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Villes en ruines dans le récit de guerre américain
City Ruins in American War Narratives

Unreal Cities: the Veterans’ Homecoming and the Fate of Postwar Noir

Benoît Tadié


Le roman noir a été façonné, au lendemain de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, par une génération d’anciens soldats qui racontent, sous le masque de la fiction criminelle, le difficile retour à la vie civile dans les villes américaines. Leurs récits souvent paranoïaques, fondés sur l’incrimination, la violence et le meurtre, mettent en scène l’écart radical entre l’ancien combattant et la cité aliénée et aliénante qu’il trouve à son retour. Lorsque cet écart peut être comblé, le roman raconte la réaffiliation et la réintégration de l’homme dans la ville. Lorsqu’il ne le peut pas, la fuite et l’exclusion prédominent. Cet article étudie les fondements émotionnels, les formes narratives et les implications politiques de ces récits, en suggérant ainsi que les principaux traits esthétiques et idéologiques du roman noir d’après-guerre trouvent leur origine dans l’expérience fondatrice et problématique du retour des combattants.

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I was thirty when I came back from the navy, and they made me a lieutenant in the homicide department. It looked good, they were doing right by the boys who had fought and bled for their country. I had fought and bled all right. But nothing like the way I fought and bled after I got back home and they made me a police lieutenant. Then you really fight. And you do all your bleeding inside. And there doesn’t seem to be any cure. (Whittington 1951, 7)

Literature is the record of men’s emotions. (Manchette 521; my translation)

  • 1 The rise of the paperback industry was itself boosted by the reading demands of servicemen and wome (...)

1Crime fiction is a popular genre, not just as distinguished from high literature, for whatever this distinction is worth, but also as a genre of the people, by the people, for the people. I will here insist on “by the people” as, especially in its American hardboiled/noir versions, crime fiction was largely made by writers from the working-class (Smith), who found an outlet for their stories in the popular media, first in the pulp magazines and then, from the late forties and early fifties on, in the mass market paperbacks.1

  • 2 Though the corpus I am addressing in this article is produced by male writers, some women also tack (...)

2It would perhaps be more accurate to say that hardboiled/noir crime fiction made writers out of working-class men. After World War II, in particular, a good deal of this fiction was written by ex-servicemen, as suggested by the following list of authors, all of whom took part in the war, most of whom were from the working class and few of whom had published anything before the war: Clifton Adams, Marvin Albert, David Alexander, Robert Edmond Alter, William Ard, Ledru Baker Jr., Linton Baldwin, Earl Basinsky, Stephen Becker, Ben Benson, Edgar Box/Cameron Kay (Gore Vidal), Gil Brewer, Richard Brooks (later to become a successful director in Hollywood), Wenzell Brown, R.V. Cassill, Elliott Chaze, Robert Colby, Jonathan Craig, Ovid Demaris, David Dodge, Stanley Ellin, Walter Ericson (Howard Fast), Louis Falstein, Julius Fast, Ferguson Findley, A.S. Fleishman, Fletcher Flora, Samuel Fuller (better-known as a film director), William Campbell Gault, Richard Gehman, Dave Gerrity, Walt Grove, Donald Hamilton, Arnold Hano, Lindsay Hardy, W.L. Heath, Basil Heatter, Tony Hillerman, Richard Himmel, Vechel Howard, E. Howard Hunt (who would become notorious as the mastermind of the Watergate break-in), William Krasner, Ed Lacy (Len Zinberg), Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain (Salvatore Lombino), John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar), William P. McGivern, Thomas McGrath (also an important left-wing poet), James McKimmey, John McPartland, Floyd Mahannah, Richard Matheson, Wade Miller (Bob Wade and Bill Miller), Brian Moore, Richard Prather, Peter Rabe, John Roeburt, Edward Ronns, Sam Ross, Douglas Sanderson, Mickey Spillane, Glendon Swarthout, Robert Terrall, Ross Thomas, Charlie Wells, Lionel White, Harry Whittington, Charles Willeford, Charles Williams, Morton Wolson (Peter Paige), Edward Wood Jr. (usually remembered for his weird low-budget movies but also the author of quirky, offbeat crime novels). All of these writers are well worth reading, though their works are now mostly out of print. I have cited many names not only because they deserve recognition but also to suggest how much noir fiction owes to the men that came out of the war. Once out of the army, many of them began writing about soldiers coming back to civilian life and getting into trouble. Their stories can be read both as entertainment and as pieces of a collective autobiography, recording the emotions of a generation. Other writers, who were too old to enlist but had fought in previous wars, or had been declared unfit for service, or simply empathized with the veterans’ condition, also contributed to postwar noir along similar lines.2

