Tag Archives: american noir fiction

Chance by Kem Nunn

The essential feature of a shared psychotic disorder (folie à deux) is a delusion that develops in an otherwise healthy individual who is involved in a close relationship with another person (sometimes termed the “inducer” or “the primary case”) who already has a psychotic disorder with prominent delusions and who, in general, is the dominant in the relationship and is thus able, over time to gradually impose the delusional system on the more passive and initially healthy individual.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have an interest in fiction involving therapists–add that to noir and you’ve immediately got my attention, so when I read about Kem Nunn’s new book, Chance, I thought I’d probably like it. I was wrong, I didn’t like it; I loved it.

chanceEldon Chance is a middle-aged San-Francisco based forensic neuropsychiatrist, whose life, until just recently was going extremely well. Married for over 20 years to “aspiring photographer,” Diane, and the father of a teenage daughter, Nicole, his life seemed enviable. But Diane’s affair with “a dyslexic personal trainer ten years her junior,” has led to divorce proceedings. Their pricey home is up for sale, Nicole will no longer be able to attend her expensive private school, and Chance has moved into a tiny apartment, so tiny, it can’t house his expensive antique French furniture set which looks ridiculous jammed into its new surroundings. Things aren’t quite bad enough apparently … Chance receives a notice from the IRS that he owes over 200,000 in back taxes and fines.

Chance considers selling his fancy French furniture to a nearby antique shop he frequents. Problem is that because it lacks the brass metalwork, it’s not considered complete and he can only get 50-60 thousand for it. If the furniture had its original metalwork, however, the set would fetch around twice that according to antique shop owner Carl. Carl, however, employs a giant of man, an incredible craftsman named D (whose bald head sports a huge tattoo of a black widow spider), and according to Carl, D can replace the metalwork to Chance’s furniture so cleverly that no one will be able to tell the difference. With the metalwork intact, the furniture can be sold for top dollar.

Normally a very cautious person, Chance, pressured by necessity and now unmoored from the supports of his previously structured life, begins to make a series of bad decisions–one of those decisions being, of course, to sell the furniture with the newly attached metalwork crafted by D, and while that is fraudulent, Chance’s mistakes go further than that. We know he’s going to head for disaster from the way he thinks about the female patients who come his way. Bear in mind that he’s not dealing with mentally healthy women when he finds himself noting their attractiveness, their sexuality and possible availability. One of his patients is a substitute teacher named Jaclyn Blackstone who appears to suffer from a dissociative identity disorder. While Jaclyn is estranged from her violent, jealous husband, Oakland homicide detective, Raymond Blackstone, she claims that a second personality, “Jackie Black,” engages in rough sex with Blackstone. Dr. Chance finds himself attracted to this patient, but which one tweaks his interest: Jaclyn or Jackie?

Chance can dissect human psychological problems in a few sentences and produce neatly written reports that will appear as evidence in court cases, but as it turns out, he sucks at predicting human behaviour or avoiding disasters in his personal life. Involvement with the elusive Jaclyn combined with the threat of physical danger sends Chance to D, a disciple of Nietzsche, initially for advice, and then for assistance as Chance becomes increasingly drawn into the dark secrets of Jaclyn’s world. Unlike Chance, D doesn’t live inside textbooks and knows that sometimes you have to be prepared to back up your position with violence.  As D tells Chance, “there are no victims just volunteers.” D, who has a thing for exotic weaponry, sees where Chance is heading and warns him:

“Ever heard of The Frozen Lake?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Then you haven’t heard of it. It’s the thing you want so badly you’ll go to the center of a frozen lake to reach it.”

“Where the ice is the thinnest.”

“But you won’t think about that. Everyone else will, just not you.”

With D as a guide to the netherworld of violent encounters, physical confrontation and surveillance, Chance follows Jaclyn down the “rabbit hole,” and one of the big questions is: who can he trust? Is D, with his penchant for violence, a fantasist? And what about Jaclyn? Who is she really? What happened to her last therapist? Is she, as Chance’s fellow therapist suggests, just “finding one man to save her from another?”  Chance deals with various mental issues all day long–but in the past there’s been a nice clinical line between him and the patients he evaluates as part of the report process for insurance companies and court cases. His life has been admirable, clean, ordered and now it’s in chaos, spinning out of control, and D advises Chance to change his role:

People talk about self defense. Self-defense is bullshit. I’m defending, I’m losing. I want the other guy defending while I attack. Doesn’t make any difference how many people I’m fighting. I want them all defending because that means I’m dictating the action. I’m the feeder. As long as I’m the feeder, I win. I don’t care if it’s a dozen. Right now, this cop is the feeder. You’re the receiver. You need to turn that around.

