IN HIS SEMINAL ESSAY on the Southern California hardboiled school, "The Boys in the Back Room" (1940), Edmund Wilson dismisses it out of hand. In The Dream Endures, California historian Kevin Starr considers it excessive, and finds its narrator — as he interacts with the cults, kooks, utopianists, and film people of 1930s Los Angeles — passive and contradictory. Yet, for many noir aficionados, Richard Hallas's You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up remains one of the most evocative and subversive novels of its time. No mean feat, considering its "Back Room" competitors: James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and I Should Have Stayed Home, A.I. Bezzerides's The Long Haul, John Fante's Ask the Dust, or Chandler's The Big Sleep. But as incisive as those novels are, none is quite as audacious or packs quite the same punch as You Play the Black. No one managed as well as Hallas to distill so many of the hardboiled tropes — the drifter, unfulfilled desire, misplaced guilt, a greed-ridden culture, street-level perspective — into a coherent, if kaleidoscopic whole.
Richard Hallas was a pseudonym for Eric Knight, an Englishman otherwise known, surprisingly enough, for penning the lachrymose novel Lassie Come-Home. Crossing continents as well as genres, Knight would only publish one hardboiled novel (though a manuscript to another, Rose Without Warning, about a young girl's climb from marathon dance halls to stardom, sits amongst his papers at Yale). One can't help but wonder how Knight could write a saccharine tale about a faithful dog, and, virtually at the same time, a hardboiled novel filled with murder, robbery, gambling, blackmail, scams, and suicide. Even more perplexing is the harsh critical reaction he received for You Play the Black. No doubt their responses had something to do with the book's inauspicious publishing history. Marketed as a hardboiled novel "in the style of James M. Cain," You Play the Black was initially published by McBride in 1938. Thirteen years would pass before Dell would see fit to reprint it; then a further 29 years before Gregg Press resuscitated it in 1980, followed by Black Lizard/Creative Arts and Carnegie Mellon University Press in 1986.
Born in Leeds in 1897, Eric Mowbary Knight was the third son of Frederick Harrison and Hilda Creasser Knight. After Frederick, a jeweler, died in the Boer War leaving his family penniless, Hilda became a governess to Princess Xenia in St. Petersburg, and eventually moved to the United States. Left with relatives in Yorkshire, Eric, just twelve, worked as a bobbin doffer in a Leeds mill, followed by periods in an engine works, a sawmill, and a glass factory. In 1912, at fifteen, he joined his mother and brothers in Philadelphia, where he became a copy boy at the Philadelphia Press and eventually attended the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design. During World War I, he joined the Canadian Light Infantry. His brothers also enlisted and were both killed in France. Knight's mother died not long after.
Following a stint as an artillery captain in the U. S. Army Reserve, Knight worked as ...