“What a succession of double-crosses had led up to all this […] Double-cross on double-cross. So many of them piled on top of each other. Double-cross on double-cross until the jumble became a big crisscross.”
It’s been said that there are only three motives for murder: love, money, or revenge. Some crimes are caused by all three. Johnny Thompson is a down-on-his-luck former boxer, trying to support his mother and brother by working as an armored car driver. Since they were kids, Johnny has loved Anna. Anna likes Johnny, but what she really loves is money. So she marries Slim, who always has plenty of dough and isn’t too particular about where he gets it.
Then Johnny sees a chance of getting everything he’s ever dreamed of. It’s not moral, and it’s not legal, but a smart guy like him could get away with it. Johnny thinks he knows all the angles. By the time he realizes what kind of game he’s really playing, he’s already in way over his head.
Be careful what you wish for, because you may get it. Criss-Cross is the hardboiled tale of boxers, prostitutes, and petty criminals trying to get by in a working-class area of Baltimore. At the center of this tough story, however, is a raw, bleeding heart. Johnny’s yearning for Anna colors every aspect of his life, eventually leading him down a very dark road. In a world of crime and violence, love may be the deadliest weapon of all.
From the beginning, Johnny knows that Anna is no good. She’s happy to go out with him when he has the money to show her a good time, but during the Depression, those moments are few and far between. When Johnny can’t afford to take her out and asks if they can simply spend an evening at home together, she laughs in his face. “I must have had it bad, you see, knowing she was only playing me for a good thing and still letting her get away with it.” Even as he becomes more disillusioned with Anna, Johnny’s love for her never wavers. It’s like an addiction. He spends most of his time trying not to think about her, trying to keep away from her, only to be drawn back into her orbit by forces beyond his control.
I put on my blue suit and began walking around town, trying to find something to do that would keep me away from Anna. I walked around in a circle that kept getting narrower and narrower until it was just around the block in which Anna’s apartment was. And then I began to tremble and I walked fast and straight to the doorway of her place.
It soon becomes clear to Johnny that Anna will never feel the same way about him as he does for her. By then, it no longer matters. His obsession has taken over. He is determined to win Anna by any means necessary, though “it isn’t easy to accept a bum imitation of something you’ve wanted a long time. But I was going to have everything she could give anybody. I was going to pay for it, but I was going to have it.”
Johnny’s chance comes from an ironic source: Anna’s husband, Slim Dundee. Slim is planning to rob an armored car, and he needs an inside man. Johnny is reluctant to work with a man he can’t trust, unsure of what Slim knows about his relationship with Anna.
I was afraid of him. I knew it and I knew he was the first man in my life I’d ever been afraid of. When you’re afraid of a man, he doesn’t have to be a better fighter than you. You beat yourself.
Despite his misgivings, Johnny decides it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. However, what should be a straightforward crime becomes tangled in a series of betrayals and misunderstandings, with shocking results.
Criss-Cross is the terse story of a man who thinks he understands the worst about human nature (his own and others), only to learn that he still isn’t aiming low enough. Though he’s still very young, Johnny has been knocking around for a long time. One of the book’s pleasures is its matter-of-fact portrayal of a rough neighborhood in which the “respectable” poor like Johnny’s family are brought into constant contact with criminals, slowly eroding their values. (You know your protagonist is living in a noir world when the nice girl who really loves him is a prostitute.) In such an environment, it’s difficult to know who’s straight and who’s crooked. Johnny thinks he knows the score, but, as he gets in deeper and deeper, his story takes some unexpected turns. The deceptively simple first-person narration sounds objective, lulling the reader into accepting Johnny’s version of events. Only later does it become clear that there’s more to Johnny than he’s letting on—perhaps even more than he’s aware of himself.
The simplicity of the prose makes Johnny’s naked longing all the more powerful by forcing him to express the most profound feelings in the starkest possible terms, boiling them down to their basic essence. Sometimes there is nothing more tragic than a simple statement of fact.
She was always saying “I love you” now. When we were together, she’d say it over and over again. It would have been fine, if I hadn’t always the idea that she was trying to convince me of something that wasn’t true. Like a kid repeating a lie over and over again, hoping that if it was repeated enough times it would be true. I knew Anna didn’t love me, and the sound of her voice saying “I love you” all the time got to be almost as bad as the times she had laughed at me when I asked her to love me.
The characters all remain a little sketchy, leaving the reader to fill in the details. We are as much in the dark as Johnny is, unsure who can be trusted—if anyone.
Criss-Cross opens with a dossier, Johnny’s employee file from the armored car company. Here are the facts, Don Tracy seems to be saying, and now here’s the truth, the real story of Johnny Thompson. It’s a short and brutal one that sometimes goes in a very different direction than he (or the reader) expects. In the end, the tragedy of Johnny is that he may be the person least capable of understanding his own story.
This is a neat little noir, told in the flat, objective style that was coming on strong in the ’30s. If you’ve only seen the movie, you might want to check it out.
Tracy may not have been James M. Cain, but judging by this novel, he wasn’t all that terribly far behind. Honestly, if someone new to the world of classic hardboiled fiction asked me for a good example of such a book, I would be perfectly comfortable pointing them in the direction of Criss-Cross.
Well written and sharp. I really enjoyed the novel and it’s atmosphere of the struggling times of 1930s Baltimore.
Criss-Cross (also published as The Cheat) is out of print, with used copies available. The 1949 film version, starring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo, is highly recommended.