3I would like to build on this historical fact to suggest that the poetics of postwar noir, its “structure of feeling” (R. Williams 128) and narrative options were largely informed by the experiences of war and return—or to be more accurate, by the sharp discrepancy between war and return. In fact, the genre expresses a fundamental emotion, that of estrangement or alienation as, after years in the barracks, on the battlefield or in prisoners’ camps, the protagonists come home and find themselves confronted with the American city. But it is not quite the city they had left: for the mentally or physically scarred ex-soldiers, the world has gone one way and they have gone another, and there is now a gulf between them. Herein lies the basic premise of postwar noir fiction, accounting for its strategies of defamiliarization, its mood of disaffection and its experience of disaffiliation, even in stories which make no direct reference to the war.

4Following this initial encounter, all the changes in urban life—changes in urban time and space, in planning and architecture, in lifestyles, in social and economic organization, in racial and ethnic makeup, in civic politics and, more profoundly and generally, in the political (Mouffe) itself—are questioned critically by noir writers from the liminal point of view of the returning soldier, whose problem will be to reconnect the former battleground and the present city—which, as it happens, often turns out to be another, dirtier battleground. Thus, through its paranoid tales of victimization, violence and murder, the genre dramatizes the veteran’s problematic relationship to his alienated and alienating city. This relationship can sometimes, after a hard struggle, be mended, and we have cathartic narratives of reaffiliation and reintegration. But sometimes it cannot and we have narratives of exclusion and disintegration. In other words, postwar noir fiction oscillates between, and sometimes combines, stories of fight and stories of flight, to use a clinical distinction (Cannon) which translates into narrative terms its ambivalent impulses.

Soldiers’ Homes

  • 3 See, for example, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds (2012) and Willy Vlautin’s The Free, (2014), two (...)

5Noir fiction fits into a very long literary tradition of stories narrating difficult returns from the war, which extends as far back as Homer and continues well into the present.3 But it more directly recalls modernist expressions of post-World War I alienation or madness, as can be found in Hemingway’s In Our Time, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, or Eliot’s Waste Land. One may think, in this connection, of the end of “The Burial of the Dead” and of the encounter between the persona and his former war buddy, Stetson, who has buried a corpse in his garden. The chance meeting between these two veterans, with its obscure reference to a surreal murder story, evokes the pervasive sense of guilt and loss of touch with reality that ex-World War I soldiers may have felt on London streets in the early 1920s.

  • 4 As Howard Zinn notes, World War II was “the most popular war the United States had ever fought […]: (...)

6Comparable feelings are expressed in American literature after World War II. As befits “the most popular war” in US history,4 they are generally evoked, however, in popular narrative forms such as noir—interestingly, a term invented in France just after the war, when Gallimard’s famous series of American hardboiled novels, the “Série noire,” was launched (Lhomeau and Cerisier). But, though the medium is different, the noir city is marked by the same murderous potential and sense of unreality as Eliot’s London. First, as will become clear in our examples, the veteran finds himself enmeshed in—and often framed for—murder after his return, a narrative point of departure that symbolizes his alienation from, and scapegoating by, society. Second, his mental processes, affected by the traumas of the war, offer alternative perceptions which tend to denaturalize and defamiliarize those of the mainstream. This is shown, for example, in Talmage Powell’s crime novel, The Girl’s Number Doesn’t Answer (1960). Set in Tampa, Florida, the story deals with an ex-Marine, Nick Martin, who has never fully recovered from the wounds he sustained in the Battle of Okinawa and who, many years later, finds himself wrongly accused of murdering his next-door neighbors. The novel’s opening paragraphs oppose the rhythms of his mind and of his life to those of the world around him:

