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Asphalt Jungle [Secure eReader]
eBook by W. R. Burnett

eBook Category: Classic Literature
eBook Description: The perfect crime goes awry in W.R. Burnett's tough and brutally wise 1949 novel The Asphalt Jungle, and the problem is, in the end, human nature. Told in 40 short, blunt but richly atmospheric chapters, the novel meticulously details the planning and execution of a major jewel heist. The robbery is devised by Doc Reimenschneider, a master criminal just out of prison. It requires the involvement of a variety of different people, from the muscle--an itinerant hood named Dix, an overgrown country boy lost in the city--to the fence, a successful but sleazy lawyer named Alonzo Emmerich. The ever-growing cast of characters in this can't-miss scheme will ultimately be its downfall, though, in an atmosphere where suspicion and double-cross destroy the pipe dreams of each of the participants. Burnett wrote the kind of crime novels that would be described, in current Hollywood parlance, as "character-driven." What is ultimately fascinating about The Asphalt Jungle isn't the heist or the planning of it, but the people involved, how and why they are brought to this point, and what the chemistry of the situation does to them. The point of view changes throughout the novel, and not just within the gang of conspirators. There are also an honest but embattled police commissioner, attempting to enforce the law (on both sides of it), and a cynical reporter named Farbstein. "Like Diogenes he'd been looking for an honest man for a long time," Burnett writes of Farbstein, "and he had begun to feel that the flame in his lantern would splutter out before he found him." The Asphalt Jungle finds its "honest man" in Dix, a petty crook who, in his own way, is as decent as the "good guys," the commissioner and the reporter. A man who always seems angrily out of his element, Dix longs to leave the rat race of the city and return to the idealized country setting of his childhood. He thinks the jewel heist might make his dream possible. In spite of what happens, he comes close--painfully, wistfully, with punishing irony.

eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2002

Chapter 1

Lou Farbstein, middle-aged but still referred to as the bright boy of the World (and bright boy he had actually been twenty years back), neither liked nor disliked Police Commissioner Theo. J. Hardy, the new power in the city. He regarded him as a rather weird phenomenon, wrote about him often with curious impartiality, and greatly influenced the opinion of the press generally by his sharp but fair pronouncements. Much of what he wrote stuck. For instance, when he referred to the Commissioner as a "Harold Ickes type character," the other reporters realized at once the aptness of the phrase and began to make an exception of the sharp-featured, countrified ex-judge when they wrote their frequent excoriations of the corrupt gentry managing the now shaky City Administration. Owing to Farbstein's clarifying phrase, they perceived that Hardy was honest, able, hard-working, and with plenty of guts; they also saw that he was extremely irritable, a little vindictive, and at times -- ridiculous.

For some weeks after Hardy had taken over, the reporters had considered him a mere front -- a lay figure, humdrum and respectable, behind which the thieves and connivers of the City Hall intended to continue to carry on their denounced malfeasance. Now they knew better. Hardy was the City Administration's one hope, and the politicians stood trembling in the background. If Hardy could not save them, they would all be voted out at the next city election, their enemies and ill-wishers would be in power, and they themselves would be in danger of indictment and conviction, or at least public disgrace.

Bulley, the Mayor, had gradually faded into insignificance. Curtis, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, was on a highly publicized vacation in California, taking a "well-earned rest," as Farbstein wrote in the World, bringing appreciative snickers from those who were in the know. And Dolph Franc, the formidable Chief of Police, was all smiles and sweetness, in contrast to his former cynical ill-humor, and in public kept referring to Commissioner Hardy as "my great little boss."

Nevertheless, the newspapers continued attacking the Administration with non-partisan unanimity -- especially the Police Department -- and Hardy, no longer able to ignore the blasts and now thoroughly aroused, had sent out invitations to a press conference, to be held at night in his battered and dingy office in the Old City Building.

The reporters sat around smoking their own cigarettes and grumbling. What kind of a lousy conference was this? No free liquor. Not even common courtesy. The harness-bull secretary in the outer office had looked at them as if they were a group about to be shoved into the show-up line.

Only Farbstein was unperturbed. Like Diogenes, he'd been looking for an honest man for a long time, and he had begun to feel that the flame in his lantern would sputter out before he found him. But, though the flame had shortened almost to nothing, here he was at last. Hardy! It wasn't necessary to like him. In fact, it was impossible. But you could respect him, and to Farbstein -- at this juncture in his life -- that was everything.

He sat listening calmly while the men about him yapped and raved. In spite of all their exterior toughness and cynicism, they were good solid guys, fathers and tax-payers. They'd see the light in all its unaccustomed brightness soon.

A sudden silence fell when the Commissioner walked in. It was a cold night and he was wearing a heavy ulster, old-fashioned rubbers, and a battered, sweat-stained hat, pulled down almost to his eyes.

He did not flash a politician smile on them, or shake hands all around, or get out the cigars and the whisky, or make some touching reference to his poor wife waiting at home or to his charming, and politically valuable, little grandson. He merely pulled off his hat, sat down at his desk still wearing his overcoat, and stared at them hard with his cold, inquisitorial gray eyes. They could see he was sore as hell and hated their guts. It was refreshing.

After a moment, without preliminaries, he began to make a speech.

"I've called you here," he said, "not to soft-soap you and tell you what smart and wonderful guys you are -- you hear enough of that, I think. Neither am I going to ask you to lay off. I'm just going to tell you the facts of life and then leave it up to you.

