A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Max Allan Collins

HORACE McCOY – Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Random House, hardcover, 1948. Paperback reprints include: Signet 754, 1949; Avon, 1965. Film: Warner Brothers, 1950 (with James Cagney, Barbara Payton & Helena Carter).

   Although a veteran of Black Mask, Horace McCoy resented his “hardboiled” classification, considering himself mainstream, and wrote only one genuine crime novel. Set in the Thirties during the Dillinger days, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is one of the finest gangster novels ever written.

   Young hoodlum Ralph Cotter (an alias) escapes from a prison farm, killing one of his own confederates in thee process, a characteristically misanthropic move for this self-described possessor of a “psychopathic superego.” Helping in the jailbreak is the murdered confederate’s sister, Holiday, with whom Cotter immediately shacks up.

   Now in a medium-size, nameless city, Cotter pulls a petty robbery, again killing a man in the process. He and his aptly named associate, Jinx, are thereafter shaken down by local corrupt police. This is an opportunity the shrewd, college-educated Cotter seizes upon, launching a scheme to blackmail the police into aiding and abetting his future crimes.

   His rocky relationship with Holiday — a jealous girl who nonetheless sleeps around indiscriminately on Cotter — alternates with an even stranger relationship with a spoiled society girl who has suicidal tendencies and an interest in the occult. Cotter links up with Cherokee Mandon, a slick shyster with underworld connections, and soon Cotter and his various cronies (including Mandon and the corrupt cops) are planning a reckless robbery that will require taking four lives.

   The fascination of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is its stream-of-consciousness first-person narration, and its exceptionally well-realized psychotic narrator. Unlike the simplified Cotter of the James Cagney screen version (1950), McCoy’s protagonist is a complex, not exactly sympathetic character, but certainly an engaging one. (Cotter prefigures similarly psychotic — and posturing — narrators in the work of Jim Thompson.)

   A violent deed in his past, tied to his adolescent sexual awakening, has sent Cotter into a world of crime where he feels at home. Nonetheless, it is contact with the respectable world, not the criminal one, that leads to his downfall, This is the central irony of a book that McCoy clearly intended to be his masterpiece.

   Critics have seldom agreed with McCoy’s estimation of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, but the critics have underestimated this work. Cotter is a deeply flawed, pretentious narrator — which has led to the writer being dismissed as deeply flawed and pretentious. Taking Cotter at face value, at his word, is dangerous; critics have tended to assume that McCoy agrees with Cotter, who says archly, “Use me not as a preachment in your literature or movies. This I have wrought, I and I alone.”

   McCoy, of course, does not believe that Cotter is a man in control of his destiny: Cotter is a pitiful, guilt-ridden soul misshapen by childhood trauma. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a long book, but it is fast moving, deftly plotted and vividly written.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Editorial Comment: Following my review of Never Say No to a Killer, by Jonathan Gant (Clifton Adams), Dan Stumpf left a comment pointing out some similarity between that book and this one, which came earlier. I’d have to agree that Gant’s book may easily have been inspired by this one — no more than that — but you may go back and read that review, then come back and read this one, and decide for yourself.