The guns are silent now. Their days of blood sacrifice are history. The world has moved on, and in great part it has forgotten.
The dead on the islands cannot remember. The living wanted to forget. The half-living will never forget. They are the gray shadows of that army that bought with its living flesh the luxury and freedom you take so much for granted.
They returned. They were carried back. Living, they are of the dead, shut away in government hospitals or in private homes. They are the shattered. […]
The years have passed now, a pleasant haze of memory for most of us. We’ve had to look for and dream up most of our troubles. We’ve worked, played, groused about bills, eaten like sultans, traded our shiny cars because there was a newer model.
For Nick, the years have been about eight million minutes never far from pain. (Powell 1-2)

  • 5 Thus Let There Be Light (US Army Pictorial Services, 1946), John Huston’s documentary on World War  (...)

7In the fifteen-year period that has elapsed since its end, the war has been effaced from the memory of a society caught in the velvet trap of the consumer economy. But for the “half-living” veteran, time is measured differently since his ailing body and mind are still living through the consequences of the war. His endlessly linear temporality differs from that of mainstream society, which is based on the cyclical rhythms of an economy of affluence. The latter’s emblematic ritual is the annual car model change, thanks to which, as Daniel Boorstin notes, “Americans would climb the ladder of consumption by abandoning the new for the newer” (Boorstin 554). There is an implicit political intent in the opposition between these two temporal dimensions. Noir fiction stages a resistance to collective amnesia, keeping alive the memory of former struggles and aspirations which the transformations of mainstream society, compounded by official policies tending to minimize the traumas of veterans,5 have repressed out of the public’s consciousness.

8The veteran’s opposition to the mainstream can also be represented in terms of space. This is the case, for example, in Lawrence Treat’s 1946 novel, H as in Hunted, whose protagonist is a former anti-fascist activist and war veteran who, after returning to New York, finds himself accused of treason and murder. He is obsessed with the traumatic memory of his internment in Germany during the war, which provides a chilling contrast to the city in which he is now immersed. As he walks into a department store, the two environments overlap in his mind:

As he came in, he seemed to hear music and the crowd of shoppers appeared to grow silent. In the vision, the smart warm clothes of these hundreds of people bagged and wore thin, and their eager eyes blanked out. He wondered how many thousands of prisoners could be quartered here, on the counters and floors of the great store. Had anyone figured it out? (Treat 76)

9The underlying coordinates of the protagonist’s mind are still those of the German concentration camp, against which the New York department store is now measured in a strikingly jarring vision. As in Powell’s novel, the consumer society into which crowds of people now invest their energies appears flimsy and frivolous when compared to the harrowing experience which the hero has gone through. As the well-fed shoppers’ bodies shrink into those of prisoners and the spark is snuffed out of their “eager eyes,” we are left with the sense of two irreconcilable realities and with the oblique suggestion that the American city, as symbolized by the department store’s closed space, may constitute a kind of invisible prison of its own.

10The opposition between real and unreal, material and mental images reaches its starkest expression in a novel by John Franklin Bardin, The Last of Philip Banter (1947), a paranoid story of psychic disintegration and manipulation culminating in the murder of the eponymous protagonist. In one of the novel’s most revealing scenes, Banter’s sense that he is going crazy finds a correlative in the tale of a schizophrenic ex-soldier met in a Manhattan bar:

