High Sierra, though generally acknowledged to be one of America’s great gangster books, seems to have fallen through the cracks. It doesn’t have the following of lesser crime books. Maybe that’s because its style is realistic rather than naturalistic. Reading the book is thus not a guilty pleasure. W. R. Burnett (1899-1982) wrote three-dozen other novels and many screenplays during a forty-year career. His most famous book was the ground-breaking Little Caesar (1929).
High Sierra by W. R. Burnett. Knopf (1940), 292 pp.
Roy Earle, last of the Dillinger gang, is sprung from a Midwest prison to supervise a hotel robbery in the California resort of Tropico Springs. On his drive west he meets some folks who remind him of his rural past -- an elderly farm couple, Ma and Pa Goodhue, and their pretty but clubfooted granddaughter Velma. When Roy gets to his mountian hideout, he finds his would-be accomplices, Red and Babe, are lacking in criminal experience. Worse yet, they’re ready to fight over Babe’s girlfriend Marie, who is unexpectedly accompanying them. Roy begins to have doubts that the robbery will come off as planned.
Roy Earle is a tough guy, but this is not your basic tough-guy story. Roy is a well-rounded character. He is nostalgic for the days of his youth, takes a genuine liking to women, and has ideas about crime and society. His moral code is well developed, though not quite traditional. He avoids unnecessary violence. Roy may be a hardened criminal, but he’s not that different from the rest of us. The book’s other characters seem like real people as well. The plot is pure (and by this time familiar) melodrama. It maintains tension because readers know the general outline of what is going to happen but not the details. The book is surprisingly compelling and deserves a larger audience than it seems to have.