Category: Archive

Noir before the war

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

And as long as those who have clear memories of it as children — say those born between 1928 and 1938 — are walking around, then it will remain part of the collective experience.
Imagine, then, the shadow cast by World War I in 1938, the year that Peter Quinn sets his fine thriller.
That conflict in which nine million men died was the formative event in the lives of several characters in “Hour of the Cat” such as New York private investigator Fintan Dunne, his commanding officer in the 69th Regiment, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, British writer Ian Anderson, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Third Reich’s Office of Military Intelligence, and his chief of staff, Hans Oster.
As Hitler eyes Czechoslovakia, only Anderson and Oster have grasped that if and when war happens again, it will be much more than a technologically advanced version of the last.
The former says at one point: “You see, the combination of eugenic theory, industrial efficiency, and political tyranny endows Germany with a unique advantage when it comes to murder on a mass scale.”
Canaris, Oster and Donovan are historical figures. On the other hand, Anderson is the author’s creation, as is his main hero Dunne, though both are familiar from the movies and literature. Even Donovan likens Anderson to British film actors; meanwhile the Chandleresque private eye Dunne at various times gets roughed up, beaten up and knocked out, and that’s just in the first half. Naturally, almost all the wisecracks are his, too. (Under arrest, his response to a government lawyer’s suggestion he turn informer is: “I got two words for you, McCarthy, and they’re not happy birthday.”) Should Quinn’s story ever get to the big screen, the lead actor will have an inferiority complex simply because he’s not Humphrey Bogart.
However, an attractive young dressmaker who seeks Dunne help doesn’t have Lauren Bacall’s impudence and instead, in an interesting twist, the romantic sparks develop with a woman close to his own age.
The use of the some of the techniques of noir fiction works remarkably well. For one thing, the genre’s stripped-down style keeps the story moving at a steady pace.
The acclaimed author of the Civil War-set “Banished Children of Eve,” never sounds like a tourist who’s landed in the past, nor does he publish his research, as a New York Times critic once said of a biographer.
The genre’s tone is perfect, too, for the novel’s unromantic view of a 1930s New York in which vicious thugs like Charles “Lucky” Luciano, off stage, and corrupt cops such as the fictional Inspector Robert I. Brannigan, very much on, hold sway.
And it’s appropriate for a setting in which there are all manner of characters who are neither villain nor hero, like the unctuous Manhattan DA Tom Dewey (he of the Chicago Tribune headline) and the self-righteous Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael McCarthy.
The novelist doesn’t let us forget that America has still to drag itself out of depression. We follow Dunne to the Hoover Flats shantytown, but are also introduced in a poignant scene to men who, living in furnished rooms, are just one rung above that: “Unraveled from around the radio and perched on a row of stools, they hunched over their drinks like birds too tired to fly, heads tucked inside their exhausted wings.”
They took work as part-time token clerks or movie-ticket sellers, “scavenged their daily newspapers out of trash cans and dined on baked beans at the Automat in order to have money for drink.”
If and when boom times returned, he says, it would be too late for these men.
Quinn can do that and subtly describe the shifting attitudes of Admiral Canaris and his churchgoing wife toward the Nazis. And then he can move back again with ease to the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island of 1938.
One wishes that in 21st century airports and train stations we could more often pick up intelligent thrillers like “Hour of the Cat,” especially ones that would convincingly transport us back to the not too distant past.

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