W. R. Burnett is largely forgotten today although he was arguably one of the most influential of American hardboiled crime writers.
He achieved success with both his novels (the most famous being Little Caesar and High Sierra) and screenplays. He often adapted his own novels for the screen, a notable example being Nobody Lives Forever (which became an excellent and underrated 1946 film noir).
Burnett specialised in moral ambiguity and in anti-heroes. Nobody Lives Forever tell the story of a group of con-men and a particularly ambitious con. Windy, Shake and Doc are losers. They’re con-men without a dime, without hope and lacking even the ambition required for their criminal activities. And they know they’re losers. So when they come across who promises to be a sucker to end all suckers they know the game is out of their league. They’re going to need someone with class. They’re going to need the top guy.
The top guy is Jim Farrar, a legend among confidence tricksters. The only problem is, Jim Farrar has decided to retire. He’s haunted by the fear of being a washed-up nobody just like Shake, Windy and Doc. He’s haunted by the fear that he’ll no longer have the polish, the confidence and the looks to be a successful con-artist and will end his days like his own early hero who ended up a drooling derelict.
The sucker in question is Mrs Halvorsen, a rich lonely widow reputed to be worth several million dollars. The opportunity is too good to miss. Somehow Jim Farrar has to be persuaded to make one last play.
Farrar allows himself to be talked into the scheme but he realise his co-conspirators are useless at best, and a positive liability at worst. He offers the a deal. He is certain he can take Mrs Halvorsen for at least $100,000, so he’ll guarantee Windy, Shake and Doc $10,000 each if they’ll agree to leave matters entirely in his hands.
Things don’t work out so simply however. Doc and Jim Farrar have always disliked each other. Doc might be a struck-off medical practitioner with a serious drug habit but he has grandiose ideas about himself and he has always been of the opinion that Jim Farrar has no real class, that the country bumpkin he started life as will always reveal itself. Jim considers Doc to be not merely unstable but potentially a worse problem since Doc is so crazy he is impossible to intimidate. It turns out that both men are absolutely correct about the other’s weaknesses.
Jim’s plan was to romance Mrs Halvorsen, then suggest a phony investment scheme, and then take off with the money. There would be no complications. But complications certainly arise when Mrs Halvorsen starts talking about marriage, and Jim finds himself seriously considering the idea. Apart from causing problems with Doc this will also trigger dramas with Jim’s girlfriend Tony. Tony is a no-good dame but Jim is obsessed with her.
This is a crime novel that is entirely character-driven. Every character has at least one major weakness that will contribute to the escalating drama. In Jim Farrar’s case the problem is that he’s a lot more emotionally vulnerable than he thought he was. It turns out he’s too nice a guy to be a successful con-man, but he’s too crooked and too selfish to be able to make it in the regular world.