W.R. Burnett,
It's Always Four O'Clock/Iron Man
(Stark House, 2009)

Although he was one of America's finest crime writers, most people -- if they know of him at all -- know him through the film versions of his novels Little Caesar, High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle. He produced, during a long career, more than 40 novels and a couple dozen original film scripts. Almost all of them dealt with crime and criminals and almost all of them are forgotten today.

Stark House, the California publisher that has made a specialty out of returning old and forgotten crime novels to print, takes an unusual approach to the work of W.R. Burnett; instead of going to the crime classics, they chose to present two of his mainstream novels.

It's Always Four O'Clock was published by Random House in 1956 under the pseudonym James Updyke and, like most of Burnett's novels, takes us deep inside a world we have of visited before. This time, it's the jazz world of southern California in the early 1950s. It was a time when jazz was at its most creative and when the West Coast was spawning great musicians who were developing a new approach to the music. In Burnett's book Royal Mauch, a mysterious, hard-drinking piano player is obsessed with creating a new jazz, which he calls the only true expression of American civilization. The only problem with his music is that the people he gathers around him can't play it; it's too complicated. But then they experience a breakthrough and for a time they are winning over the jazz crowd, playing regularly in a club that opened to showcase them.

It's Always Four O'Clock, though, is not really a book about jazz. Like all of Burnett's best work, it's a book about self-destruction. So is Iron Man, the 1932 boxing novel published by McVeagh/Dial that is bound with It's Always Four O'Clock. Coke Mason is an up-and-coming fighter, headed straight to the top of the boxing game, a contender who can take the championship -- if he can stay focused. Keeping Mason's eye on the prize is the job of his best friend and manager, George Regan, who knows exactly how to manipulate Mason into a winner. But Mason has a weakness that Regan can't get around; he loves Rose, his materialistic and unfaithful wife. When she comes back onto the scene, accompanied by Paul Lewis, a hustler who isn't above using other people for his own profit, Mason has to try to overcome a self-destructive love for the wife who sees him only as a meal ticket.

These are fascinating novels, well worth rescuing from oblivion, and the fact that they are not as good as the best of Burnett's crime fiction just tells you how fine a writer he was.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

13 February 2010

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new