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April Noir Book Of The Month Club: ‘The Fallen Sparrow’

Convoluted book, entertaining film

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Duell, Sloan and Pearce

Dust jacket for Dorothy B. Hughes' novel "The Fallen Sparrow."

Noir reading list

May: "Double Indemnity" by James M. Cain and "Farewell My Lovely" (filmed as "Murder My Sweet" by Raymond Chandler

June: "Fallen Angel" by Marty {Mary} Holland

July: "The Postman Always Rings Twice" by James M. Cain

August: "Build My Gallows High" (filmed as "Out of the Past") by Geoffrey Homes

September: "Pitfall" by Jay Dratler

October: "Gun Crazy: The Birth of Outlaw Cinema" by Eddie Muller

November: "The Big Heat" by William McGivern

December: "Badge of Evil" (filmed as "Touch of Evil") by Whit Masterson

Guest blogger D.A. Kolodenko tackles Dorothy B. Hughes' "The Fallen Sparrow" as the April Noir Book of the Month Club selection.

It’s fitting that we follow Graham Greene’s "A Gun for Sale" with "The Fallen Sparrow" by Dorothy B. Hughes (born Dorothy Belle Flanagan). Although Greene’s book was written nearly a decade earlier, Hughes’ novel was published the same year (1942) as the release of "This Gun For Hire" — the film based on Greene’s novel — and the film version of "The Fallen Sparrow" that we’ll see on April 8 came out the following year. Moreover, Hughes cited Greene as an influence, which can be discerned in the continental flavor of Hughes’ prose in "The Fallen Sparrow." You’d be forgiven after reading it to think that Hughes hailed from London rather than Kansas City, Missouri.

Dorothy’s Not In Kansas City Anymore

Also like Greene, Hughes got her professional start as a journalist. She received a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, did graduate work at the University of New Mexico and Columbia University in New York, and worked as a journalist in all three of those states. She published a book of poetry in 1931, which won the Yale young poets competition, and an early history of the University of New Mexico. However, before her first suspense story "The So Blue Marble" was published in 1940 she was already 36, married to the man from whom she’d take her last name, the mother of three kids, and had had several manuscripts rejected by publishers. "The Fallen Sparrow" was the fourth novel of her prolific period: a series of eleven novels published in just seven years, ten of them in the crime genre. Who doesn’t love stories of successful writers’ early struggles and rejections? There’s hope for us all.

Hughes is best known for the few of those novels that were made into films noir, primarily "In a Lonely Place" (1947). The independently produced 1950 film version directed by Nicholas Ray was a Humphrey Bogart vehicle about an ill-tempered, down-on-his-luck Hollywood screenwriter who falls for his bungalow-court neighbor, a struggling actress played by Gloria Graham. Hard to go wrong with those leads. But the book is a more noirish affair, with Hughes’ third-person limited omniscient perspective turning over rocks in the swamp at the bottom of the twisted and predatory mind of the untrustworthy narrator. Megan Abbott’s excellent piece on Hughes’ "In a Lonely Place" for the Paris Review deftly reveals how the novel subverts the femme fatale trope by exposing the narrator as an homme fatale, and the women he pursues as the “detectives” who take down the criminal.

A notable parallel between the feminist — though according to Sarah Weinman in the LA Review of Books Hughes would’ve balked at the term — underpinnings of "In a Lonely Place" and "The Fallen Sparrow" is that both center around mentally troubled men whose suspicions of ostensible femme fatales are undermined. Without giving away too much: even the most implicated potential fatale in "Sparrow" harbors a motive that subverts the protagonist’s and the reader's expectations, shaped as they are by crime narrative conventions.

