JULY 28, 2011
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 a reporter for newspapers in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, and, between 1926 and 1934, he was drama and movie critic for the Philadelphia Public Ledger and Town Crier magazine. He sold his first short story, “The Two-Fifty Hat,” to Liberty in 1930 and began contributing to Cosmopolitan, Esquire, MacLean’s, and the Saturday Evening Post. In July 1917, he married Dorothy Hall of Boston. The couple had three daughters, but divorced in 1932, after which Knight married writer Jere Brylawski. Two years later, Knight’s first novel, Invitation to Life, appeared. He then moved to Hollywood to work as a scriptwriter. Though Knight would have liked to continue writing screenplays, the studio decided not to renew his contract. During his short tenure, Knight wrote a handful of unproduced screenplays with titles like The Hypothetical Murderer, The Bandit Governor, A Future in Hollywood, and The Magnificent Liar. While in Southern California, Knight published his second novel, Song on Your Bugles (1936), described as a “portrait of an artist as a young Yorkshireman,” but other than uncredited contributions to Frank Capra’s 1943 documentaries Prelude to War and The Nazis Strike, his only real connection to the film industry would be adaptations others made from his work.
Having moved to a farm in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, Knight wrote The Flying Yorkshireman, a novella about the Thurber-like fantasies of Sam Small, which appeared in a 1938 anthology. He traveled back to Yorkshire where the plight of unemployed miners inspired him to write The Happy Land (1940), a critical rather than popular success. Impoverished Yorkshire would also be the setting for Lassie Come-Home (1940), which first appeared in a shorter version in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1938, the same year as You Play the Black.
At the outbreak of World War II, Knight volunteered his services to the British Ministry of Information. He wrote one more novel, This Above All, which explored class differences in and around the Battle of Britain. It was a bestseller and, with a few adjustments for the benefit of the Hays Office, was made into a movie in 1942 — adapted by Anatole Litvak and starring Joan Fontaine and Tyrone Power. Knight went on to work on the Ministry of Information’s film World of Plenty, and lectured and delivered radio talks on America for British audiences. In 1942, he returned to the United States, became an American citizen, and was commissioned as a captain in the Special Services Division. He contributed to war-information films and worked on military pocket guidebooks. In January 1943, he was promoted to major and dispatched to Cairo. But Knight’s transport plane crashed in Dutch Guiana, and he was killed. Posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit, Knight’s place in Hollywood heaven would be secured some months later with the release of Lassie Come Home, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowell. The irony would not have been lost on Knight.
Starr at least acknowledges You Play the Black‘s unique merit, calling it “the most sociologically explicit of the hardboiled California novels,” albeit with a “crackpot utopian subplot.” Which sounds about right. The book does read like James Cain filtered through Thomas Pynchon. Although Knight’s first person narrative begins in typical tough-guy fashion, with Dick Dempsey, an Oklahoma-born AWOL Marine hopping a freight in Texas for Southern California in pursuit of his wife and son, it soon moves off in another, wilder direction — more like a noir Alice in Lotus Land than a cool and conventional hardboiled novel.
Once on the coast, Dick finds life precarious and its inhabitants incomprehensible. According to Quentin Genter, the novel’s sexually ambiguous movie director who believes the world is a film set and reality a series of process shots, people, “at the very moment they cross into California… go insane.” Rubbing shoulders with those on the psychological extremes of Southern California culture — hoboes, amusement park workers, movie people, socialites, followers of Aimee Simple McPherson’s Four Square Gospel, advocates of Townsend’s Ham and Eggs program and Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California campaign — Dick clings to the era’s proletariat values, and, in so doing, gazes sympathetically at those who keep the city running, while acknowledging that they are also the city’s most likely perps.
As historians like Starr have long maintained, by the 1930s L.A. was well-known for its eccentrics, secular as well as religious. (Out of 1,833 churches, only a thousand preached traditional faiths.) And by his second day in Southern California, Dick has already met a handful of them — not only Genter but the lumpen scamsters Mamie and Patsy, whom he finds as he seeks refuge in a bar following a hold-up. Mamie takes Dick home with her, while Patsy goes off to start the Ecanaanomic Party, a McPherson-like religion crossed with Townsend’s movement. Its goal is to lift its members out of their Depression-era poverty with a weekly stipend. Constantly trying to avoid an economic and personal tipping point, Dick takes a dim view of the party and what amounts to their socialist Ponzi scheme: “I kept thinking that the goofier the plan the more quickly people seem to fall for it.” Yet, believing the money he snatched in the hold-up may be the root of his problems, he hands over a thousand bucks, not caring how it’s used.
Having fallen for Sheila, an unbalanced and secretive socialite, Dick resolves to leave Mamie, who, in turn, threatens to inform the police of his role in the hold-up. When Sheila announces she’s pregnant, Dick, urged on by Genter, decides to kill Mamie. But, in this tragicomic riff on Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mamie proves to be a born survivor. First Dick tries to drown her off the coast of Catalina, only to discover that Mamie is an expert swimmer. Then he administers arsenic, to no effect. Finally, at the Long Beach amusement park where he works, Dick unloosens a bolt on the chute. It flies off sending a visiting Sheila to the ground below. Having killed the wrong woman, Dick is arrested and, although Mamie and the white-robed Ecaananomicites stand by him, he is subsequently convicted.
