Escaping the Brain Only to be Imprisoned by the Heart: Book review: After Dark, My Sweet by James Meyers Thompson (Jim Thompson)
It was the film The Big Heat (1953) that did it for me. Fritz Lang did a fine job directing, and Glenn Ford was just fine and Gloria Grahame was fine too, in fact more than fine, she was one hella-dame. The music was seamless (except for the riff of that horrible Put the Blame on Mame that about ruins Gilda (1946). Lee Marvin, well, were I a director then I would have had him grow his hair long in the back and I would have written a story mainstreaming him as one seriously bad mofo. The result of all this: I got the urge to read some dark noir. I stirred my high-ball with my fountain pen as my picture-typewriter roared to life. Then I goo goo’d noir writers and settled on the man that film critic and poet Geoffrey O’Brien dubbed the Dimestore Dostoyevsky, James Meyers Thompson.
Honestly, it was the dame that captured my heart. William Collins meets her in a bar. He remarks on the warm weather. Fay responds to that, and I mean that.
“Well, I’ll tell you about that,” she said. If you’re really interested in that, I’ll give you my theory on the subject.
“Of course, I’m interested. I’d like to hear it.
“It’s a pronoun,” she said. Also an adverb, conjunction and adjective.”
“She turned away, picking up her drink again.
“I picked up my beer my hand shaking a little.”
Hooked and netted. That line concluded by the shaking was a nice touch. After Dark, my Sweet was it, published in the same year that Winston Churchill resigned as Prime Minister.
The plot is a game of straightforward hopscotch. William Collins escapes from a mental institution, a place where,
“You looked around, and they’d be watching you. They looked around, and you’d be watching them.”
He meets Fay a B-girl, who he says really isn’t because she goes with him, and her pal Uncle Bud. The get him hepped up about the kidnapping of Charles Vanderventer III. Things go awry. They always do in noir crime. I recall it was the writer John Gardner who said that the difference between writers and criminals is they’ll both see a Cadillac with a woman sitting in it and while they both will think of stealing the car and going for a joy ride, the writer will have enough control to go home and write a story about it, whereas the criminal will actually do it and end up in jail. The doctors say that William is making a little progress in his crawl back to sanity but he doesn’t see it. Everyone else pins him immediately. If they’re dumb enough to challenge him they find out that William can get a little out of control. His mental health classification card says, “May be very dangerous if aroused.” Williams also suffers from a thiamine deficiency due to prolonged ingestion of alcohol, for which he has reason enough. Fay drinks for the reason Mallory wanted to climb Everest, because it’s there.
Fay’s view is that William has “a barrel of nerve and a pint of brain.” But that’s nothing. These are characters who can go from pleasantries to snarling faster than one can run out of an AA meeting. Their thirst for alcohol is like beach sand sucking up seawater. As a consequence they spend a good deal of time drinking, in turn this leads to a lot of bantering about who’s smart and who’s not, who’s not stupid and who is. It’s important to them.
William is both a right guy and a dumb mug. He’s a victim of other peoples’ whims and plots and he’s a permanent hostage to his own half-baked desires. That’s how he gets tied up in Uncle Bud’s plan to kidnap young Charles. The presentation of that event is fun writing. William dresses in a chauffeur’s uniform and kidnaps the wrong boy, a smoking hard boiled imp who spends six months with one or the other parent. He sees through the whole kidnapping plan and considers it a great idea because, “His [Charles’] folks need a good jolt.” When right boy is finally brought back to the hideout they discover he’s ill, probably stomach bug, and he has diabetes that requires insulin. In an ironic twist, William reads the boy he first kidnapped and released was killed in the crash of a Paris bound airplane. It goes downhill from here.
Ah, Rabbie Burns:
“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gan aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy.”
I always want the whole shebang in noir. From rude lugs to purple prose, from plot twists to word play, I want the femme fatale and the wages of sin. I want serious satire, the tongue in unshaven cheek reflection on the whole scene. I want zingers as found in the movie The Shadow of the Thin Man as when Nick Charles is attempting to turn his reading of the pony racing odds into a fairy tale for his son.
“Nick Charles, Jr.: “Why don’t you just put down the book and read the racing form?
Nick Charles: Nicolas, you know, you’re getting more like your mother every day. All right, Son-of-a-Gun is 40 to 1.”
Throughout After Dark, My Sweet, each character attempts to burnish tarnished dreams. Along the way they eat luncheon meat sandwiches and then with stomachs full and blood alcohol content above the legal limit, they get hit with sucker punches and wonder where life did them wrong. The noir genre for the most part seems to echo populism, in which lower class people are positioned against the upper crust. In noir, the elites do what they want, often they use people for their own purposes, their motivations and financial interests are veiled. The appeal of noir for readers is that this view fits their model of the way it is in the world.
Thompson keeps the story moving and he can toss out the occasional quip. Fay initiates a bedroom encounter and suggests he got to the bathroom to freshen up.
“Now if you’ll just step into the bathroom…The — the bathroom? I stammered. “That small room you were in a moment ago. The one with the concave furniture.”
Less effective is, “You couldn’t have paid me to stay in bed.” The book isn’t quite at the level of Chandler, or Hammett, or Macdonald but it’ll do when the night is long and the book is short.
Comparatively, Chandler has it all for me especially in The Big Sleep. I’m attracted to the emptiness, the characters lost in ennui, the ruining of plot, the lack of resolution, ultimately the depiction of the end of knowledge. It’s all so post-post modern. That whole book is catpured for me in the Chandler’s line, “There was pressure in the air already.”
That same level of depth is missing from After Dark, My Sweet. Thems are the breaks, kid. C’est la vie. Nobody gets what they want. Yet, the novel remains of interest because it lacks a detective and we get to inhabit mind of the William. We understand his motives, and although I wished for a wider span of wackiness that is presumed be inside his deranged noggin, it remains compelling for it’s roughness. And it comes into being as American noir rose into the mainstream like smoke curls out of the barrel of a fired pistol. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley was published the same year, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil came out in 1958.
We discover that William’s heart is more reliable than his brain and without giving away the end, it’s obvious from the title that William’s desires may be fulfilled only in an afterlife. He doesn’t expect life after darkness to be full on paradise, rather he would be there and Fay would be there and, “So we’d just do the best we were capable of. If she felt like I did, if that was what she wanted.”
Yeah there was a movie of the book with Rachel Ward, Jason Patric and Bruce Dern (an example of casting like a bad car wreck) made in 1999 and I could seek it out but the moment had passed, the jig was up. I’d been there, done that. I already felt seedy enough and I was as stubborn as ever about noir films being in black and white. Besides, another cork was calling to be unplugged. What’s a water glass for if not for whiskey?