Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime – Review
The 1960 Los Angeles setting of Woody Haut’s Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime is a pivotal year in American history: Power shifted from the Republicans to the Democrats as the Presidency was passed from Eisenhower to Kennedy. Social conservatism was swept away by sexual liberation and the Civil Rights movement, and the Blues sound pioneered by artists such as Muddy Waters, Skip James and Son House was adapted into the commercially successfully rock and pop style of, among others, British Invasion bands.
One man well placed to observe this history in the making is Abe Howard. A brilliant, unscrupulous freelance news reporter, Howard has built a reputation on his knack for getting the best images at crime scenes. Known by his colleagues, including the legendary Weegee, as ‘Abe on the spot’, Abe took photos of the bloodied corpses at the St Valentine’s Day massacre and opened the eyes of John Dillinger’s lifeless body outside the Biograph cinema in order to get the most striking image possible. But if Abe’s work has brought him close to the thrill of violence, it has also worn him down and made him a middle-aged cynic: ‘Fourteen years he’d been in Los Angeles, and he had nothing to show for it other than a bunch of negatives and some nightmarish images.’ The brutal murder of a young black jazz musician, Jimmy Estes, sparks a chain of events that will test Abe’s ability to endure this noir world. The photos he takes at the crime scene lead Abe to incur the wrath of LA Mob kingpin Mickey Cohen. Abe also tempts fate when he starts an affair with a woman potentially connected to the case, a blonde, alluring enough, in Raymond Chandler’s words, ‘to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window’. But will his infidelity come at the loss of his wife and kids?
Haut is a renowned critic of crime fiction and film noir, and the reader will be aware of another, more metafictional pivotal moment in the 1960 setting as noir transitioned from what some critics deem to be classic or ‘legitimate’ noir period from 1941 to the late 1950s to the more self-conscious, colourful neo-noirs of 1960 onwards. Haut chose this setting ‘Not as nostalgia for a world gone by, but as the story of the city at a particular time and place, when, as someone once said, the old world was dying and the new had yet to be born.’ Haut deftly steers the narrative through the birth of this new world by essentially merging crime fiction styles. Abe’s lover Kim bears a striking, almost sinister resemblance to Lana Turner, and the LA lore sub-plot behind Turner, her daughter Cheryl Crane and the killing of Johnny Stompanato was reminiscent of a classic noir age when gangsters thought of themselves as movie stars and a thin line separated Hollywood and organised crime. In contrast, the late introduction of two bickering hit men reminded me of a contemporary practitioner of the genre.
We tend see what we want to see in some stories, and there were many plot details and stylistic flourishes I thought could be influenced by or references to James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. The clipped, hardboiled prose at times felt particularly Ellrovian. This is not a limitation on the novel, however, far from it. Haut’s noir prose and dialogue bring the narrative to life so that the more you read, the more the thought of external influences are swept away by what Emory Holmes II describes as Haut’s ‘horizontal poetry’:
A fresh-faced actress snorting cocaine with her underage girlfriend in the back of a limousine. Snap. An ageing, but tearful, starlet in flagrante delicto with a sixteen year old boy. Snap. An up-and-coming young actor fucking that very same boy in the actor’s souped-up, cherry-red ‘53, accompanied on the car radio by the latest Chuck Berry song. “Oh shit, here comes trouble,” Mitchum would say when he saw Abe.
Indeed, Abe’s photographs are in themselves a form of poetry, telling a story both factually and aesthetically through the visual image. Some of the most pleasurable moments in the novel come through the banter and petty rivalry that exists between a group of 78 RPM Blues record collectors. For these quirky outsiders, the Blues sound is the highest form of poetry and the gramophone is to them what the camera is to Abe, but they too find that the murder of Jimmy Estes means they can no longer pursue their interests with objective distance. As Abe is plunged deeper and deeper into the repercussions of the Estes murder, the story comes to a gripping climax. Haut has crafted a seminal crime novel in Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime, referencing both the history of noir and taking it into new territory. Highly recommended.