Chance is a fantastic noir novel–that’s not to say that it isn’t flawed because it is. The novel is padded with patient evaluations and a few pieces of diagnostic information, and if you (unlike me) don’t like novels that include therapy, this aspect of the plot may have no appeal. The ending is dragged out, and there’s one knife lesson scene towards the end of the book that seems ridiculous, but frankly I don’t care; I thoroughly enjoyed the book for its psychological complexities, its setting, its characters (D Rocks!) and the entire way that the book exemplifies the noir genre. Kem Nunn is termed an author of “Surf Noir,” but Chance, a very cinematic novel, is set in San Francisco–a city, with unconventionality practically a by-law, that is a natural setting for noir. Chance has spent over twenty years building his life and his reputation, and now his life is in disintegration, falling around him like a house of cards. He’s tempted by money; he’s lured by sex–add corrupt cops, Romanian gangsters and a run down massage parlor in Oakland, and suddenly he’s in so deep there may not be a way out….

Chance imagined himself no stranger to the machinations by which people went about establishing the architecture of their own imprisonment, the citadels from whose basement windows one might on occasion hear their cries.

Review copy.

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River Girl by Charles Williams

“It’s men, I tell you. They never should let ‘em out alone.”

River Girl is the third novel I’ve read by American crime author Charles Williams, and it’s the best of the three. I didn’t think I’d find one that topped Hell Hath No Fury so when I tell you that River Girl, published in 1951, soars to the number one spot for Charles Williams novels read so far, then that should give you an idea of just how good this tidy, desperate, dark noir novel is. Told initially in a laid-back style by the amoral narrator, Deputy Jack Marshall, the story’s pace picks up, increasing its tone of claustrophobic desperation as Jack’s life spins out of control.

river girlThe story is set in a small, corrupt town run by Sheriff Buford, a confident ladies’ man  who holds the political and economic reins on the region. This means that nothing much happens there without Buford knowing, approving, and having a piece of the pie. The problem is that Buford doesn’t like to get those lily-whites dirty–that’s where his deputy, Jack Marshall, our narrator, comes in. Jack Marshall, the son of a deceased judge, is useful to Buford, and most of his usefulness comes from the fact that while Jack is intelligent, he doesn’t rock the boat. He takes the path of “least resistance,” so he doesn’t challenge Buford’s authority or corruption, but neither is he particularly motivated by money. He skims along on the surface of his life, not wanting to examine anything too closely, and as a result, he complies with Buford’s demands, accepting the back door deals, the bribes and the sly winks as people look the other way–even if he doesn’t particularly like it. On a personal level, Jack’s marriage to Louise is strained, full of bitter recriminations and arguments. If Jack looked at his life closely, he’d wonder how the hell he got to this point, so rather than struggle against the position he finds himself in, he goes along with all the moral compromises, giving in at every turn to Louise’s demands and Buford’s iron-fisted control of the town.

The small town corruption exists on every level, and you can draw a direct line of complicity from the whorehouse, to the bank, and then to the sheriff’s office. Buford has that air of congenial bonhomie that masks the cunning, vicious mind of a slick predator. Jack may be amoral but Buford is evil. With a little more ambition, and a little more hunger for money, perhaps Jack could be Buford. Here’s Jack weighing up his boss:

He took out a cigar and lit it, then removed it from his mouth and looked at it in the manner of a man who loves good cigars. He’s an odd one, I thought, a queer mixture, and not somebody I’d want to tangle with unless I had to. That nineteenth century courtliness fronted for a lot of toughness you could see sometimes looking out at you from behind noncommittal eyes.

Even though Sheriff Buford is as corrupt as hell, he’s repeatedly re-elected by the constituents who know that he’s rotten to the core. This is due partly to the fact that the women love him, and the men want to be like him. It’s also due to the fact that everyone who counts–except the local preacher, Soames, likes the way Buford runs things. The big dilemma presented almost immediately is that Soames is preaching against some of the town’s shadier establishments, and with a grand jury investigation on the horizon, Buford wants everyone to keep a low profile until the trouble blows over. Buford, who gets a generous kickback from the local whorehouse run by tart-mouthed madam, Abbie Bell, isn’t too happy then when he gets a call that some drunk customer at the whorehouse has gone postal. This incident illustrates how Jack is the fix-it/clean up guy for Buford’s seedier deals. Since the bank president owns the building in which the whorehouse operates, it’s ostensibly a “hotel,” with a high turn over of girls and customers. Abbie believes that if “they’re old enough to give it away, they’re old enough to sell” themselves–no one asks questions about underage customers or teen prostitutes, and that way there are no uncomfortable answers. It’s a system that works for everyone but is never openly acknowledged. Here’s Abbie’s response to Jack when he tells her that ‘her girls’ need  to keep a low profile until the investigation is over:

