“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Flick Lit # 12: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye

“One of the nastiest novels ever published in this country,” declared Time. “The real nihilist of the hard-boiled school, the laureate of the blank wall,” claimed Geoffrey O’Brien. The writer was Horace McCoy, the novel Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948). By then French writers such as Sartre and Gide were ranking McCoy alongside Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway; Simone de Beauvoir went so far as to suggest that McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) was, “the first existentialist novel to have appeared in America.” A veteran of WWI, a pulp writer for Detective-Dragnet, Detective Action Stories and Black Mask, McCoy’s experience as a struggling actor in Hollywood during the Depression provided the material for the downbeat melodramas They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, No Pockets in a Shroud (1937), and I Should Have Stayed Home (1938). He finally found work in Hollywood, but as a screenwriter for B-movie westerns. By the time the French writers ‘discovered’ his novels in the ’40s, McCoy was, he claimed, “broke, depressed and fat.” Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye offered redemption. The novel follows Ralph Cotter, a Phi Beta Kappa scholar who remoulds himself as an immoral killer after his breakout from prison. Once out, Cotter organises a shakedown of a corrupt small-town police chief, dupes a millionaire’s daughter into falling for him, and generally engages in a relentless one-man assault on the mores of middle America. An unusual blend of rapacious action and contemplative self-examination from a reprehensible anti-hero, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye prompted Kirkus Reviews to predict: “This will probably be quarantined from libraries … (it) has a literate, nerve-lacerating, whip-lashing effectiveness.” Happily, James Cagney happened to be looking for “a really nasty role” that would cement his celluloid persona as Hollywood’s premier screen bastard. While his role in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) resembled a reprise of Tom Power, his vainglorious gangster in Public Enemy, gone were the facial pyrotechnics, the grapefruits mashed in moll’s faces, the pathetic self-delusions. Instead Cotter was a phlegmatic character, whose sadistic outbursts of violence were all the more terrifying for their juxtaposition with Cotter’s charisma. Scripted by Harry Brown, the film was directed by Gordon Douglas, who cast a veritable who’s-who of B-movie noir stalwarts, among them Barbara Payton, Ward Bond, Steve Brodie and Barton MacLane (Bond and MacLane had teamed up before, as cops sharking Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon). The direction is classically taut, allowing Cagney every opportunity to chew the scenery and spit it back in the face of the audience. Even allowing for what the audience expected of a Cagney role, Ralph Cotter was a departure for 1950’s America. Callous immorality was one thing, but the leading man viciously beating on his on-screen girlfriend (Payton) was a slap in the face too far. The movie was duly panned by the critics, who obviously knew as much about what ticket buyers wanted back then as they do now … On the back of the film’s commercial success, McCoy sold an original script, Scalpel (1951) to Hall Wallis Productions; again, both novel and film were winners. McCoy was working on a new novel, The Hard Rock Man, when he suffered a heart-attack. When he died in 1955, at the age of 58, his widow had to sell his books and jazz collection to pay for his funeral.- Michael McGowan

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