He said the same things over and over again. When he had been in the Pacific, he had tried to dream of home and only rarely had he succeeded—home had been distant, unreal, the blinding sun had stood between him and his dream. He had consoled himself with the thought that the time would come when he would not be able to recall the atoll, and the sun would be eternally vanquished. But this had not happened. Now that he was in the United States, he could not believe that the world he saw and the experiences he had were real. All he had to do at any time was to close his eyes, and he was back on the atoll facing the shimmering, relentless sun. He had convinced himself that his reality lay in his mind’s picture of his past experience, that he was dreaming when he saw New York but not dreaming when he saw the high Pacific sun, that the drinks he was having at the bar—even his conversation with Philip—did not exist. Philip did not try to shake his conviction. On the contrary, every word the obsessed soldier spoke strengthened a conviction of his own that he was no longer able to discriminate between real and mental images. (Bardin 356)

11Although the main character, this time, is not a veteran, he finds himself in tune with the obsessed soldier’s vision. The story’s psychological truth, although it is set in a postwar urban setting, is to be found in the mental make-up of a shell-shocked veteran’s mind, switching back and forth between a busy New York bar and a desert Pacific atoll as he opens and closes his eyes. The blinding sun that overwhelms his mental perceptions—recalling that other blinding sun, which takes control of the protagonist’s mind in Camus’s The Stranger (1942)—symbolizes a sense of radical estrangement, which in turn poses more general questions: isn’t there truth in this madness? Isn’t the veteran right? Isn’t trauma the reality of existence, and isn’t this city we live in, with its shiny new cars, department stores and bars, a dreamlike superstructure? What is the relationship between these two planes of existence? And how do we reconnect the “mental images” and the (supposedly) “real” ones?


12These questions are embedded at the heart of noir fiction, which provides answers to them in narrative form. The disoriented veteran, when he is not, as in the case we’ve just seen, hopelessly seesawing between two radically disconnected realities, may become the subject of two kinds of stories, which reestablish his narrative agency and a continuity between his (wartime) past and his (urban) present.

  • 6 Whereas the first paperbacks were reprints of texts previously published as hardbacks, the “origina (...)

13As we have suggested earlier, the first of these two kinds of stories is the cathartic one of reintegration. As an example, I will consider Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar)’s Blue City (1947). This is only one in a long series of novels in which the returning soldier tackles the hoods that have taken over the city, or captured part of its power structure. Other notable ones include Dale Clark (Ronal Kayser)’s The Red Rods (1946), Thomas McGrath’s This Coffin Has No Handles (written in 1948 but published only in 1988), or John D. MacDonald’s and Harry Whittington’s first novels, The Brass Cupcake and Slay Ride for a Lady (both published in 1950, the year when the “paperback original” industry took off, offering a new venue to emerging writers).6 Blue City tells the story of an ex-GI, Johnny Weather, who comes back to his home town in 1946 after a ten-year absence. He discovers that his father, who used to be the political boss of the city, has been murdered and, an even more unpleasant shock, that he had entered into a partnership with the underworld and let it run the city.

14Rotten fathers and crooked towns are classic tropes of hardboiled fiction, going as far back as Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929). But they are cleverly repurposed by Ross Macdonald, who ties the criminalization of the city to the antidemocratic trends emerging in the Truman years. The process is already implicit in the novel’s opening sentences, with Johnny’s vision of the outskirts of the city:

The city started sooner than I expected it to. In ten years it had crawled out along the highway, covering new farms with the concrete squares of suburban developments. On both sides of the highway I could see the rows of little frame houses, all alike, as if there were only one architect in the city and he had a magnificent obsession. (R. Macdonald 5)

15What we see here are the new suburban extensions of the postwar era, which have replaced the agricultural pastures of a Jeffersonian America with an image of deadly conformity. The counterpart of these new suburbs born out of white flight is the decrepit inner city area, which has gone to seed in the ten years since Johnny went away:

I walked on tree-lined sidewalks beside broad lawns for five or six blocks, cut across a triangle of public park, and abruptly found myself in the slums again. They seemed to form a circular zone which surrounded the heart of the city, as if money that was concentrated in the downtown banks and business houses was thrown outward by centrifugal force, skipping the rundown areas around the centre and enriching the periphery. Now there were no more lawns and no more trees. The massed tenements shouldered into the street and narrowed the sky. A drunk was sleeping noisily in a doorway, and in another a pair of dispossessed lovers possessed what they could of each other against the wall. (98)

  • 7 Like many other postwar crime novels, it also debunks what was to become an enduring myth: that the (...)