“I know, I know. I’ve heard enough about it. Look, Jack, I try to keep those lousy high-school punks out of here, but Jesus, I can’t watch the door every minute. I don’t want ‘em anymore than Buford does. I’d rather have a skin rash. They smell of a cork and they’re drunk, like that dumb bunny. And they never have a crying dollar on ‘em–all they want to do is to feel  up al the girls and then go out chasing their lousy jail bait.”

The book opens on a day that is a turning point for Jack. We see him at home with Louise, his grasping, naggy, perpetually unsatisfied wife whose ambitions far exceed her husband’s salary. She’s one of those women who don’t mind that their husbands are mixed up in shady deals, but they do mind that there’s not more money in it for them to blow. Longing to be upper-middle-class with all the trappings of the fur-clad bourgeoisie wives, Louise isn’t fussy where the money comes from, just as long as it gushes her way. Louise thinks she’s better than the prostitutes that work in the local whorehouse, but she has no problem spending the money these women earned the hard way. After plunging Jack into debt with the purchase of a new car, Louise wants to hang out at the beach with her more affluent friends and she needs money. She harangues Jack about collecting money from the whorehouse, but then bitches at the prospect of having to live on his salary alone. Nagging, complaining and bitching until she wears him down, Jack tosses Louise the money he collected from Abbie Bell just to shut his wife up:

“Here,” I said, tossing it. “There’s a hundred and twenty-five in there.” It landed on the bed next to her naked midriff. Well, it’s gone full circle, I thought. That’s where it came from–a girl on a bed.

Disgusted with his job, and frustrated with his wife’s endless demands, Jack goes fishing, travelling deeper into swamp country than he usually goes, and here he meets Doris a mysterious woman who’s living in a primitive hut and who appears to be in hiding….

Caught between the two powerful personalities of his wife Louise and Buford, Jack Marshall is already ensnared in a nasty situation when the book begins, and he seeks to dis-entangle himself but only becomes increasingly caught in a web of intrigue. As a noir anti-hero, motivated by desire for a woman, he tries to escape to a  better life, and while he tries to use fate to his advantage, instead fate takes him for a hellish ride, tricking him at every crossroads into thinking that he has choices… that he has a chance when we know he does not.

While River Girl is a fantastic, tense, atmospheric story, the book is also packed full of fully-fleshed characters and dialogue that sounds so real, you hear the characters speaking. Naturally, and you know this is coming, there’s a femme fatale in these pages, but it’s not who you thought it would be–nonetheless, she’s here, a duplicitous, destructive, expensive beauty with a heady need for excitement and thrills. There’s the sense that we know exactly how this town works with its dirty deals and all the so-called ‘nice’ people looking the other way until things get so out-of-control that someone has to be reeled in and thrown out of town. There’s a moment when Jack has to deal with an underage prostitute, and for a moment, he is disgusted with himself. Yet the novel allows for no sentimentality as we read just how Jack manipulates this teenage girl and facilitates her on her desperate road to corruption and self-destruction. One of the story’s sad ironies is that Jack hates his life but lacks the motivation to do anything about it, and then when he acquires the motivation, his method of reinvention is flawed and tarred by the life he’s led. It’s too late for Jack; he just doesn’t know it yet. Jack’s struggle becomes his excruciating battle against fate–a fight that he can’t win and one that will take him full circle as he descends into “some frightening and deadly spiral”

I was conscious of the horrible sensation that I wasn’t just walking in circles in space and time, but that I was actually swinging around the steep black sides of some enormous whirlpool and sliding always towards the center.

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Big City Girl by Charles Williams

“Once they get you in there in the pen, there ain’t no long-nose bastards  writing about you and talking about you on the radio. Not till maybe thirty years from now, when they might let you out if you behave yourself, or till someday they kill you if you don’t.”

