Saturday, November 06, 2010


By W.R. Burnett

WR Burnett was a young guy from a pleasant corner of rural America who moved to Chicago back when it was wicked. Judging from High Sierra, Burnett always carried that bit of rural Americana with him, even when describing Chicago gangsters.

Published in 1940, High Sierra tells the tale of Roy Earle, a bank robber newly released from prison. An old gang associate trying to pull off one last big score calls him out to California. Roy must lead a pair of would-be tough guys in a heist on a mountain resort town where LA’s glitterati play. Naturally it’s not that simple. The hoods have brought along a girlfriend, who complicates what should be strictly business. Roy is caught in a desperate yearning for the lost innocence of his boyhood in rural Indiana. He complicates things by getting involved with a family of Ohio farmers starting over in LA. And there’s a dog who may or may not be cursed.

Believe it or not Burnett handles this all with some finesse. Just when I was getting annoyed with the overly sentimental aspect of Roy’s character, Burnett twists the plot to call into question the basis of Roy’s melodramatic yearnings. Burnett doesn’t mind playing a bit (more than I expected!) to the public’s longing for Robin Hoods (this was the Depression) yet he also undermines it by showing us Roy’s willingness to use violence. Burnett may seem like he buys a simplistic worldview, but to my eye he plays with the polarities of rich and poor, crooked and straight, the face we show the world and our inner selves.

Burnett also plays with the omniscient 3rd person view, changing point-of-view character faster than some folks change their socks. It lets us see the world from many eyes, not always in harmony. Even the dog’s POV helps illuminate the situation. Burnett also loves name-dropping, both of the famous (John Dillinger) and the forgotten (Lou Blonger, the king of the Denver underworld).

High Sierra was also made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart in 1941 (John Huston co-wrote the screenplay with Burnett).

This novel is a bit hard to pin down. About halfway through I was seriously wondering if Burnett had grossly over-romanticized his anti-hero, but I found that Burnett knew what he was doing all along. Which is perhaps the secret of his enduring reputation as a hard-boiled writer.
-Dave Hardy


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