W. R. BURNETT – Vanity Row. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1952. Pennant P7, paperback, 1953 (cover art by Harry Schaare). Stark House, softcover, 2015, with Little Men, Big World. Filmed as Accused of Murder (Republic, 1956); previously reviewed on this blog here.

   I felt the need of a strong sharp draught to rinse the taste of [some recent] fatty prose from my mind, and luckily came across Vanity Row,  by W. R. Burnett. Burnett has not come in for the reappraisal and revival so many of his contemporaries have earned, but he authored some classics: Little Caesar, High Sierra, The Asphalt Jungle, etc. and his writing at it’s best combines the terse energy of Hammett with the raised-eyebrow cynicism of Chandler.

   Though the title sounds like a turgid romance, and the dust jacket seems designed to scare away potential buyers, Vanity Row has its moments. Roy Hargis, known as “the Hangman”, is a Police Captain detailed to the Administration of a midwestern city to cover up problems and dispense rough justice when necessary.

   When a prominent local attorney is apparently rubbed out by out-of-town hoods, Hargis is called in to make a quick arrest– but since the Administration is currently negotiating a Gambling agreement with these hoods, Hargis’s job is simply to find a convenient patsy for the killing, and the late attorney’s jilted mistress seems tailor-made for the part.

   The ensuing tale gets sappy at times, but Burnett keeps it fast, straight, and quite readable. He also manages to make his characters seem quite tough without the usual shoot-outs, beatings and car chases of the genre, with a fast-paced narrative perched right on the edge of violence.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #7, May 2000.