Otto Penzler, founder of Mysterious Press, continues his unflagging quest to put classic noir titles back into the hands of readers: this time it’s with a Charles Williams Revival–a writer who seems to have been largely forgotten in the annals of noir fiction. So it’s back to Charles Williams (1909-1975) for another noir gem. Big City Girl (1951) is an unusual noir for its setting, and it’s certainly a change of pace from perhaps this author’s most famous work, Hell Hath No Fury (AKA The Hot Spot), a novel I read and reviewed a few years ago.

charles williamsBig City Girl is a story of a family of dirt poor sharecroppers in the American south. Widower Cass Neely, a hopeless man who’s losing his mind, used to own an impressively large cotton farm, but for the past 14 years, he’s sold off one parcel at a time.

There was nothing vicious about him, and the money he had received over all this period of time from the piecemeal sale of his land and farming equipment had not been thrown away on liquor or gambling or any other active vice, but had disappeared down the bottomless rat holes of shiftlessness and bad management and a perennially wistful fondness for secondhand automobiles. And now the deteriorating carcasses of seven of the defunct cars squatted about the sandy yard around the house where they had wheezed their last, giving it the appearance of a junk yard.

Now all that’s left is the crudely-built house and a few acres of poor soil, and Cass and his son Mitch, who basically does most of the labour, find themselves working the land they used to own.  Mitch also has a young, impressionable teenage sister named Jessie, and there’s also a brother, Sewell, a brutal, violent criminal who was involved in rival gang wars until his conviction for armed robbery. At first glance, Sewell’s criminal career appears to be an anomaly, some quirk of nature that set this son on a bad path while Mitch stayed on the straight and narrow. A closer look at the family’s bleak, hopeless, back-breaking existence offers another explanation of Sewell’s life for crime: he simply broke free of a lifetime of virtual slavery and decided to take his chances with crime.

big city girlWhen the book opens, Sewell’s blonde, trashy wife, Joy has joined her husband’s family out of desperation, and she reasoned that at least with her in-laws she’ll have a roof over her head and food in her stomach. A good-time girl addicted to the attention of men, Joy is now thirty and beginning to lose her looks. Just as Mitch relies on his strength to get by, and Sewell counts on his ruthless violence, Joy has counted on her looks and her body to see her through the hard times, and with the prospect of aging, Joy is worried about what lies ahead. In theory she can stay on the farm, but the lifestyle is driving her mad with boredom. There are only two elements to her new life that she finds remotely interesting: Jessie’s worship (Jessie acts as her ex-facto maid) and the distinct possibility of teasing and seducing Mitch. While Joy acts out her own little dramas at the cotton farm, Sewell “Mad Dog Neely” is being transferred to the state pen to begin a life sentence for armed robbery….

vintage big city girlThe novel has its surprisingly poignant moments as Mitch recalls rich childhood memories when he and Sewell did everything together:

You lay awake when you were dead tired and needed the sleep, lying there on the cot in the darkness thinking of hunting squirrels with Sewell and running the setlines at night along the river’s banks with the pine torch blazing and sputtering and throwing your long-legged shadows against the trees, hunting coons with him to the baying of hounds on frosty, starlit winter nights a long time ago before he began to get into trouble, and all the way you always had to run to keep up with the endless vitality of him. You thought of him then and you thought of him now, and it was like a sickness eating at you from the inside where you couldn’t get at it.

But with the crop, thank god, it was different. You could still lose because the rain could whip you and the boll weevils could whip you and any one of a half-dozen things could do it too, but at least you were fighting something you could see and when you hit it you could feel something solid under your hand. It was an elemental problem, with nothing fancy about it. The crop was there and if you didn’t save it you went hungry. It had rained far too much already and there wasn’t much chance now of that big crop you were always going to make next year, that fifteen bales or more when you would come out at the end of the year with more money ahead and Jessie could go back to school and you could buy some more of your own equipment again and not go farming on halves all your life. That was probably just a dream for another year. What you were fighting for now was survival. You had to pay off the credit to get credit for another year to go on eating to make another crop.

Big City Girl has an unusual setting, but all the hallmarks of excellent noir fiction are here with the twists and turns of fate determining moments of apparent choice. The lines between the good and the bad characters are blurred and murky with heroes and villains defined by a brutal society that refuses to recognize that the have-nots are forced to sell whatever it takes to get by. Sewell sold his strength to become muscle for gangsters. Joy sells her body because that’s all she has to sell. Mitch is the hero here, the one decent character, but his decency is based on his willingness to work himself to death. The energy required to farm cotton stops Mitch from thinking about anything except the crop, so during the day he’s able to keep on the treadmill, but at night it’s different. There’s a deeply buried unasked question underlying the validity of the two brother’s respective, grim choices: In breaking away from the back-breaking subsistence work of the farm, Sewell makes a bid for freedom through a life of crime. Mitch doesn’t reject his brother’s choices and understands that Sewell is fighting society–a largely invisible and unconquerable enemy.  Which of the two brothers is a freer man? What will Mitch think of his choice to stay on the straight and narrow when he’s a broken, worn out man by the time he’s 50?

