Stark House Press casts the two novels in IT’S ALWAYS FOUR O’CLOCK / IRON MAN under the noir banner. But let me clarify: This is not bang-bang/shoot-’em-up noir. W.R. Burnett’s works more fall into the like-minded world of David Goodis and Charles Willeford.
An introductory essay by David Laurence Wilson gives a history of Burnett and his compatriots of his time, like William Faulkner and Dashiell Hammett, which is none too shabby. Burnett’s debut was the groundbreaking LITTLE CAESAR, which had readers rooting for the bad guy throughout. That was not the norm at the time, to say the least.
Wilson does an exemplary job of painting Burnett as a man who was happier in the world of music. Good thing he also did screen work, namely THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, ICE STATION ZEBRA and HIGH SIERRA. His only Hollywood misstep was the Rat Pack film 4 FOR TEXAS, which makes SERGEANTS 3 look like a classic.
The collection kicks off with 1956’s IT’S ALWAYS FOUR O’CLOCK, which will please fans of writers who deal more with the emotional terrain of noir. The story involves a group of jazz musicians who are just scraping by in their own little circle. They just want to play and see how far they can take it. The narrator, Stan, meets up with this wiry kid named Royal Mauch, who is not your typical piano-pounder. He seems to have more knack for new arrangements that others might find difficult.
As Stan and Royal find two other like-minded souls in Walt and a singer named Berte, it becomes apparent to Stan and Walt that Royal is out of their league; his work is not only new and challenging, but nothing like they have played before. Royal keeps his private life separate from his new set of friends; he not only comes from some money, but major money, and his family doesn’t approve of his current lifestyle.
FOUR O’CLOCK is more about these entertainers and how their relationships strain to reach their breaking point. This story is not as dark as a Goodis tale, but you could easily see these musicians pop up in some club one of his characters might frequent. This is more a sort of passion play than a true crime classic, focused on the lives of people just scrapping by and/or slumming in the world.
The second novel in this twofer is IRON MAN, which is sort of like the B half of a double feature — mainly because it’s the weaker of the two and plays on one too many clichés. It was written in 1930 and, believe me, it shows in the use of certain racial terms that will upset more than a few politically correct people.
The bulk of the story is set in the shady world of boxing, which just screams noir. Coke Mason is a fighter on the rise who can take a punishment in the ring like no one else. But Coke has two people pulling at him. One is his manager, George, who has known him since they were youngsters and uses Coke like a never-ending gravy train, since Coke is the type to throw money around like it’s no one’s business, usually putting him into a hole of problems.
Then there is Coke’s wife, Rose, who is happier to have her husband at a distance, and uses her power over the big lug whenever it will benefit her. IRON MAN not only follows Coke on his rise through fights in the ring, but also with his wife, who likes to play victim more often than not. He keeps going back to her like a big dog starved for attention.
Coke is built up as the next great champ, and believes all the hype to the point he doesn’t take some of his matches too seriously. It all leads to the championship fight, whose outcome most people will have figured out early. This is, of course, another story of a group of losers in a world that has no place for them outside of their own narrow paths. For a book that was written more than 80 years ago, it still packs a punch — no pun intended.
This fine collection Stark House release should be read by any fan of the darker recesses of noir. It’s as if Burnett was an eyewitness to a world most people do their best to avoid. And that, my friends, is some of the best noir writing going. —Bruce Grossman