16These sharply etched details map the rising social inequalities onto the urban space, whose alternating regions of wealth and decay are reminiscent of Ernest W. Burgess’s concentric zone model of the American city (Park et al. 55), at the same time as they adumbrate the postwar focus on urban “blight.” The narrator’s perception throws into relief the opposition between, on the one hand, the wealthy business center and periphery and, on the other hand, the poor and rundown popular neighborhoods where dispossession is the rule, as the last punning sentence suggests. The social fabric of the prewar city is torn asunder as class and race segregation sets in. In the novel, this dislocation is woven into the city’s takeover by criminals, who have destroyed the workers’ unions and corrupted civic institutions to their own advantage. Thus, the urban crime story is tied both to postwar social change and to the new anti-left politics of the Truman years.7 Conversely, in the hero’s bitter fight against the local underworld, the principles of the global antifascist struggle in which he took part as a soldier are brought back to life. When he confronts the corrupt city boss at the end of the novel, Johnny tells him:

“The trouble is that corruption isn’t something you have a little of. It’s like cancer; inject it into a political organism and it’s bound to spread. It’s almost an axiom that power that has been taken out of the hands of the people is bound to grow progressively more corrupt. […] Some of us did a lot of thinking and talking about those things when we were in the army.” (R. Macdonald 184)

17Macdonald here adapts the “crooked city” trope of noir fiction in order to express the returning veteran’s feelings of anger at the postwar political settlement. In this respect the last sentence is revealing: far from representing GIs (and implicitly himself) as mindless killing machines, Macdonald shows us the birth of political subjects in the barracks and on the battlefields of World War II, with democratic demands about the postwar world. At the end of the novel, when the city is purged of the hoods that had taken it over and Johnny is offered to remain and help rebuild an honest system, with, and for, the people, he concludes by reasserting these democratic expectations, although in a sober form tempered by his recent experience:

I was hardly the man for the job, and I couldn’t do it alone, and you couldn’t build a City of God in the USA in 1946. But something better could be made than an organism with an appetite for human flesh. A city could be built for people to live in. (221)

18Anticipating Allen Ginsberg’s metaphor in Howl, Macdonald’s narrative symbolizes the destructive potential of the postwar American city as a kind of Moloch. But it also charts a tentative path towards reintegration and civic improvement. An outsider targeted by the city’s evil forces at the beginning, the protagonist has, at the end, fought his way back into the community. He is now ready to help rebuild its polity—and perhaps even its decrepit downtown buildings—on the basis of the democratic beliefs that had sustained him throughout the war. His reformist attitude at the end prefigures the ideology of Macdonald’s later novels, whose private eye hero, Lew Archer, would “represent the voice of what would soon be called the liberal elite—the champions of mass higher education, urban renewal, and ‘rights-based’ liberalism that would flower in the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration” (McCann 206).

19Thanks to this conciliatory ideology, and also to his astute elaboration of Raymond Chandler’s literary devices, Macdonald would become one of the few hard-boiled writers appreciated by the liberal intelligentsia in the 1950s and 1960s. But for many others, as the Cold War set in, the gap between wartime hopes and the postwar situation began to yawn ever more widely and the possibility of recreating the just city appeared increasingly remote. Their voices consequently grew increasingly pessimistic—increasingly noir. One can sense this evolution in a few sentences taken from a novel by Jack Ehrlich, Revenge (1958), recording the murder of a WWII veteran who had tried to fight for a decent union upon his return. Making allowances for the fact that the narrator is, in this case, a criminal—but a lucid one—it is worth noticing how, twelve years after Blue City, the narrator’s tone has veered from qualified optimism to unadulterated cynicism:

The guy’s name was Robert West. He was a Silver Star veteran with five kids and convictions. One of his convictions was that his union local should be democratic. That’s a stupid thought, but some of these jerks, who had a general read them a long speech about heroism and fighting for freedom and America, took the guff seriously. They came back from the war with their piece of tin decoration and a letter from a forgotten general and they dreamed of cleaning up their back yards. And then they got bumped off. (101)


20Such unhappy endings lead us to consider the alternative kind of story, that of disintegration. In urban settings, this usually translates as a story of flight into, rather than of fight against, the city. The city is now a maze into which the protagonist escapes, fleeing from a murder scene or a murder rap. It is in this kind of story that we find the dominant paranoid pattern of postwar noir, whose main trope is the man on the run. A rough idea of its importance can be conveyed by citing a few titles at random: He Ran all the Way (Sam Ross); H as in Hunted (Lawrence Treat); Walk in Shadow (Julius Fast); I Can’t Stop Running (Edward Ronns); Run for Your Life (Bruno Fischer); Flight of an Angel (Verne Chute); Man on the Run (Charles Williams); Run, Killer, Run (Lionel White); Run from the Hunter (Keith Grantland, i.e., Charles Beaumont and John Tomerlin); Run, Chico, Run (Wenzell Brown); Runaway Black (Richard Marsten, aka Ed McBain), etc.

21Such stories link the protagonist’s trauma, or post-traumatic stress, and his incrimination. The starting point often has to do with amnesia and manipulation. In some cases, the traumatized soldier is suspected of murder and cannot justify himself, and so takes off and is hunted through the streets of the city. There are numerous examples of such stories, such as Verne Chute’s Flight of an Angel or David Goodis’s Nightfall (a paperback version of which was entitled The Dark Chase), but I would like to look at two specific variations on the theme, in which the hunted man, a veteran or a survivor from the war, is not an innocent man but a killer.

22My first example is Walk in Shadow (1947) by Julius Fast (Howard’s younger brother), an ex-army man who, in 1945, had earned an Edgar Award with his first novel, an antifascist thriller entitled Watchful at Night. Walk in Shadow, published two yars later, tells of the moral suicide of a veteran, Jimmy Forrest, who, having just returned to New York, murders the man who had accidentally killed his best friend. Jimmy is incited to do so by his friend’s widow, with whom he had once been in love, but who abandons him after he has avenged her husband; he ends up by murdering her after a long and desperate flight through the streets of New York. This is an extremely downbeat novel, in which the city becomes a place of utter alienation for the veteran who, in a few hours, turns from a returning hero into a murderer on the run from the police, losing touch not only with the community but with his former self:

A man could hide in this city. A man could lose himself here completely. I had realized that before, but not the completeness with which he could be lost, not the fact that he could be lost from himself, lost from life.
I looked at the street with wide eyes. That could happen too. I was lost from life. I would wander forever with a heavy, glass wall between me and reality, between me and the city and life.
There were people walking past on the steaming street, men and women and children. A little girl was skipping rope a few doors away. I watched her catch her heavy, rubber boots in the rope and stumble and then go running down the street skipping and shouting. I was lost from her, lost from all of them. They might notice me if I intruded into their world, if I spoke to them or touched them, but otherwise they were in a different life. (Fast 143-144)