Review copy

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The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain

“Not every man’s death is a crime.”

It’s the sort of scenario we readers dream of … a “lost” novel found and brought to publication, but that is exactly what happened with The Cocktail Waitress, the “Lost Final” novel by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime, the novel includes an afterword by Charles Ardai in which he describes how he found the novel and the role of Max Allan Collins in the hunt. Crime fans owe a huge debt to Charles and Max for their continued contributions to the crime genre.

The Cocktail Waitress is narrated by Joan Medford, a shapely young “corn-husk blonde,” widow, and we meet her on the day of her husband’s funeral which happens to be the same day she lands a job as a cocktail waitress. Joan needs this job badly as she has no money, her Hyattsville house in a suburb of Washington DC is on the brink of foreclosure, and the utilities have been disconnected. Joan’s marriage to Ron wasn’t happy, and their life together ended when a very drunk Ron drove the car at 2 in the morning and met his death in a fatal crash.  

Things look bleak for Joan. Her hostile, barren, accusatory sister-in-law, Ethel, has agreed to take Joan’s small son, Tad, until Joan gets on her feet, but Joan knows that Ethel considers her an unfit mother and that’s she’s looking for any excuse to keep Tad permanently. But when good things happen to Joan, they happen fast. Although she has no experience, thanks to police sergeant Young, she lands a job at the Garden of Roses. So what if she has to wear a skimpy outfit? So what if the male customers think that Joan sells something on the side? Joan makes it clear that she’s not for sale. Well at least she’s not for sale unless she gets that flashy diamond hardware, third finger, left hand.

It’s on the day of her husband’s funeral, the first day on her new job as a cocktail waitress, that Joan meets the two men who play significant roles in the next stage of her life: Tom, the studly driver from the undertakers (who insists that Joan “blew him a kiss,” as he left her at her doorstep after the funeral), and the very wealthy Earl K. White–an older man who suffers from a touchy case of angina….

Joan is a very interesting, strange character. We know little of her past, but some facts roll out as the story unfolds.  She’s estranged from her family, and we learn from Joan “my mother hated me and my father cut me off.” Joan has to fight to survive, and while she tells her story in a seemingly straight-forward fashion, can we believe her version of events?

Did I put an extra sway in my step as I walked away, to make my hips jog and my bottom twitch? I may have. I know I unbuttoned an extra button on my blouse before turning around, tray in hand.

“Joan, there is something I’m curious to ask you”

I rejoined him at his table, and swapped a full bowl of Fritos for the half-full bowl in front of him. It was no more than I’d done at any of the dozen other tables at the bar. But perhaps I bent slightly lower doing it than was absolutely necessary. “What’s that, Mr. White?”

Earl, please.”

“I’d feel too familiar.”

“Please.”

“Earl, then.”

“I…”

“What is it? What do you want to ask me?”

“I’m not usually tongue-tied, Joan, I just find myself somewhat distracted at the moment.”
I smiled and lowered my gaze, and said softly: “Pleasantly, I hope?”
“Most pleasantly.”

“But all the same, I don’t want to make it hard for us to have a conversation, Mr. –Earl.” I fastened up the lowest open button on my blouse. “Better?” 

That quote is a good example of the author’s style–no flashy prose style & everything seems fairly straightforward. The kicker to this novel is that there’s more than one way to read The Cocktail Waitress. You can read it straight, and believe every word that comes out of Joan’s somewhat prim and proper mouth, or you can start to question her as an unreliable narrator. If you take the first road, you’re going to read a meat-and-potatoes story, nothing fancy here. But, if you take the second facta non verba approach, then the novel’s power and intelligence hit you after you turn the last page, and slowly you’ll find yourself unravelling Joan’s narration with chilling results. There were a couple of times that Joan chose actions that seemed out of character but by the story’s conclusions, it all comes together in a sinister sort of way.

According to the afterword, Cain struggled with this novel for some time, and Charles Ardai, editor and founder of Hard Case Crime discusses finding the manuscript, its various drafts, and the way Cain experimented with various narrative voices. Cain took a chance writing The Cocktail Waitress through Joan’s voice, but its very boldness makes for a bigger payoff.

