Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Manhattan Noir 2, The Classics

I love short stories and I truly love short stories about crime.
Back in May I wrote a column about a collection of short stories called Boston Noir (which can be read here http://www.pauldavisoncrime.com/2010/05/on-crime-thrillers-column-boston-noir.html 

At the end of my column I asked why there was no Philly noir collection and an editor at Akashic Books subsequently informed me that a collection of Philly crime noir stories would soon be published.

So while I wait for the Philly collection, I read another one of Akashic’s noir series, Manhattan Noir 2, The Classics.

This book greatly interested me as it contained short stories by several writers that I’m very fond of, including O. Henry and Damon Runyon.

One of the movies I try to watch every Christmas season is O. Henry's Full House. The 1952 film featured five O. Henry stories, each segment with a different director. Author John Steinbeck introduced each segment. Some of the stories have a Christmas theme and all of the stories contain the famous twist at the end.

The film features two moving segments based on O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi and The Last Leaf. The other three stories in the film deal with crime.

Actor Charles Laughton is brilliant in The Cop and the Anthem. The Clarion Call, directed by Henry Hathaway, features Dale Robertson as a cop who is beholding to a hoodlum portrayed by Richard Widmark. Both actors are superb. And The Ransom of Red Chief, directed by Howard Hawks, features the great comic Fred Allen as the con man and crook who wishes he didn’t kidnap the odd and terrible little boy who calls himself Red Chief.

I love these stories and the film does them justice, I believe.

Lawrence Block, the author of Eight Million Ways To Die and other crime stories, edited Manhattan Noir and Manhattan Noir 2, The Classics. He wrote in the introduction of Manhattan Noir 2 that for the first book all he had to do was to persuade some of the best writers in the country to produce new dark stories set in Manhattan.

“And to do so for a fee that fell somewhere between honorarium and pittance,” Block added.

“They turned in magnificent work, and I turned in the fruits of their labors, and that was pretty much it,” Block explained. “Nice work if you can get it.”

But with this book, Block had to find the stories and he noted that it was not that easy.

“I knew I wanted to include O. Henry and Damon Runyon — but which O.Henry story? Which story of Runyon’s? I did not want to resort to the anthologist’s ploy of picking stories from other people’s anthologies — this, of course, is one reason everybody knows The Gift of the Magi and Little Miss Marker, while so many equally delightful stories remain unknown to the general reader,” Block explained.

Block stated that he read all of O. Henry’s New York stories and all of Damon Runyon’s stories and then he narrowed the field until he could select a single story from each author.

Block informs us that money had much to do with the publishing of these classic short stories.

“Consider this: In 1902, William Sydney Porter, whom you and the rest of the world know as O. Henry, moved to New York after serving a prison sentence in Ohio (he’d been convicted of embezzling $854.08 from a bank in Austin, Texas.) Within a year he had been contracted to write a weekly short story for a newspaper, the New York World,” Block wrote.

Block wrote that Porter received $100 for each story, which was very good money in those days (and not too bad these days, I might add).

“O. Henry published his first short story collection in 1904, and his tenth in1910,” Block wrote. “He never wrote a novel. He never had to.”

Block selected O. Henry’s The Furnished Room for his collection.

“Restless, shifting, fugacious as time itself is a certain vast bulk of the population of the red brick district of the lower West Side,” O. Henry wrote. “Homeless, they have a hundred homes. They flit from furnished room to furnished room, transients forever — transients in abode, transients in heart and mind. They sing “Home Sweet Home” in ragtime; they carry their lares et penates in a bandbox; their vine is entwined about a picture hat; a rubber plant is their fig tree.

“Hence the houses of this district, having had a thousand dwellers, should have a thousand tales to tell, mostly dull ones, no doubt; but it would be strange if there could not be found a ghost or two in the wake of all these vagrant guests.’

O. Henry’s story deals with a young man who is searching through these boarding houses that are home to transient theatrical entertainers. He is searching for a young woman.

“Consider Damon Runyon,” Block wrote in the introduction. “”Today’s readers know him chiefly for Guys and Dolls, the brilliant musical based on his stories.”

Block noted that Runyon was already a great success as a Broadway columnist when he began writing fiction in 1929. His stories about gangsters, gamblers, entertainers and other Broadway characters appeared in Cosmopolitan, Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post.

“Damon Runyon never wrote a novel. He never had to either.”

Block selected Johnny One-Eye as the Runyon story for this collection.

The story is about a showdown and shoot-out between two gangsters and how a scruffy and injured kitten enters between them. One of the kitten’s eyes is closed, hence the name one of the gangsters gives him.

Manhattan Noir 2, The Classics also offers short stories by Evan Hunter, Irwin Shaw, Stephen Crane, Donald E. Westlake, Joyce Carol Oates and other great writers. The book also includes Edgar Allen Poe’s great poem The Raven.

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