"You say the Police Department is corrupt. You say the bunco squad works with the con men. You say the police are taking a fortune from syndicated prostitution -- and rousting around and making their arrest records from the unsyndicated and lone-wolf prostitutes. You say the racket squad allows big-time racketmen to live here for a consideration, and then kicks around and persecutes the little local boys. You say in spite of the laws that bookies are operating all over the place and that a lot of police officers are getting rich on protection money...

"Shall I go on?"

Hardy glanced about him sharply, his thin lips set in a harsh line. Nobody said anything.

"All right. I guess that's enough for a starter. Now first I want to say this. I'm not denying that corruption exists in the Police Department. In fact, there is quite a lot of it -- more than I can run down and punish in a few months. But there are also many honest men on the force, high and low, and you're making it mighty tough for them to hold their heads up. According to you, every man in a city police uniform is a louse and a stench in the nostrils of you high-minded, blameless, extremely honest gentleman of the press."

There was considerable squirming in the Commissioner's office, and Farbstein smiled to himself.

"What is your basis for comparison?" Hardy demanded. "Name something that has no corruption in it."

"Mother's love," said Hillis of the Sun, and there was a brief titter.

"I deny that emphatically," said Farbstein. "Ever hear of a character called Freud?"

"I'm not going to labor the point," said Hardy. "But you men are criticizing the Police Department as if it alone, in a pure world, suffered from corruption. All human institutions are fallible -- even the newspaper business, I'm afraid, hard as that may be for you crusading gentlemen to believe. All attacks and crusades of this kind are alike in the way I'm speaking about -- the basis for comparison. The prize-fighting game is lousy and crooked -- one of your favorite crusades. But in comparison with what?"

"Commissioner Hardy," said Kelso of the Examiner, "this sounds to me like sophistry, and I didn't expect it from you."

Hardy laughed shortly.

"Poaching on your preserves, eh? Well, be patient with me. I've got a point to make."

Hardy took out a stogie-type cigar, lit it, and puffed thoughtfully on it. An acrid odor of burning weeds made the newspapermen grimace and draw back from the Commissioner.

There was a long silence, then without another word the Commissioner leaned forward and switched on the special radio on his desk. In a moment, police calls began to pour into the little office without cessation -- police calls from all corners of the huge, sprawling metropolitan area.

The reporters listened in silence, shifting about uneasily as the calls continued to come in, one after another, overlapping -- from Camden Square, from Leamington, Italian Hill, Polishtown, South River, even from the great suburban areas where the tame and respectable people lived -- hundreds of calls of all descriptions, a sordid, appalling, relentless stream.

"I assume, gentlemen," said Hardy, "that, being newspapermen, you know the codes. But in case some of you don't... I'll translate for a moment." Then he picked up the calls as they came in: A drunk lying in the gutter. Another drunk -- disorderly. An attempted attack -- foiled. A market robbery. Another drunk. A three-car accident, calling for a police ambulance. Drunk. A domestic quarrel -- man cut with a butcher knife. A stolen car. An attempted attack -- girl injured, ambulance needed. Store robbery -- one suspect caught. A drunken brawl at a dance hall. Two drunks. A hit-and-run victim -- little boy. Two-car accident -- one car over an embankment. A traffic jam on the Parkway -- big fight, riot call. A drunk. Another drunk -- trying to enter house. Attack reported by girl thrown out of car. Drunk... Another drunk. Suspicious character -- probably peeping Tom. Drunk... drunk...

Hardy's voice trailed off, but the calls went on and on and on until some of the reporters were standing, leaning on the Commissioner's desk, so they could hear better. Farbstein smoked in peace, smiling to himself, scarcely listening.

The Commissioner left the radio on for so long that finally Hillis, wincing a little, asked him to turn it off, which he did with a shrug a short while later.

"And all this proves?" asked Hillis, who knew damned well what it proved.

"It seems obvious," said Hardy. "The Police Department has many problems. Its activity, as I think even you gentlemen will admit, is not confined to shaking down prostitutes or taking graft from gambling. It is performing a public service, and doing damned well at it. You listened to the calls for maybe twenty minutes, say half an hour. They go round the clock, day after day after day, including Sundays and holidays."

Hillis, argumentative by nature, could think of nothing to say, but merely compressed his lips and pulled out a cigarette.

"I'm all through now, gentlemen -- except for this," Hardy went on. "You heard the calls and are able to make your own deductions. But I don't think they will be as radical as mine. The worst police force in the world is better than no police force. And ours is far from the worst -- no matter what you may believe. Take the police off the streets for forty-eight hours, and nobody would be safe, neither on the street, nor in his place of business, nor in his home. There wouldn't be an easy moment for women or children. We'd be back in the jungle...

"All I ask is, give these facts a little thought before you write your next article damning and undermining the Police Department."

The reporters were dismissed, and filed out thoughtfully to the nearest bar -- that is, all but Farbstein. He hurried home to his flat in an apartment building halfway up a steep slope in Leamington, and in spite of the protests of his harried wife, he locked himself in his room to write what turned out to be a much-praised and widely quoted article, which was featured on the editorial page of the World, dealing with the intricate workings of, and the dangers faced by, the Police Department, with a bow here and there to Commissioner Hardy, who had succeeded in giving Farbstein a new perspective on the city where he'd spent most of his forty-five years.

He even feared it a little now and felt it to be somewhat sinister as he stood looking down on it from a view window in his Clothes closet of a workroom.

Copyright © 1949 by W. R. Burnett

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