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The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Ride the Pink Horse , a brooding tale set in a dreary New Mexico town during its fiesta, written by American crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993).  Due to his lack of funds (and no hotel room), the story’s protagonist resentfully finds himself befriended by the local Mexicans and Indians, while he longs to be one of the privileged white crowd who command a seemingly better life of swanky hotel rooms, fine dinners, and good-looking blondes. In The Expendable Man, Hughes explores racial divisions but from an entirely different aspect.

The novel begins with UCLA medical intern, Hugh Denismore, driving his mother’s white Cadillac to the family home and his niece’s wedding in Phoenix. He’s driving through Indio–a bleached out desert town, and immediately we know that there’s some unspecified problem. Hugh feels uncomfortable and threatened by some of the rowdy behaviour of the locals. After getting something to eat at a drive-in restaurant, he continues his journey in the hot afternoon sun, and then around sundown, he sees a hitchhiker, a young girl, standing in the shade of a tree. Hugh hesitates and then decides to stop and give her a ride….

The girl, who claims to be 18, says her name is Iris Croom. She has a story about how she ended up hitchhiking in the middle of the desert, and part of that story includes an aunt who lives in Phoenix. Hugh doesn’t believe the girl, but he senses her very real vulnerability underneath her prickly, sly, and opportunistic behaviour. Suspecting that Iris is a minor, perhaps 15 or 16 at most, and knowing that he can’t take Iris over the state line, he drops her off at the bus station at Blythe and buys her a bus ticket to Phoenix. Hugh travels on thinking that this will be the last he sees of the girl. He’s wrong.

The Expendable Man begins with a sense of underlying tension and with the feeling that the characters exist in an indifferent environment in which a human being could easily disappear without a trace:

Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the color of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun.

This bleak indifference reflected in the geography of the desert continues throughout the novel through the behaviour of a number of people who, as fate would have it, can affect Hugh’s future.

Hughes crafts her novel cleverly. There’s an unexplained and seemingly out-of-place nervous edge to Hugh’s behaviour. He feels uneasy when the rowdy Indio teenagers harass him, and he worries that someone will see that he gave Iris a ride. Why is he worried? Why is he troubled by a few rude locals?

Far ahead on the road, he saw the shape of an oncoming car as it lifted itself over a culvert. He switched on his lights. The sky was still pale, the pale lavender of twilight, but the sand world had darkened. It was difficult enough to drive at this hour, the lights would identify the presence of his car to the one approaching. When the other car passed his, headed toward Indio, he saw it was yet another jalopy filled with kids. it was hopped up; it zoomed by, with only scraps of voices shrilling above the sound of the motor.

In his rear-view mirror, he watched until it disappeared in the distance. Just for a moment, he had known fear. It might be the same group that hectored him in town. The trap might be sprung by his picking up the girl; they might swing about and come after him. Only when the car had disappeared from sight, did he relax and immediately feel the fool. It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.

What are the “old experiences” that cause him to remember a sense of fear?

To dismiss one of the central issues of the story as a writerly conceit would be both erroneous and an underestimation of this very clever, extremely well-paced and well-crafted mystery novel. While Hughes constructs what appears to be an easy-to-guess and predictable situation, in her hands, her final novel shows a writer at the peak of her creative talent.  In Ride the Pink Horse, Sailor feels the impact of being a nobody in a dreary backwater town, and in contrast Hugh, in The Expendable Man, well on his way to affluence and a prestige career discovers that his world of privilege is a fragile facade which is rapidly ripped away when he becomes the prime suspect of a murder investigation. And it’s a credit to the skills of the writer that the novel’s tension does not exist in Hugh’s identity, but in the mystery that unfolds. Ride The Pink Horse and The Expendable Man cover some similar territory: power, race & privilege. Both novels also explore societal divides but whereas Ride the Pink Horse suffered from a lack of tension, the tension in The Expendable Man never lets up. Dorothy B. Hughes is probably best remembered for her novel In a Lonely Place which was made into the iconic noir film starring Humphrey Bogart and one of my eternal favourites, Gloria Grahame. In spite of a number of crime novels to her credit, Hughes is in danger of slipping into ill-deserved obscurity, so fans of American crime fiction should applaud this New York Review Books Classic edition which should, thanks to their reputation, go a long way to ensuring Hughes is not forgotten.

 Review copy from the publisher

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Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy

“She was tremendous, all right, but at the wrong time and in the wrong places.”

