The Sixties at the Point of a Gun

A review of Library of America’s Crime Novels of the 1960s

by Frank Vatel

In 1997, the Library of America published Crime Novels, a two-volume anthology of noir fiction from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It was a watershed for the nonprofit, whose backlist of reprinted authors—literary giants like Melville and Twain, statesmen like Jefferson and Franklin—had given readers little preparation for such a pulpy joy ride into the underbelly of American society. (The LOA had published a Raymond Chandler collection two years earlier, but some of the violent, disturbing worlds explored in Crime Novels made Philip Marlowe’s daily beat look like a tea service.) If the anthology was a bit stingy, purporting to show the highlights of three decades in a mere two volumes, there was an upside to its no-flab approach: the selected works were uniformly great. The LOA’s newly released Crime Novels of the 1960s, a two-volume follow-up edited by Geoffrey O’Brien, is a roomier affair, using roughly the same number of pages as the earlier collection to survey a single decade. This deep-dive approach proves both a blessing and a curse—liberating the anthology and, occasionally, making it unwieldy.

The first volume, featuring novels from 1961-1964, is the better of the two, buoyed by the work of three noir veterans who are overdue for inclusion in the Crime Novels series. Fredric Brown’s The Murderers (1961) gets things off to a pulse-quickening start, relaying the story of an unemployed actor who “trades” murders with a colleague so that each man can rid himself of a hated rival. The premise is lifted from Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, of course, but Brown makes it his own with a scuzzy Hollywood setting and a glib narrator who pursues his crimes with all the moral deliberation of a man swatting a mosquito. This, the author seems to be warning us, is the face of a society in decline. Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man (1963), while no less chilling, takes an almost inverted stance. Published at the height of the civil rights movement, it sees a nation moving in a better direction while acknowledging the combustible atmosphere such change leaves in its wake. With one ill-considered decision, the protagonist—a medical internist traveling to Arizona for a wedding—stumbles into that firetrap and spends the rest of the novel trying to extricate himself from it. I’ll say no more about the story, which relies on ambiguity and surprise for its effects, except to note that Hughes deserves credit for letting her preternatural gift for suspense amplify her observations about racial prejudice without cheapening them. The Expendable Man was her last novel, produced after a long hiatus, and her maturity as a storyteller is stamped into the grain of each page. Dead Calm (1963), written by Charles Williams after he’d spent a dozen years producing peerless work for various paperback houses, is similarly well-seasoned. A seafaring noir, it uses the fates of two imperiled yachts—one hijacked, the other sinking fast—to contemplate the human potential for good and evil under extraordinary circumstances. It’s a grueling, white-knuckle thriller.

The two remaining entries in the first volume, both of which follow the exploits of cold-blooded thieves, are worth considering together. The Score (1964) is the fifth installment of the Parker series, the twenty-four book Donald Westlake project—written under his Richard Stark pseudonym—that stands alone in the hearts of many fans of the heist genre. I admire Westlake’s writing a great deal, but I must admit that the Parker novels have never blown me away. Even this entry, which hinges on nothing less than the looting of an entire North Dakota town, feels anti-climactic because the main character is never truly pushed to the brink. Setbacks, like an accomplice going rogue, come off like annoyances rather than existential threats and Westlake doesn’t help matters by repeatedly pitting his stoic protagonist against adversaries who aren’t fit to clean his shotgun. By fashioning Parker into a proto-Terminator, dispatching his opponents with ease, the author created an icon of brutal efficiency. But he also removed the element of human frailty from which a good crime story derives most of its tension. The nameless narrator of Dan J. Marlowe’s The Name of the Game of Death (1962), by contrast, is all too human. Whether meditating on horse betting, tree surgery, or his own sexual impotence—how many fictional tough guys are allowed to be that vulnerable?—the character tells his story with an originality of voice, at once ruthless and folksy, that is rare in genre fiction. The plot, involving his cross-country journey to track down a missing partner in the wake of a botched bank robbery, meanders quite a bit. But the novel’s rich atmosphere, nuances of character (the protagonist’s down-to-earth love interest, Hazel, is especially memorable), and singular turns of phrase saturate each page with color and authenticity. The Name of the Game is Death may have begun life as a disposable paperback original, but it gets my vote for crime novel of the decade. It’s the pinnacle of the anthology.

