Friday, April 12, 2019

High Sierra by W.R. Burnett

Those who have seen the 1941 movie, “High Sierra,” might skip the 1940 novel of the same name. The film follows the plot of the book exactly with a few edits and an extended finale. But those who skip the book will miss out on the pleasure of W.R. Burnett’s lean, hard prose, and some of the larger ideas overshadowing the characters.

Roy Earle, a career criminal and one-time member of John Dillinger’s gang, is released from an Illinois prison thanks to bribes paid by mob boss, Big Mac M’Gann. The boss wanted Roy free so he can lead a daring robbery of a Southern California resort. Big Mac planned the heist and recruited two young “jitterbugs” for the job, but needs a reliable old timer like Roy to run the show.

The young guys, Big Mac, and Roy himself think of Roy as old. He  lived a hard life that put miles on him, but Roy is only 37. Big Mac is feeling old, too, and wants this big score to be his last so he can go off somewhere and live out his days in grand style.

In debt to Big Mac for getting him out, Roy drives west to meet his two wild accomplices at a rustic hideout high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. During the journey, two things are on Roy’s mind: nostalgic memories of his boyhood on an Indiana farm; and Velma, the sweet 20-year-old granddaughter of an old couple who lost their Ohio farm and are making their way to California. This family is the living reminder of a life Roy longs for. He even has ideas of marrying Velma and living the simple good life he once knew.

But reality catches up with Roy when he meets the irresponsible men he is supposed to lead and the young woman, Marie, they have brought with them. Roy wants them to dump Marie, but he finds her smarter and tougher then the two hoods, and she soon winds up in Roy’s bed. It becomes a threesome in the bed when a scrappy little stray dog takes a liking to Roy and follows him everywhere.

This strange set up has nowhere to go but to hell.

The heist goes badly, the getaway away goes worse, Big Mac was terminally ill and dies, Roy has no choice but to turn the stolen jewelry over to a fence he does not know, and the authorities have a line on him, Marie, and Pard, the little dog they have taken with them.

When he was in prison, Roy’s cellmate, a convicted conman, jailhouse intellectual and self-educated philosopher shared books and ideas with Roy, including his theory of “the indifference of nature.”

Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Roy comes to understand this when he drives into the western deserts where the sun beats down, the wind blows the sand, and the land does not care if you are out of gas or water. The idea is further driven home when Roy is in the Sierra Nevadas, where the mountains do not care what happens to cars on roads with sheer drops into gorges or boulders or snow blocking the route. In those places, Roy gets a sense of his place in the universe. In the end, he is pursued high up into the mountains where he knows there is no escape.

High Sierra is another fine crime novel from a master of the form. If I have one criticism of the book, it is with the opening pages. The book starts with a surprisingly dull chapter of Roy Earle’s boyhood. Surprising since Burnett wrote some of the toughest, fastest paced crime novels of his era.

William Riley Burnett (1899-1982) was the author of The Asphalt Jungle, Little Caesar and many other novels and short stories, and quite a few movies. For a review of one of his lesser known books, Dark Hazard, click here.

(And if crime novels are your thing, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

1 comment:

  1. I've heard of the author but never tried his work. Thanks for the heads-up, Elgin. I'll keep an eye out for the film as well.