The next time someone starts waffling on about the ‘good old days,’ tell them to go read Horace McCoy’s novel, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. That should take care of their nostalgia. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, full of bleak despair and the illusion that the big time is right around the next corner for its doom-laden characters, reminds us that violence has always existed in the spectrum of human behaviour.  

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is narrated by Ralph Cotter, a hardened convict who’s serving time, and when we meet  him, he’s just about to break out of jail with fellow prisoner Toko. McCoy’s details convey the horror of convict life: the frantic queues for the toilets, the over-worked chemical privys, rotten smells, hints of prison rape, and the way in which Cotter addresses the guards as “my liege,” “me-lord,” “Sire,” “master” and “majesty.” Cotter wakes up on the morning of the prison break chained to his bunk in a fetid crude dorm room along with 71 other prisoners. Toko’s sister, Holiday, has bribed someone to hide weapons in the cantaloupe patch where the prisoners work unchained, and she’s included Cotter in the escape plan simply because she’s concerned that Toko doesn’t have the guts to carry it through.

McCoy grounds the book in 1933 with the Akron disaster, so we are firmly in the gangster era. The book starts strongly with Cotter playing it cool as the day begins. Toko, a bundle of nerves, almost blows the plan, but Cotter desperate to escape (and just what is going on with the “sickly sodomist“in the next bunk?) carries the day, and in a blaze of machine gun fire, Cotter makes his escape. So what does Cotter, a man who thinks Karpis, Baby Face Nelson and Dillinger are all amateurs, do with his freedom? The novel continues with the saga of Cotter’s post prison life on the run, and it isn’t pretty. The problems begin with the debt Cotter has accrued from the club-footed garage owner, Mason, the man who supplied the getaway car and the guns, and the problems continue with Toko’s sister, machine-gun toting, bed-hopping, “pure animal” Holiday. Cotter embarks on a brutal crime spree, and a brush with two crooked cops only fuels his desire for money. Along the way, there’s blackmail, vicious heists committed with stunning violence, and no less than two duplicitous women.

McCoy crafts Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in such a way that we begin not knowing just what Cotter is capable of. All he wants is freedom and fresh air for a change, but as the novel wears on, Cotter’s savagery is gradually revealed through his numerous cold-blooded killings. There are no good guys here. Everyone does what they can to get ahead and if that means slaughtering or sleeping your way to a few extra bucks, then McCoy’s characters are fine with that. While Cotter is clear-minded and direct with his criminal actions, he’s a little messed up when it comes to women, and to complicate matters there are two very different women who think they own a piece of Cotter. Here’s the sexually rapacious Holiday and Cotter:


She grabbed me by the shoulders of my coat, clutching the padding and poking her face almost against mine. “What’s the matter? You run out of places to go?”

“Please…” I said. “I’ve had enough melodrama for one day.”

“Me sitting here in this stinking apartment all day…”

“Please,” I said, “I’m exhausted.”

“Oh, so you’re exhausted! From what! Being lumped up in the sack with that bitch all afternoon?”

“Please,” I said. “I’m hot and sweaty and in no mood to fight.” I tried to take her hands off my shoulder but she was holding too tightly. Her eyes were wide and rabid and her lips were thin. “I’ve been with Mandon. You’re the only bitch I’ve seen today. Honest.”

She snorted and then without warning she clawed at my face. I caught this hand and knocked the other one from my shoulder and slapped her across the nose. But she wanted to be tough. She growled in her throat and raised both arms to grab me around the neck, and I slugged her on the side of the head, knocking her down. I reached and lifted her dress and tugged at it between my hands and finally managed to tear off a hunk. She lay on her back, looking up at me, her eyes smouldering, fully conscious, but saying nothing. With the hunk of her dress, I wiped the spittle from my face, and then threw the rag at her and went into the bedroom, closing the door.

Goddamn it, I thought regretfully; but this clawing business had to stop and that was the only way to stop it, the only way. She’s a goddamn savage, this dame is, a real primitive, and the only way to teach her something is to knock her on her ass. Well, she’s sure as hell come to the right place….

Cotter and Holiday make a hellish team: he solves his problems with violence, and she seals her deals with sex.  

