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Hardboiled Historians

July 11, 1993|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald all emerged from the pulps into the prestige and relative permanence of hardcover books. But there are other writers who in their lifetimes never really made it beyond pulp magazines and paperback originals. For them recognition has come slowly and posthumously.

In a slim new book of essays, Difficult Lives (Gryphon Books, Box 209, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11228-0209: $12 paper; 100 pp.), the critic, translator and novelist James Sallis ("The Long-Tailed Fly") looks appreciatively at three of these rediscovered writers: Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Chester Himes.

Ironically their terse, eventful story-telling has had great appeal for Hollywood. "The Grifters," "After Dark My Sweet," Bertrand Tavernier's "Coup de Torchon" and other movies have been made from Thompson's work, with more to come. Francois Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player" is from a Goodis novel, and Chester Himes' "Cotton Comes to Harlem" in 1965 set off the vivid if short-lived wave of black action films of the 70s.

Yet none of Thompson's 29 novels were in print in the U.S. when he died in 1977 at the age of 70. Goodis died in 1967 at only 49 after years as a virtual recluse, and his work was out of print until 1987. Himes, who had done seven years in the penitentiary as a young man, wrote serious "straight" novels about the black experience before his popular series about Harlem detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed. He lived many years in bitter exile in Europe and died in 1984.

Ironically these and other hard-edge American authors have been more continuously honored in France than at home. Their stories, Sallis says, "worked hard to unfold the lies society tells us and the lies we tell ourselves." The book's tough-guy tone was "an antidote to American bombast and self-touting." The cynicism, the immediacy and the dark-shadowed realism of the books appealed to the existentialism in vogue in postwar France, where Thompson and the others have been steadily in print.

Now they are being reprinted here. "Spearheaded by Black Lizard's multiple reissue of Jim Thompson novels in 1987," Sallis says, "and continuing now with Random House's Vintage Crime editions of Himes, Goodis and Thompson in uniform format, retrieval is well underway."

The books are engrossing to read, not so much as plots (often creaky and rife with coincidence) but for their passionate energy, and as unintended autobiographical glimpses of hard-pressed men in hard circumstances. (Goodis, for instance, churned out 10,000 words a day for days at a stretch.)

These three writers, and others like Cornell Woolrich and Horace McCoy, turn out to have written part of our history, too.

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