Monday, February 06, 2023

12. The Asphalt Jungle by W.S. Burnett

A small note that I put inside this book says that I purchased it at The Monkey's Paw bookstore in Toronto in August '12!  I feel that has to be a mistake on my part as I do remember finding this there and buying it but it can't have been over ten years ago.  I have no record on my blog of the purchase that I can find from that year.  I'm starting to think that I may have transposed the numbers and it was actually the summer of 2021 when I got it (and I was in Toronto then).  

Anyhow, on to the book.  I actually was going to read this phat phantasy novel that I had bought for my brother-in-law for xmas and which he had rejected because he couldn't get into the prose.  I too found it a terrible slog and had to abandon it about 50 pages in.  I have not done that in ages, if ever!  Very discouraging.  So I was very happy to jump into The Asphalt Jungle, which begins with a pretty clear situation and solid prose.  A large midwestern city (which I assumed to be Chicago but then one of the characters runs away to Chicago later in the book) is rife with corruption and has just brought on a new, no-nonsense commissioner who is going to clean it up. The framing device is an old, cynical journalist who decides to give the commissioner a chance. Soon, though, we zoom in to the real story.  An unassuming, German-American, master criminal has just been released from jail with a promising big heist already planned.  He just needs a string and a sponsor.  

Burnett does a fantastic job of bringing us into the milieu and the people of the criminal underworld (and not so "under" with most of the cops on the take and semi-legitimate bookies operating almost in the open).  The hub is a little greasy spoon counter and magazine stall run by Gus, a tough, connected well-respected hunchback (and driver when needed).  He leads Riemenschneider to a great cast of characters, Louis the tool guy trying to go legit, Cobby the money man who is also connected to a big-time defense lawyer Emmerich who has the real money and finally Dix Hendley, the hard southern hick tough who is wavering about his career and his feelings for Doll, the aging nightclub girl.

The entire middle of the book is just clean, efficient criminal machinations as they plan the heist and execute it.  It's great.  Of course, it goes pear-shaped for a variety of reasons and we watch as each character meets their fate.  The bigger idea is that each guy had a flaw that brought them down, but what actually happens is a bit more complex and therefore more interesting. Ultimately, the main thread is competent Dix who really just wants to get back to his family's farm.  This gets a bit heavy and maudlin at the end, but still moved me.  

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