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Crime fiction fans use authors’ names as passwords. This serves multiple functions. Leading with the right name establishes the speaker’s own street cred, challenges the respondent’s street cred, and weeds out the dilettantes. (Upon hearing the name of an obscure writer, the proper response is to praise an obscure work from said author’s bibliography, in hopes of out-obscuring the speaker.) More usefully, the authors of the genre’s canonical texts serve as a kind of shorthand for all the writers who have worked in similar styles.
Sometimes the passwords aren’t that good. There’s a point at which the desire to prove one’s expertise overlooks the obvious: not every forgotten writer is worth remembering. But there are writers whose works have been periodically reprinted despite declining sales and whose names remain in constant circulation among the cognoscenti.
Fans of the roman noir, crime fiction’s most romanticized but perhaps least-practiced subgenre, lead with Jim Thompson, Charles Williams, Cornell Woolrich—and David Goodis. And nobody who needed cheering up ever called these guys.
Noir fans are naturally drawn to writers whose lives were as dark as their characters’. If you don’t like happy endings, are you going to trust a happy author to deliver the goods? And the works of Goodis are given an extra spark of authenticity because of the author’s close association with down-and-outers.
Born in Philadelphia in 1917, Goodis had literary ambitions. However, his first novel, Retreat from Oblivion (1939), was received indifferently, and his other efforts like it never even saw print. He turned to pulp fiction with more success, churning out as many as 10,000 words a day in a variety of genres. His first crime novel, Dark Passage (1946), was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, leading to both a big-screen version (starring Bogart and Bacall) and a screenwriting career.
But Goodis never felt at home in Hollywood, and in 1950, he moved back in with his parents. During this period, he produced the paperback originals that form his claim to fame today (including Down There, 1956, which François Truffaut later filmed as Shoot the Piano Player), but Goodis—who had once specialized in tales of dogfights and aerial warfare—was in a nosedive he couldn’t correct.
Today, many literary writers covet crime-fiction success; back then, the genre still carried the stigma of hackdom. Goodis couldn’t reconcile himself to his career. Depressed, he drank more and wrote less. He became a habitué of docks and dives. Eventually he drank himself to death, dying in 1967 at the age of 49.
Like that of every writer who was paid by the word, the quality of Goodis’ work varies. But his literary aspirations, his firsthand encounters with two-time losers, and his unique psychological makeup guarantee that, even when the plotting or pacing are lazy or haphazard, the result is never routine.
Three new reprints of Goodis novels provide a fascinating look at the author’s career. Nightfall (1947) was published shortly after his success with Dark Passage. The story of an unlikely sap who crosses paths with a gang fleeing a bank robbery, it’s told in flashback with an amnesia gimmick: everyone thinks the hero knows where the money is, and he honestly can’t remember.
While the psychological angle recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and the era’s obsession with psychoanalysis, there are touches that make this novel stand out from its contemporaries. Some passages recall the conventional hard-boiled novels of the time (“He studied her eyes as though they were rough diamonds and he was about to operate”), but others, depicting the protagonist’s psychological torment, hint at a style that would later develop more fully.
Street of No Return (1954) is the most compelling of the three, offering a surprising protagonist negotiating a nightmarishly vivid environment. The book opens with Whitey, a skid-row bum, commiserating with two of his fellows about their lack of booze—an almost Beckettian scene, as Robert Polito points out in the introduction—and then all hell breaks loose.
Whitey wasn’t always a bum, of course, and his tale of ruin is tied to the race riots that are consuming the neighborhood around him. In one exhausting night, he is hunted for a cop killing, stunned by the reappearance of a lost love, and credited with stopping the race riots—all without getting the girl.
The Wounded and the Slain (1955) features a burned-out stockbroker on vacation in Jamaica—maybe a more salable scenario—but with a typically Goodis twist. The wife is frigid, the husband is considering suicide, and, well, let’s let the jacket copy summarize this one: “But in the slums of Kingston James found himself fighting for his life—while Cora found her own path to destruction, in the arms of another man.”
Maybe the draw of the tortured pulp writer is that, despite some level of inconsistency, the writer’s humanity peeks through. The pro’s pros—from Ed McBain and John D. MacDonald to Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake—who deliver the goods without the angst, tend to gravitate toward hard-boiled or mystery fiction. But with writers like Goodis—who found themselves in the dark world of noir—it’s as if their tortured psyches are barely contained by the page.
And for readers drawn to tales about misfits fighting losing battles in the cracks of society, it’s just the thing.
Goodis, David. Nightfall. 2007 (1947). Millipede, paper, $14 (1-933618-17-5).
Goodis, David. Street of No Return. 2007 (1954). Millipede, paper, $14 (1-933618-22-1).
Goodis, David. The Wounded and the Slain. 2007 (1955). Hard Case Crime, paper, $6.99 (0-8439-5771-9).
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