Margaret Millar’s The Fiend (1964), which kicks off the second volume, is the low point. It chronicles several dysfunctional families whose prosperous California neighborhood, we’re given to believe, is threatened by a child predator. The author is at her most incisive in the early chapters, where she sketches in the domestic lives of her characters and takes an uncommonly perceptive view of parental neglect. In the final act, however, the novel devolves into a cheesy whodunit whose sleight-of-hand tricks seem too frivolous for this material. Millar was a legend of the mystery genre, having penned Beast in View among other masterworks. But this kind of writing, with its game-like inducement to keep the reader guessing, is difficult to reconcile with a subject as weighty as child abuse. Ultimately, it feels exploitative.

The other books in the second volume, covering the years 1964-1969, are an eclectic mix. Ed McBain’s Doll (1965), an 87th Precinct mystery, involves the kidnapping and torture of Detective Steve Carella, the most prominent character in the series. Surprisingly for a police procedural, the novel takes a kaleidoscopic view of the profession—good cops, bad cops, everything in between—that is nuanced and, at times, quite moving. Chester Himes’s Run Man Run (1966) also tackles law enforcement as a subject, but the conclusions it reaches are far more damning. A kinetic thriller about a racist cop who commits double murder and then terrorizes the Black witness to his crime, it’s a nightmarish tale of police misconduct that feels like it’s happening in real time. Patricia Highsmith’s The Tremor of Forgery (1969), the final novel in the collection, is something of an anomaly, whisking us away from the United States and dropping us into the scorching neighborhoods of Tunisia. A slow-burn mystery brimming with philosophical questions, it concerns a New York novelist working abroad who faces a crisis of conscience after he kills—or believes he has killed—a burglar by hurling his typewriter at the man’s head. If you can imagine Dostoyevsky set in North Africa, you’ll grasp something of the novel’s appeal.

Most of the books in Crime Novels of the 1960s are worth reading. Still, it’s hard to churn through these 1,900 pages without thinking the LOA might have overdone it with the two-volume treatment. Even if the anthology were halved, improving its hit-to-miss ratio, few of the surviving novels would approach the classic status of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), The Big Clock (1946), The Killer Inside Me (1952), or the other immortal entries from the 1997 release. O’Brien isn’t to blame for this. The 1960s, I would argue, were a less fruitful period for American crime fiction than the era that immediately preceded it. As the editor concedes in his introduction, rival categories like sci-fi and espionage were commanding an increasing share of the marketplace in the 1960s and hardboiled novels had begun to appear quaint. Prolific noir authors like Charles Williams, Jim Thompson, and David Goodis published far fewer books in the new decade, while Dan J. Marlowe—in a series of sequels to The Name of the Game is Death—was compelled to transform his nameless bank robber into a government agent. The genre’s talent pool hadn’t run dry, as the rise of Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, and George V. Higgins would attest. But it had sprung a few leaks.

Fortunately, O’Brien has dealt with this limitation admirably. He understands that an anthology like this is more than a collection of greatest hits; it can also tell us something about the society that produced these novels. To this end, he has selected works that bear witness to many of the political and social upheavals of the 1960s—everything from an emerging drop-out culture (The Murderers) to the rising national divorce rate (The Fiend). Racial justice is a major focus, as The Expendable Man and Run Man Run both take a critical view of law enforcement’s treatment of Black Americans. Not surprisingly, the Vietnam War also casts a looming shadow. The conflict is referenced throughout The Tremor of Forgery and the moral paralysis suffered by Howard Ingham, its main character, is used as a metaphor for the erosion of America’s self-confidence in world affairs. Is Howard guilty of a crime? Is he beholden to the same ethical standards in Tunisia, where the deaths of “negligible” people are swept under the rug, as he would be in the United States? And, given the disparity between America’s democratic values and its policies, are his vaunted principles merely a delusion in the first place? For all their cynicism about human nature, crime novels published prior to the 1960s seldom asked such questions. They tended to be firm on issues of right and wrong, even when their guilty characters tugged at our sympathies. By contrast, most of the books featured in Crime Novels of the 1960s—in keeping with the spirit of their time—reject easy certainties. By story’s end, the crime might be solved. Whether justice has been done is another matter.

Frank Vatel

Frank Vatel is a writer and illustrator who is incurably obsessed with vintage crime fiction. From a rapidly deteriorating apartment in Chicago, where he lives with his wife, he is currently scribbling a noir novel set in the 1930s.

One response to “The Sixties at the Point of a Gun”

  1. Artfully written review. Makes me realize that no matter how much I have read, there is so much more I haven’t. Your review has a crime novel feel, like Cain’s Continental Ops narration. Hope to dig into these stories soon.