Not Hardboiled, But Overboiled

Sorry to say "The Fallen Sparrow" isn’t as good as "In a Lonely Place." In fact, it’s a maddeningly dense and ultimately unconvincing hodge-podge of period tropes. Make a list of them and they read like the makings of a satire of one of Cornell Woolrich’s surreal, compelling nightmares: A once idealistic hero who fought in the Spanish Civil War, suffering from PTSD from his torture in captivity, escapes to eventually land back in his hometown of New York City where he hunts the killers of his friend. There is defenestration, a sinister limping evil mastermind, nazi spies, a weird MacGuffin of golden goblets, music that triggers murders, grieving ethnic Italian stereotypes, cops that alternate between playing weird tricks on the protagonist and letting him do whatever he wants (depending on plot needs). And of course the most beautiful women in the world: a mysterious French aristocrat who works in a hat shop, a high-society ex-girlfriend with a refugee fetish, and an ingénue nightclub vocalist with a heart of gold.

In spite of the story’s general lack of correspondence to reality, all this stuff might sound like fun. It does have its moments. There's the prologue’s descriptions of hero Kit McKittrick’s miserable thoughts in prison. There's the interesting tension between Kit and the singer, Content, who compels him to fight on while provocatively exercising in front of him, and some of the threads of the mystery as they unravel, like Kit’s confrontations with Nazis in New York.

But it takes so much exposition, so much repetitive, melodramatic dialogue, and so many preposterous situations to reach the conclusions you can already see coming, with only a few exceptions, that you know this is not the novel that gave Hughes the reputation as a hardboiled writer.

Take a look at this random sample paragraph:

“The abstract truth of beauty had not died because he had wanted to live. The leader didn’t get the cups. He would never get the cups. By now it was neither a matter of ideal nor of existence. It was hate. Cold stone hate. He could hate as the barbarian and his worshippers. He could retaliate as they. The little man who had deified himself until the thwarting of his least wish was, to himself, as sacrilege, could pout and scream and rant and be sucked across the borderline of sanity in impotent rage; he’d never lay eyes nor obscene fingers on the Babylon goblets.”

There’s so much overwriting in "The Fallen Sparrow," you’d likely have to read it twice to sort it all out, but you’re probably better off checking out a superior Hughes effort like "In a Lonely Place" or "Ride the Pink Horse." If you’re reading along and had a different experience with this one, I’d love to hear from you.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: RKO Pictures

John Garfield and Maureen O'Hara star in the film adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes' novel "The Fallen Sparrow," which screens on Apr. 8 at 1:00 p.m. at Digital Gym Cinema as part of the Noir on the Boulevard film series.

The Film’s Better (And So Are Next Month’s Novels)

Most of the extraneousness of "The Fallen Sparrow," however, was stripped for the film’s screenplay, leaving the basic plot structure and some directly lifted scenes and dialogue. The film also benefits from the casting of the very effective John Garfield as the troubled protagonist. Director Edgar Wallace’s use of cinematography, lighting, and sound design represent a fine early example of the signature RKO Pictures' moodiness that helped define noir after the war—the haunting cinematic oneirism externalizes the protagonist’s mental anguish. Though it’s saddled with the same story as the novel, the film’s direction, acting, and mise en scène elevate it to something quite noir for 1943. I’ve only ever seen a poor print of this dubbed from an ancient TV screening on archive.org, so I’m looking forward to finally seeing the crisp Warner archives release of this with you on Sunday, Apr. 8.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Vintage

The cover for the James M. Cain novel "Double Indemnity.

Then it’s the moody month of May and time to bring on our James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler double feature. I’ve already started my re-reading of "Double Indemnity," and although Cain’s novel was written a year before "The Fallen Sparrow," it feels stunningly modern by comparison, with its abrupt energy, plain-spokenness, and keen observations. If I could convince you to read only one novel in our series, this is the one I’d recommend. The pages turn themselves. Here are the first few sentences to give you a taste:

“I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers. It didn’t look like a House of Death when I saw it.”

Now we’re talking noir.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: D.A. Kolodenko

Guest blogger D.A. Kolodenko.

D.A. Kolodenko: Musician. Waiter. Warehouse worker. Print shop manager. College professor. Lecturer. Columnist. Journalist. Editor. Science writer. Advertising copywriter. These are some of the things I’ve been. Detective. Hitman. Embezzler. Boxer. Prison inmate. Fugitive who escapes by running into a tunnel or climbing up something. These are some of the things that the books and movies I like have taught me to avoid being.

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