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You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (Hardboiled Fiction Ser) Hardcover – February 1, 1986

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About the Author

RICHARD HALLAS is the pseudonym of the versatile novelist Eric M. Knight (1897-1943), who was born in Menston, Yorkshire, and emigrated to the United States while still in his teen. He studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and served in the Canadian Army during World War I. Following the war he worked for several Philadelphia newspapers. He moved to Hollywood in 1932, wrote a number of film scripts, then returned to Pennsylvania to continue his writing career. In 1943, while serving as a major in the film unit of the U.S. Army Special Services section, he was killed in the crash of a military transport plane in the jungle of Surinam. You Play the Black and Red Comes Up (1938) was his only crime novel. he created the character of Lassie in Lassie Come Home (1940), wrote a celebrated novella, The Flying Yorkshireman, and a bestselling novel about the London blitz, This Above All (1941), which was made into a film starring Tyrone Power.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Introduction by Matt Groening

What is it about the lurid covers, overheated prose, and musty smells of old, dog-eared paperbacks? For me, it’s the lure of the forbidden, the sensation of secrets being muttered, the sheer exuberance of imagining a chain-smoking, booze-weary writer banging away on a manual typewriter in the middle of the night, one step ahead of the landlord and two steps ahead of an angry ex-wife.
These books, even if solemn, radiate a deadpan sarcasm that makes me think, they gotta be kidding! Are they parodies, satires, pastiches? Probably not all of them, but whatever they are, they make me laugh.
I include in this shelf of sweat and screwiness both the critically acclaimed and the dismissed trash: Paul Cain’s Fast One (1933); the works of James M. Cain, particularly The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934); Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) and I Should Have Stayed Home (1938); Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939, with Homer Simpson); Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939); Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941); Henry Kane’s A Halo for Nobody (1947) and Armchair in Hell (1948); and Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948).
Then there is You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, the delirious 1938 crime novel published under the name Richard Hallas, pseudonym of English writer Eric Knight. This was Knight’s only pulp novel, perhaps because critics assumed he was slumming—an Englishman mimicking the slangy American style and plotting of James M. Cain. Knight hit it big with the 1940 novel Lassie Come-Home, expanded from a 1938 Saturday Evening Post short story. He also wrote several other mainstream novels, but none with the lingering cult appeal of You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up. In 1943, Knight was killed in a military transport plane crash in the jungles of Suriname.
In fifty short and speedy chapters, You Play the Black takes us on a whiplash ride from Oklahoma to California, with major plot reversals on almost every page. Along the way we get drunken brawls, bleached-blonde floozies, cruel hobos, corrupt cops, a fake holdup gone bad, double-crosses, bigamy, an array of poisons, false accusations, suicide, and getting away with murder. The story is told by Dick, a beefy chump who’s searching for his runaway wife Lois and beloved son Dickie, at least until Dick takes up with bitter Mamie and gets further distracted by naked Sheila. Also figuring into this mess of crime and debauchery is the sleazy movie director Quentin Genter, beautiful movie star Jira Mayfair, and political Ponzi-scheme prophet Patsy Perisho. Satirical bankshots are aimed at faith healer Sister Aimee Semple McPherson and Upton Sinclair’s E.P.IC. (End Poverty in California) campaign, with glancing references to James Joyce, Seán O'Casey, Claude Debussy, Richard Wagner, Los Angeles architect Burton Schutt, and convicted murderer Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen.
You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up is probably a goof, but it works either way. The slang and colloquialisms and intentional clichés are a hoot, and the unreliability of the dimwitted narrator Dick just adds to the decadence. I must note, however, that the novel is peppered with the racial epithets of the day, and while the prejudices are mostly tossed off, they date the book badly. Get past the intermittent linguistic malignancy and you’ll finish You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up in a single sitting or two, marveling at the sheer joyful amoral absurdity of it all. It’s a doozy!

Matt Groening
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Product Details

  • Series: Hardboiled Fiction Ser
  • Hardcover: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Carnegie Mellon (February 1, 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0887480586
  • ISBN-13: 978-0887480584
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,196,617 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Smith on September 26, 2003
Format: Paperback
An unjustly neglected classic, fast-paced, funny but with considerable pathos--with a well-orchestrated group of characters and plenty of incident in a relative handful of pages. All the more impressive because it was written by a Yorkshireman who set himself the task of mastering American vernacular, both in narrative and dialogue. Imagine a combination of James M. Cain and Nathanael West and you'll have a sense of the overall tone and approach; hard to believe that the author also wrote Lassie, Come Home!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Timothy P. Stallcup on March 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I heard of this work through Edmund Wilson's classic essay, The Boys in the Back Room, in which he treated a number of "California" writers in general and the "noir" genre in particular. Wilson, who was brilliant and a delight to read on almost anything, wasn't a big fan of the California writers, and more particularly didn't especially like hardboiled crime fiction. Still, it was interesting that he mentioned this relatively obscure novel a number of times, especially as it was the only crime novel by "Richard Hallas," real name Eric Knight, and yes, the man who wrote Lassie Come Home, but who died at a relatively young age in an airplane crash in WWII.
The novel is not especially easy to find. I was never able to find it in a store, even my favorite used book store, but did manage to order it on-line. It is interesting, to say the least, and worth the effort if you are a fan of the genre.
The novel has many of the attributes you would expect: a none-too-bright hero lights out to California in search of the wife and child who have abandoned him. He finds them, but to little effect, and seems almost powerlessly drawn into (i) a robbery that goes awry and ends in murder, (ii) a relationship with a controlling woman who clings to him and ultimately threatens to expose his crime if he leaves her, (iii) a relationship with another woman that ends badly, in one of the larger ironic twists of the story, and (iv) a murder trial that only extends the irony and seems to fulfill his mantra that in Hollywood the truth gets all mixed up.
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Format: Kindle Edition
This is a noir-ish crime novel set in Depression-Era California. The protagonist, Dick, and his wife own a café in a small Oklahoma town. But he returns home one night after working his other job to discover that his wife, Lois, has left him and run away, taking with her their young son, Dickie.

Lois has long had a fascination with the movies and with acting, and Dick deduces that Lois has almost certainly headed off to Los Angeles. So he hops a freight and makes his way cross-country to track her down. Once there, however, he gets distracted from his quest when he agrees to play a role in a fake robbery. When that plan goes astray, he becomes involved with a domineering woman named Mamie and, well, you know how it goes...

In a book like this, one bad thing after another happens to our intrepid hero and he is clearly a victim of the fates that toy with him so capriciously. Dick is really a cipher; things happen to him and he seems almost totally incapable of controlling the events that sweep over him.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the social commentary. Hallas, though an Englishman whose real name was Eric Knight, has a keen eye for the social and economic realities of life in the U.S. in the late 1930s and especially for conditions in California at that time.

The book falls short of the noir classics of the era like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, mainly because the protagonist here doesn't measure up to the ones in those books. But readers who enjoy this sort of thing might well want to seek out this long-lost classic that has recently been re-released in this very nice edition.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A noir gem that got lost in time, and it holds its own against classics of the time. Gambling, sex, death, and booze
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