23At one point, Jimmy sees a child in the street who reminds him of his own childhood during the Depression, and comments: “I could look at him and see myself so long ago that only memory could bridge the gap. There was nothing of that other boy left inside me, nothing of that other world. Somewhere it had rotted and turned bad” (104-105). The veteran’s corrupted soul embodies the wrong turn taken by history and the abrupt souring of wartime ideals in a callous postwar age, which has thoroughly repressed the democratic aspirations it formerly harbored. The mazelike and alienating city, with its “glass wall” behind which Jimmy is now morally and socially “lost,” represents the nightmare of history and the breakup of the connection between past and present. This vision of the city is connected to the specific historical situation of the veteran betrayed by his former community: but from this situation there would soon grow a whole poetics of “disaffiliation” (Rexroth), which would come to characterize noir fiction in general, and paperback originals in particular. This poetics, focusing on underdogs and outsiders, people out of the groove and out of the mainstream, and highlighting existential and social loneliness in the city, finds its fullest expression in David Goodis’s magnificent sequence of crime paperbacks published in the Fawcett Gold Medal series, whose eloquent titles (Street of the Lost, The Moon in the Gutter, Street of No Return, Down There, etc.) conjure up noir’s dominant urbanistic/existential symbol: the dead end. Beneath their representations of lonely, static despair, entrenched in the gutters of inner-city slums, there lie the crushed hopes of a generation of returnees whose political expectations collided with hardening postwar American realities.

24The second example I would like to consider is a little-noted paperback original written by Louis Falstein, Sole Survivor (1954). Falstein, who had served in the air force during the war and earned a purple heart, is best known for his war novel Face of a Hero (1950) which, some critics have argued, may have influenced Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (although Heller always denied the influence). In Sole Survivor, Falstein tells the story of one Antek Prinz, a Jewish survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and of a Nazi extermination camp, who finds refuge in New York after the war. But no sooner has Antek set foot on American ground than he recognizes the face of a man called Hornbostel, who was the Nazi camp’s executioner and had killed his parents and brother. Hornbostel is now living in New York under a false name and working as a florist. As Antek’s attempts to denounce him as a Nazi end in failure, he follows him into a cemetery and kills him. At this point, his mind blanks out; he then starts running, and memories of the Polish resistance and Nazi extermination overlap in his mind with his present New York surroundings:

He started to run. He fell, got up and ran again. He had to get out of here. He had to get out of the forest. The enemy was closing in on him, and his brother was nowhere to help him. But they weren’t going to take him alive. It seemed to him he saw his brother, with that long sweeping motion and a fiery curse, tossing a hand grenade at a Nazi tank. And he thought, too, he saw the expressions of agony on the faces of his parents as Hornbostel was taking them on their last march, and he remembered how, after a while, he watched the smoke coming out of the gas oven chimney, wondering which particles or curls represented his parents. (73)

25Such a passage shows the critical value that the trope of flight can assume. While the character runs in the dark, the city acquires a kind of spectral quality, similar to that observed in Treat’s H as in Hunted. It becomes transparent, glasslike, and the nightmares of history are projected onto its surface as on a screen. The Warsaw ghetto and the extermination camp do not lie years back in the past but just under the surface of New York City, a lurking presence of which only Antek Prinz is aware and which everyone else denies. In the novel’s closing lines, the narrator calls society’s attention to the horrors it refuses to confront, as the sick protagonist awaits his trial, hoping he will live long enough to deliver his testimony:

And if he died now, before the trial, a vast silence would descend upon the earth and never again, he felt, would anyone prick the conscience of the human race with tales of a bloody and shameful past it was determined to forget. He was the last messenger, the final skeleton who had by some miracle escaped the crematoria and grave, to stand briefly as the conscience of mankind. (Falstein 174)

26It is remarkable that these last words should be of such serious, universal intent, rising through the cultural ceiling and supposedly conventional rhetoric of a paperback thriller produced by and for a mass market. But this kind of book forces us precisely to revise our preconceptions about mass market paperbacks and to realize that they were—or could, in some instances, be—the very medium through which returning veterans might prick society’s slumbering conscience. And until this conscience awakens, the novel suggests, the f(l)ight must go on.


27The veterans’ return after World War II marks a watershed in the history of American hardboiled/noir fiction. At a time when the paperback industry was opening democratic vistas in the literary landscape, many ex-servicemen seized on the possibilities offered by the new popular medium to invent a different, more autobiographical kind of crime story, dramatizing the collision between their wartime aspirations, emotions, energies or traumas and the indifferent or hostile responses of a changed society. If 1930s Depression literature was very much about homelessness, 1940s and 1950s noir fiction, which can partly be seen as its dialectical continuation, stages an endlessly delayed and problematic homecoming, highlighting the difficulty of imagining a renewed citizenship under postwar conditions.

