Sunday, August 17, 2008

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy
Triangle Books, copyright 1934

Don Tracy sure titled this novel correctly. In it we have crosses, double crosses, and criss crosses of doubled crosses. All are interweaved within the relationships between the characters, which take them on a disastrous collision course.

He'd been smarter than me. All along I'd thought he was dumb and that I was giving him the big cross and now I was finding out that he knew all along and was just waiting to throw it into me. I was the dumb one. And I was paying for being dumb.

The story is about Johnny Thompson, who struggles to earn a decent buck during the 1930s depression era
. Right now he's an ex-boxer with a flat nose working as an armored car delivery guard. His biggest problem is coming up with enough cash to take out the girl he is obsessed with, Anna. Anna loves money and the cushion life it brings. Johnny can't compete with Slim, an acquaintance of his who has plenty of dough usually obtained by shady dealings. Anna ends up marrying Slim for his money, which tears the guts out of Johnny. But the trio continues a "friendly" relationship, and Slim takes a liking to Johnny. Eventually Anna and Johnny play around behind Slim's back. Johnny knows he is being used by Anna, but he doesn't care just as long he can spend time with her. Slim offers Johnny a chance to make some big money, by being the inside man in robbing a payroll carried by his delivery truck. Johnny takes the offer and it chances his life, and the lives of Anna and Slim, forever.

"All woman are bitches," I said. She smiled at me. Her eyes were deep and black. "All woman are cheats and liars and bitches," I told her.
"I'm not," she said. "I'm a whore."

"You're different," I said. "I mean real women."

An excellent gritty, noir novel. The author gives us a inside look into the garbled mind of Johnny Thompson. He's a complex character, where at times you feel sorry for him and then you'll want to see him suffer for what he does. But I felt he suffered enough holding onto Anna. Anna is a gold-digger tramp and we have no sympathy for her. Slim is an interesting crook, who we can also feel sorry for and even like him at times-but he is basically a rat. After the payroll hold up attempt, Johnny's fate improves, but deep down he realizes it really doesn't.

Well written and sharp. I really enjoyed the novel and it's atmosphere of the struggling times of 1930s Baltimore. If you read it, you'll enjoy the numerous boxing references in the story-the author uses them to help define the character of Johnny Thompson. And the novel contains one of the great lines that I read recently:

A big girl in a white evening dress came out and sang "For All We Know" in a voice like a dentist's drill.

In 1951, Lion published the novel in paperback, titled "The Cheat."

And the novel was the basis for the excellent 1949 Burt Lancaster noir film "Criss Cross."


Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I really love the cover art on these old hardboild and pulps - Anyone know of a good book where cover art is collected?

August West said...

My local library has the Robert Lesser, Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines. (Hardcover)

I take it out every now and then, to wet my whistle.

Frank Loose said...

I read Criss-Cross several months ago after renting the movie of the same name. In watching the credits i learned that it was based on a book, and i tracked down a Triangle hardback. I tell ya, it was one strong read. Totally different story than the movie. The screenwriter grabbed the characters, one pivotal plot point, but created a completely different story. One more traditional Noir-ish. Reading the book (written in 1934) I couldn't help but think that it had to have been an influence on Gil Brewer. You know the way many of Brewer's characters obsess over a woman, well, Tracy's Johnny Thompson set the standard for it.
And the lead female --- what a cold calculating heartless dame. The author really found the main character's voice. While I was reading, there was no doubt in my mind that this guy existed and was telling me his story. Well done. The only weakness, I thought, was the ending. It might be that I was still expecting something similar to the movie, or just something different, or it could be it was indeed a bit weak, don't know. Still, highly recommended.
--- Frank