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.
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Introduction by Matt Groening
--This text refers to the
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 slummingan 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!