Visiting Dick in prison, Genter complains that the plot has become “too pat…like a Hays Office ending to a movie plot,” adding that soon “there’d be no world left, only a movie of the world.” On the eve of Dick’s execution, Genter commits suicide, taking the rap for Sheila’s murder in his note. Released from prison, Dick attempts to confess, but the police only laugh at him, saying he should give someone else a chance to hog the headlines. Fed up, Dick blows town on the same freight that had first brought him to L.A. He only recovers his senses when he jumps from the freight and wanders into the mountains he remembers from a crucial moment in his childhood. “California,” he decides, “was just a dream.”
Despite the fact, or maybe because, You Play the Black was so thoroughly hardboiled, critics took it to be a clever imitation or parody of the genre. Too many generic motifs patched together in too frenetic a narrative. This view is understandable, perhaps, but it fails to take into account the function and drift of hardboiled fiction. Was Chandler simply imitating Hammett, or refining the style to a sublime and unprecedented level? Was Jim Thompson parodying the genre because his characters espoused clichés and his plots sometimes strained credulity? In fact, Knight’s tropes and freneticism indicate innovation. He plays with the form, eschewing the usual Black Mask stringency for a snappy, seemingly reckless style whose politics are difficult to pin down. This, in turn, adds to the novel’s atmosphere of moral ambiguity. The novel’s title — too long by half — perfectly captures that sense of desperate recklessness and ambiguity.
Edmund Wilson does pay Knight a backhanded compliment, calling You Play the Black a “clever pastiche of Cain…indicative of the degree to which this kind of writing has finally become formularized that it should have been possible for a visiting Englishman…to tell a story in the Hemingway-Cain vernacular almost without a slip.” In fact, Wilson castigates most California writers of that era, saying they “do not somehow seem to carry a weight proportionate to the bulk of their work,” due to the “spell of unreality” cast by their terrain. He cites Knight’s protagonist, who, at the end of the novel, says,
I could remember everything about California, but I couldn’t feel it. I tried to get my mind to remember something that it could feel, too, but it was no use. It was all gone. All of it. The pink stucco houses and the palm trees and the stores built like cats and dogs and frogs and ice-cream freezers and the neon lights round everything.
Wilson’s equation of weight with gravitas misses the point. Lightness of tone doesn’t necessarily imply lightness of subject matter. And that lack of reality is what makes You Play the Black so interesting; in fact, it’s partly what the novel is about. But Wilson isn’t through. Although he calls You Play the Black “as two-dimensional as a movie,” he also drives a wedge between this type of hardboiled fiction and film. He insists that novels such as Cain’s and Knight’s constitute a Devil’s parody of the movies,” written only because they can’t be filmed and full of everything excluded by “Catholic censorship: sex, debauchery, unpunished crime, sacrilege against the Church.” He adds that these novels let loose “with gusto a pent-up ferocity that the reader cannot help but share…What a pity that it is impossible for such a writer to create and produce his own pictures!” Writing at the tail end of the Depression and on the cusp of war, Wilson didn’t — and perhaps couldn’t — realize that he was bearing witness to the emergence of a serious artistic mode that was, by its nature, cinematic and even transgressive. Or, what appeared to be pastiche might, a few years later, be described as noir.
There were other, less eloquent, critics of Hallas’s novel. A Springfield reviewer thought You Play the Black “would have been better off as burlesque,” while J. Fenwick declared in the New York Herald-Tribune that “The book is a phony but a pretty slick job…James Thurber, himself, couldn’t have done a better parody… After it is all over you feel sort of disgusted with yourself for having strung along with him.” Could hardboiled writing have been so ubiquitous and stable that any deviation constituted a side-trip down parody lane? And why couldn’t critics have recognized that Hallas’s evocation of 1930s L.A. was at least the equal of McCoy’s I Should Have Stayed Home, also published in 1938, or West’s Day of the Locust, which appeared a year later?
In his introduction to the Gregg and Black Lizard editions, David Feinberg writes — perhaps only half-seriously, and with a nod to Edmund Wilson — that critics took exception to the book because its author was an Englishman who’d dared venture into what was thought to be a predominantly American genre, and a declassé one at that. But I’m not entirely convinced. After all, by the time Hallas’s novel appeared, Chandler, brought up in Britain and educated at a semi-posh public school, was making an equally trenchant critique of the culture in the hardboiled manner. Moreover, hardboiled fiction was doing very well across the pond, thanks to Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, and James Curtis’s They Drive By Night, all of which appeared the same year as You Play the Black. No, it could only have been Knight’s audacity. How perplexing it must have been. Here was a hardboiled novel that, in setting the murderer free, ridiculed not only the state’s legal apparatus, but justice itself. Perhaps only an outsider could have written something so anthropological and political in scope, injecting the form with a mocking, tough-guy mischievousness and contrarian perspective unrelated to any obvious party line. And rather than relegate cultural information to the background like other hardboilers, Knight placed those cultural signifiers and geographic locales — Topanga Canyon, San Fernando Valley, Palos Verdes, Long Beach, and Beverly Hills — in the foreground. It wasn’t that a foreigner had the temerity to critique the elements of the culture, but that someone, foreign or not, dared to launch a full-blown attack on the culture as a whole. In his own freewheeling way, Knight once again illustrated that hardboiled fiction can be an incisive means of social criticism.
Whether thanks to Lassie or to his service record, Knight had attained such fame that Peter Hurd (Andrew Wyeth’s brother-in-law) painted his portrait. In it, Knight stands against a mountain range, wearing a blue shirt and a pencil moustache. He looks like an emaciated Errol Flynn. The portrait isn’t featured in any reference work for noir fiction. Nor does it hang in any World War II museum. Instead, it adorns a website devoted to — you guessed it — border collies, above a picture of a sculpture Knight himself carved of his favorite canine. In the biography and bibliography that accompany the images, You Play the Black is conspicuous by its absence.