28Instead of showing men and women quietly reverting to their former urban environments, it offers violently disruptive stories of cleanups and frameups, fights and flights, in the course of which the historical link to the past is broken and the present’s nightmarish potential is released. The city then appears, among other things, as a vapid consumers’ paradise, an invisible prison, a flesh-eating monster, a maze where a lonely man is hunted down, a glass wall that cuts him off from reality or, as in Lawrence Treat’s and Louis Falstein’s novels, a palimpsest covering up Nazi horrors. In all such instances, the mean streets of noir fiction appear as anything but a conventional setting. They constitute an intensely personal and political territory, across which men returning from the war try to imagine the long way home.

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BARDIN, John Franklin. The Last of Philip Banter. 1947. The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

BOORSTIN, Daniel Joseph. The Americans: The Democratic Experience. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

BROWN, Wenzell. Run, Chico, Run. New York: Gold Medal, 1953.

BRUCCOLI, Matthew Joseph. “Afterword: Raymond Chandler and Hollywood.” Raymond Chandler. The Blue Dahlia: A Screenplay. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1976.

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1 The rise of the paperback industry was itself boosted by the reading demands of servicemen and women during World War II. These demands, as Paula Rabinowitz remarks, were nurtured by the US government’s desire “to develop the kinds of citizenry necessary for postwar American hegemony” (Rabinowitz 109). As she explains, “[t]he Council on Books in Wartime organized to promote books as essential tools of a democratic nation through a variety of programs. The lightweight books they invented, printed on catalog and pulp magazine rotogravure presses, formed the basis of both the paperback industry’s postwar explosion and the government’s ongoing effort to improve the health, training, and literacy of dratfees and enlistees, many of whom entered the service malnourished, poorly educated, and unemployed, escaping destroyed farms and cities devastated by the Depression” (110). On this topic, see also Hench (2010).

2 Though the corpus I am addressing in this article is produced by male writers, some women also tackled similar subjects, particularly Dorothy B. Hughes in her deservedly famous In a Lonely Place (1947), one of the first novels dealing with the then-sensitive topic of a WWII veteran who turns into a serial killer, raping and strangling lonely women in Los Angeles.

3 See, for example, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds (2012) and Willy Vlautin’s The Free, (2014), two powerful recent novels dealing with emotionally or physically wrecked Iraq War veterans. An even more recent novel, Chris Offut’s Country Dark (2018), roots its protagonist’s adventures in his return from the Korean War.

4 As Howard Zinn notes, World War II was “the most popular war the United States had ever fought […]: 18 million served in the armed forces, 10 million overseas; 25 million workers gave of their pay envelope regularly for war bonds” (Zinn 406).

5 Thus Let There Be Light (US Army Pictorial Services, 1946), John Huston’s documentary on World War II veterans suffering from PTSD, was banned by the American government for over thirty years. Similarly, Raymond Chandler’s script for the 1946 noir film The Blue Dahlia (Paramount, George Marshall), in which the original murderer was a traumatized veteran, had to be amended, as “the Navy Department ruled that […] a wounded hero could not be a murderer. Bad for morale; disrespect for the service” (Bruccoli 132).

6 Whereas the first paperbacks were reprints of texts previously published as hardbacks, the “originals” were commissioned by the publishers directly for the paperback market. They were launched in 1950, contributing to the collapse of pulp magazines. On this topic, see, for example, Server 12 ff.

7 Like many other postwar crime novels, it also debunks what was to become an enduring myth: that the “good war” had strengthened the labor movement’s power. This myth was later attacked by Nelson Lichtenstein’s revionist history Labor’s War at Home (1982). On this topic, see also Gerstle.

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Benoît Tadié, « Unreal Cities: the Veterans’ Homecoming and the Fate of Postwar Noir »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2022, consulté le 13 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Benoît Tadié

Université Rennes 2

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