Monday, April 30, 2007

The Asphalt Jungle - W R Burnett

First published 1949; cover shown is the 1964 Corgi Books paperback reissue. 190 pages.

This paperback had been sitting in my bookshelf for months. It is purely a crime novel (no mystery involved) and with tags such as "hard-boiled" and "tough" associated with it, it seemed an entire genre apart from my usual choice of mystery fiction. I gave it a chance on the weekend, thinking I'd put it back on the shelf after the first chapter. But that first chapter reeled me in, and the lure of the criminal underworld kept me hooked to the last page.

The Asphalt Jungle is the caper story to end all caper stories, set in the grimy underbelly of a big American city. The Doctor, a German career criminal, has just been released from prison. He plans to pull off a million dollar jewellery heist, and sets about finding the men he needs to help him. Dix is the muscle, Gus the driver and Louis the safe cracker. Alonzo Emmerich, a wealthy lawyer, will be the fence and supply the start-up cash.

For each man such a big job means a new chance. Dix plans on leaving his brutal life behind to return to the farm of his childhood. Louis dreams of providing security for his wife and baby. The Doctor wants to travel to New Mexico and be assured of an endless supply of young girls. And Emmerich, secretly nearly bankrupt, plans to double-cross them all and use the million dollars to start a new life.

Meanwhile the new Police Commissioner, Hardy, is stamping out the corruption in his forces and being tougher than ever on all things criminal. When the biggest jewellery theft in years is carried out successfully with a horde of policemen just a block away, Hardy is furious, and the battle between good and evil, law and order, begins.

While Hardy, crusty and cantankerous, is a likeable character, I found myself feeling more sympathy for the criminals: Dix in particular. Burnett no doubt planned on his characters making readers feel that way - but he was not sentimental at all, and the final few chapters prove that. Definitely no Hollywood endings here.

William Riley Burnett (1899 - 1982) wrote westerns before penning Little Caesar in 1929, his groundbreaking novel of gangsters and the underworld.

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