered considerably. The place was jampacked with servicemen of all kinds and a liberal sprinkling of civilians. The Greyhound station is the jumping-off place for servicemen. San Francisco is the hub for all the spokes leading to air bases, navy bases and army posts that dot the bay area.
"Does the bus station look familiar to you?"
"Of course!" She laughed. "I've been to San Francisco many times. I always come up on the bus for my Christmas shopping."
I felt a little foolish. "Let's start looking then." She handed me the numbered key. There are a lot of parcel lockers inside the Greyhound station and many more out on the waiting ramp, but in a few minutes we were able to locate the locker. It was in the first row to the left of the Ladies' Room. I inserted the key and opened the locker. I took the suitcase out of the locker and handed it to Helen. She unsnapped the two catches on the aluminum over-nighter and raised the lid. Her tiny hands ruffled deftly through the clothing. There wasn't any purse. I looked. No purse. I felt around inside the locker. No purse.
"Do you suppose I could have left it in some other bar, Harry?" she asked me worriedly. "Somewhere between here and the cafe?"
"That's probably what you did, all right. And if you did, you can kiss it goodbye. How much money did you have?"
"I don't know, but drunk or sober I wouldn't have left San Sienna broke. I know I had some traveler's checks."
I took my money out of my watch pocket. There were eight dollars and seventy cents. I gave the five dollar bill to Helen. "This five'll get you a ticket back to San Sienna. You'd better get one."
Helen shook her head vigorously this time and firmly set her mouth. "I'm not going back, Harry. I told you I wasn't and I meant it!" She held the bill out to me. "Take it back; I don't want it."
"No, you go ahead and keep it. We'll consider it a loan. But I'm going to take you to a hotel. If I turned you loose you'd drink it up."
"It didn't take you long to get to know me, did it?" She giggled.
"I don't know you. It's just that I know what I'd do. Come on, we'll find a hotel."
I picked up the light suitcase and we left the station. We crossed Market Street and at Powell we turned and entered the first hotel that looked satisfactory to me. There are more than a dozen hotels on Powell Street, all of them adequate, and it was our best bet to find a vacancy. The hotel we entered was furnished in cheap modern furniture and the floor was covered with a rose wall-to-wall carpet. There were several green plants scattered about, all of them set in white pots with wrought-iron legs, and by each foam-cushioned lobby chair, there were skinny, black wrought-iron ash-stands. We crossed the empty lobby to the desk and I set the bag on the floor. The desk clerk was a fairly young man with sleek black hair. He looked up from his comic book with surly gray eyes.
"Sorry," he said flatly. "No doubles left. Just singles."
"That's fine," I said. "That's what I want."
Helen signed the register card. Her handwriting was cramped and it slanted to the left, almost microscopic in size. She put the pen back into the holder and folded her arms across her chest.
"The lady will pay in advance," I said to the clerk, without looking at Helen. She frowned fiercely for a second, then in spite of herself, she giggled and gave the clerk the five dollar bill. He gave her two ones in return. The night clerk also doubled as a bell boy and he came out from behind the desk with Helen's key in his hand.
"You want to go up now?" he asked Helen, pointedly ignoring me.
"I've still got two dollars," Helen said to me. "I'll buy you a drink!"
"No. You go to bed. You've had enough for one day."
"I'll buy you one tomorrow then."
"Tomorrow will be time enough," I said.
Helen's eyes were glassy and her eyelids were heavy. It was difficult for her to hold them open. In the warmth of the lobby she was beginning to stagger a little bit. The night clerk opened the door to the self-operated elevator and helped her in, holding her by the arm. I selected a comfortable chair near the desk and waited in the lobby until he returned. He didn't like it when he saw me sitting there.
"Do you think she'll manage all right?" I asked him.
"She managed to lock her door after I left," he replied dryly.
"Fine. Good night."
I left the hotel and walked up Powell as far as Lefty's, ordered a drink at the bar. It was dull, drinking alone, after drinking with Helen. She was the most attractive woman I had met in years. There was a quality about her that appealed to me. The fact that she was an alcoholic didn't make any difference to me. In a way, I was an alcoholic myself. She wasn't afraid to admit that she was a drunk; she was well aware of it, and she didn't have any intention to stop drinking. It wasn't necessary for her to tell me she was a drunk. I can spot an alcoholic in two minutes. Helen was still a good-looking woman, and she'd been drinking for a long time. I never expected to see her again. If I wanted to, I suppose it would have been easy enough. All I had to do was go down to her hotel in the morning, and ...
I finished my drink quickly and left the bar. I didn't feel like drinking any more. I crossed the street and waited for my cable car. In a few minutes it dragged up the hill, slowed down at the corner, and I jumped on. I gave the conductor my fare and went inside where it was warmer. Usually, I sat in the outside section where I could smoke, but I was cold that night, my entire body was chilled.
On the long ride home I decided it would be best to steer clear of a woman like Helen.
Meet the Author
ROBERT POLITO,editor, is a poet, biographer, and critic whose Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson received the National Book Critics Circle Award. He directs the Graduate Writing Program at the New School and is the editor of David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s, also from The Library of America.
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