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As in most of Burnett´s novels, High Sierra ostensibly describes a carefully plotted crime that is undermined by human nature. More interesting and important, perhaps, is its study of Roy Earle, who hardly seems the "Mad Dog" he is made out to be in the press. Pardoned from prison, he idealizes his childhood as he wearily makes his way across the California desert to meet up with two hoods named Red and Babe. Earle is dismayed to find they have with them a tough and brazen woman named Marie, though he begins to warm to her crude charm. He has been moved by the plight of a physically impaired woman he meets, Velma Goodhue, and he resolves to help her - imagining, somehow, that she will be his. After a holdup he plans with Red, Babe and Marie (who has now fallen in love with him), Earle takes money to Velma for an operation to repair her clubfoot. But the holdup has disastrous results. Red and Babe are killed, and Roy goes on the lam with Marie. They have nowhere to turn and even Velma deserts him. Earle sends Marie away, to meet him eventually in a mountain pass in the High Sierras - a rendezvous high in the sky that will not take place as planned.
Much happens plotwise in High Sierra but it is Roy Earle who holds our interest. As remorseless as the book is - the concluding chapter consists a few lacerating paragraphs of post-mortem chitchat from the police - it makes Earle a rich and deeply compelling man, without sentimentalizing him at all. Reading High Sierra is close to the experience of reading James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, a tough, bleak and unforgiving narrative that works a dark and elusive magic.