Wednesday, May 24, 2023

W.R. Burnett's High Sierra

High Sierra is a 1940 novel by W.R. Burnett (1899-1982), one of the great hardboiled American crime writers.

Roy Earle is thirty-seven and he’s just out of prison. And he’s already involved in another planned job, a hotel heist. Roy had been a big shot. He’d been one of Dillinger’s gang. Six years behind bars hasn’t done him much good. He’s still tough and dangerous, but now he’s fatalistic and obsessed with death. He’s tired.

The job should be easy. This hotel has never been robbed before and supposedly the local police force is practically non-existent.

Roy has to meet up with the other guys in on the job, in an isolated cabin in the Sierras. Red and Babe are young punks and Roy despises them. And they figure he’s old and he’s probably gone soft. What worries Earle is the girl with them, Marie. She’s Babe’s girl. Roy doesn’t ant women involved. Dames always cause trouble and what usually happens is that the men end up at each other’s throats.

The easiness of the job is the problem. It will be easy if nothing unexpected happens. But something unexpected always happens. There’s an overwhelming sense of impending disaster to this book. Roy is the smartest guy involved in this caper, and he’s as dumb as a rock. The other guys ere even dumber. These are guys with no ability whatsoever to look ahead. They want the robbery to go smoothly so they assume it will go smoothly. When things go wrong they have no idea what to do. And they have no idea why things went wrong. Roy puts it down to dumb luck, or fate. He has never considered that his criminal career has been a failure because he just isn’t smart enough. On one level he knows that guys like him always get caught, but he doesn’t have the imagination or the drive to try anything else.

Roy suffers from an extraordinary lack of self-awareness. He thinks a lot about his childhood. He remembers it as an idyllic time. The fact that even when he was a kid people were scared of him because of his violence is something he has edited out of his memories. He believes that he tried getting regular job and making an honest living, but in fact he got fired from every job for being a bad-tempered trouble-maker. He’s also edited that out of his memories.

He has no awareness of his own limitations. He also can’t see that with the accomplices he’s been stuck with the job will inevitably go wrong.

If there was no more to Roy than this then he’d be a very uninteresting character. But there is more to him. He genuinely likes women. In his own clumsy way he’s kind and considerate towards them. He genuinely comes to love Marie. He even makes a start on understanding her.

He has his own weird moral compass. Some of the bad mistakes he makes are due to this. There are times when he just can’t bring himself to be sufficiently ruthless. He doesn’t really like killing.

The heist comes a long way into the book. The main focus is on what makes Roy Earle tick. This is noir fiction but it’s very much psychological noir. And we do get to know Roy Earle very well. We almost feel sorry for him as we see his characters flaws leading him to disaster, and we feel that maybe he doesn’t entirely deserve what seems like being his inevitable fate. There’s just enough good in Roy to make us feel that maybe, if he could make just one smart decision, his life might be salvageable.

There’s not a huge amount of action in this novel. There is plenty of suspense however. The reader can see all the mistakes Roy makes and can anticipate the consequences. Roy either cannot foresee those consequences, or in some cases (more interestingly) he does know he’s bungling things but he goes ahead anyway because he just doesn’t know what else to do.

The obvious question is whether Roy has a death wish. At times it seems that he does, but that changes slightly as his relationship with Marie develops. For the first time in his life he has something to live for. But he knows it’s probably come too late.

High Sierra is a fine novel that manages to pack an emotional punch despite characters who are not obviously all that sympathetic. Perhaps end up caring about Roy and Marie because they are so very flawed. Highly recommended.

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