W. R. BURNETT Underdog

  W. R. BURNETT – Underdog. Knopf, hardcover, 1957. Bantam A1819, paperback, 1958.

   Underdog finds W.R. Burnett at the top of his form, which is about the best there is. Clinch, the aptly-named, emotionally-constipated anti-hero of the piece, is an ex-con working as a chauffeur to a powerful political boss who befriended him in prison.

   He isn’t long on the job, though, when he discovers (a) that his boss has a lovely and restless wife, and (b) the up-and-coming powers-that-will-be want to put said boss out to pasture — and whether he’s eased out or carried out depends on how much trouble he gives them.

W. R. BURNETT Underdog

   Naturally, for this sort of thing, the Boss makes trouble for the new guys, and Clinch finds himself framed for murder, whereupon Burnett puts his own special slant on the old same song: Clinch doesn’t try to clear himself or catch the real killers; he just goes out to get back at the mugs what done him dirty. And what he does and how he does it makes for some of the most taut and violent reading to come my way lately.

   Burnett was one of the few writers who could carry off this sort of thing perfectly. He evokes Clinch as a memorably ordinary guy, out for himself but loyal to his friends and nagged by his relationship with an underage hooker who wants to be a wife to him.

   Additionally, the Boss, his wife and their “associates” come off the page in neat cameos that linger in the mind. As for the action scenes, well they’re the kind of writing that put hard-boiled literature on the map, and I can recommend this highly to lovers of the stuff.