Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Book: Don Tracy's Criss-Cross

Don Tracy is a little-known writer these days, but he had a long and, at times, distinguished career. In his later career he wrote largely movie and TV tie-ins, which isn't always a good sign. His second novel, Criss-Cross, is probably his best-known book and it has served as a basis for two films: Robert Siodmak's film of the same name and Steven Soderbergh's The Underneath (1994; in Finland only on video as Isku vasten kasvoja). Later Tracy wrote many shocking novels, like How Sleeps the Beast? (1938), which was published first only in the UK and Lion could publish it in the fifties as "a paperback original" which it wasn't, and The Big Blackout (1959). Both deal with racism of the South. There's not much on Tracy on-line, but Bill Crider and his commentators don't let us down.

I had recently a chance to read Tracy's novel in English - it's been translated in Finnish, but I've never read the translation, which, I believe, is abridged. (I was going to confirm it for this post, but never got around to it. The same thing happened, by the way, to watching Siodmak's film. I'm not sure if I've ever seen it.) Criss-Cross was first published by Vanguard Press in 1934 as a hardback, and it was later reprinted several times in softcover. The copy I read is a Triangle Book reprint from 1948, in hardcover. (There's a copy of the book in the Finnish Film Archive's library.)

Criss-Cross is quite a good novel. It's told in a very terse, very hardboiled style (that reminded me of Jason Starr's first novels, for some reason or another). Tracy uses ellipsis to a very good effect and he writes good dialogue. Some dated slang words, like "potatoes" for money, don't get much in the way. The story is about a guy who's done some boxing and who now guards money trucks. He's in love with Anna Krebak, a flimsy good-looking babe who goes out also with a guy called Slim, handsome creep. Tracy lets the action develop slowly, but you know how the story goes: this has been rewritten at least hundred times since. Tracy paved way for the Gold Medal and Lion writers, alongside with James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice was published the same year as Criss-Cross, so it's not sure Tracy was influenced by Cain).

There are some problems with the novel, though. There are some twists you don't see coming in the end of the novel, but the drive also slows down a bit. You feel there's no need to read the rest of the novel after, say, page 200, even though Tracy gives hints of the protagonist's descent into madness. The irony in the last, very short chapter is very gripping, though. Truly noir, this one.

This copy of the book belonged to Finnish film scholar Matti Salo who's known for his studies in film noir and the Hollywood black list. He has made some notes and quotes in the behind of the book. "Tracy belongs to the hardboiled Hemingway school of writers, related also to Burnett." (I think this quote comes from The Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, an old anthology of articles.) Salo also makes the note of the reversal of the handsomeness of the leading men: in the book, the protagonist, Johnny is ugly with a broken nose, and Slim is the pretty boy, but in Siodmak's film Slim is played by Dan Duryea and Johnny is played by Burt Lancaster. There's also this quote: "Tracy's novel is rather predictable and thin, not a thriller, really, but related to a gangster novel." My opinion is higher, and I don't much see relation to gangster novels. There's no organized crime in Tracy's novel.

Lee Server offers some other quotes in his The Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers. The critic Cyril Connolly reviewed the book for the New Statesman: "A fascinating crime story - aesthetically worse than The Postman Always Rings Twice, if that were possible [sic!] - but begin it at any page, nevertheless, and you can't stop till you've read all the other others. It is a mass of fake simplicity, fake intensity, fake slang. Only the sentimentality and bad grammar are genuine. But one has to read it." I should say this is not sentimental in the least! Bad grammar is genuine, because Tracy writes about characters who don't know grammar!

(Lee Server's book has received lots of bad reviews, but his entry on Tracy is very good - check it out! He offers a good rundown of Tracy's career, not forgetting his sequels to Metalious's Peyton Place.)


Unknown said...

I reviewed this one on my blog a couple of years ago. Not sure if I can put in a link, but if this works, you can click here.

David Cranmer said...

Never saw the film or read the book. Time to correct that.

George said...

I've read several Don Tracy books. He wrote in a variety of genres. I concentrated mostly on his crime novels. They feature strong characters and deft plotting. He was the ghost-writer for many of the Baraby Ross (Ellery Queen) mysteries:Quintin Chivas, Trident Books, New York, 1961. (ghostwritten by Don Tracy)
--The Scrolls of Lysis, Trident, New York, 1962. (ghostwritten by Don Tracy)
--The Duke of Chaos, Pocket Books, New York, 1964. (ghostwritten by Don Tracy)
--Strange Kinship, Pocket Books, New York, 1965. (ghostwritten by Don Tracy)
--The Cree from Minatree, Pocket Books, New York, 1965. (ghostwritten by Don Tracy)
--The Passionate Queen, Pocket Books, New York, 1966. (ghostwritten by Don Tracy)

Evan Lewis said...

"Potatoes" for money does sound fake to me.

Server thought Postman was aesthetically bad?? Was he reading it in translation?

Juri said...

Bill: I already provided the link in my post! :)

Evan: Lee Server quotes the thirties' critic (British, I think) Cyril Connolly, who said Cain's novel is aesthetically bad. I'm sure Lee Server thinks it's a masterpiece.

Juri said...

And Evan: yeah, "potatoes" was pretty bad, I didn't understand it first, but it figures only in the beginning and you get used to it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Saw the movie but never read the book. Sometimes I think I'd be more suited at hosting forgotten movies.

Unknown said...

That'll teach me to read more closely!