While not as disciplined a novel as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (there’s some redundancy), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a classic American noir, packed with hard-boiled desperate characters, but there’s something very different about McCoy. Here’s a scene of Cotter in a gay bar. At first he feels uncomfortable and then has a significant moment of revelation:

The noxiousness and disgust I had felt a few moments earlier were gone, my own strength and virility, of which I was so proud when I entered, with which I could prove our difference, now served to emphasize our sameness. We all had a touch of twilight in our souls; in every man there are homosexual tendencies, this is immutable, there is no variant, the only variant is the depth of the latency, but in me these tendencies were not being stirred, even faintly, they were there, but this was not stirring them. No. The sameness was of the species, of the psyche, of the  … They were rebels too, rebels introverted; I was a rebel extroverted–theirs was the force that did not kill, mine was the force that did kill…

Quite a statement for a book published in 1948, and another reason I love noir for its presentation of an alternate world in opposition to mainstream society. For film buffs, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was made into a film starring James Cagney and one of my favourite lost Hollywood stars, Barbara Payton.

Review copy from the publisher, Open Road Media

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

I saw the film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? some time ago, and due to my film-book obsession, it was just a matter of time before I sought out the source material. I wondered whether the visual advantages of the film would overrule the novel, but no, for its intense, unrelenting bleak depiction of a luridly exploitive dance marathon in 1930s California, the book outweighs the film. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1897-1955) is considered his masterpiece, and after finishing the novel, it’s easy to see why. This is a fairly short novel, and the title makes sense by the time the book concludes.

Robert Syverten is walking down Melrose Boulevard with seven dollars in his pocket when he meets Gloria Beatty. He’s just left the Paramount studio lot after being rejected, yet again, for a part as an extra in a von Sternberg film. Although the name of von Sternberg’s “Russian picture” isn’t mentioned, the date 1935 appears later in the novel. Von Sternberg made The Scarlet Empress in 1934, and Crime and Punishment in 1935, so if McCoy referred to the latter film, then that’s a significant allusion given the events that take place.

Both Robert, originally from Arkansas and Gloria, from West Texas are trying to get bit parts and break into film, and since they are both meeting with little success, they appear to have something in common. They strike up a conversation and then Gloria suggests that they join a dance marathon.

“A girlfriend of mine has been trying to get me to enter a dance marathon down at the beach,” she said. “Free food and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars in you win.”

“The free food part of it sounds good,” I said.

“That’s not the big thing,” she said. “A lot of producers and directors go to those marathon dances. There’s always the chance they might pick you out and give you a part in a picture … What do you say?”

Gloria overrules Robert’s initial objections, and so they sign up for the 2500 hour marathon which is held at the beach on an amusement pier. 144 couples begin the marathon, but 61 dropped out the first week. The conditions are horrendous, and this is, of course, an indication of just how many desperate young people are willing to risk their health for $1000.

The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.

Some of the couples in the marathon are professionals and so they have tips for how to maximise the ten minute breaks. As the vicious contest continues, there’s a sense of brewing violence. Tempers are short, exhausted partners begin squabbling and the men organising the marathon arrange a number of questionable publicity stirring events to boost attendance. One of the worst aspects of the dance marathon is the derby–this is a nightly event which exists simply to cut remaining couples. It’s a brutal rapid walk-around the dance floor with the last couple being eliminated, and many others collapsing and seeking medical help in the “pit.”

“Two minutes to go,” Rocky announced. “A little rally, ladies and gentleman–” They began clapping their hands and stamping their feet, much louder than before.

Other couples began to sprint past us and I put on a little more steam. I was pretty sure Gloria and I weren’t in last place, but we had both been in the pit and I didn’t want to take a chance on being eliminated. When the pistol sounded for the finish half the teams collapsed on the floor. I turned around to Gloria and saw her eyes were glassy. I knew she was going to faint.

“Hey…” I yelled to one of the nurses, but just then Gloria sagged and I had to catch her myself. It was all I could do to carry her to the pit. “Hey!” I yelled to one of the trainers. “Doctor!”

Nobody paid any attention to me. They were too busy picking up the bodies. The customers were standing on their seats, screaming in excitement.

The curious thing is that while Robert was reluctant to join the marathon in the first place, he very quickly becomes the team’s cheerleader. Gloria sinks into pessimism and despair, refusing to talk to the sponsors,  and while one of her main (and pitifully sad) reasons for joining was to meet ‘movie people,’ when anyone famous attends, their presence serves to create Gloria’s anger and resentment. Gloria sees life as hopeless, and the contest as a meaningless diversion from their fate:

“This whole business is a merry-go-round. When we get out of here we’re right back where we started.”

“We’ve been eating and sleeping,” I said.

“Well what’s the good of that when you’re just postponing something that’s bound to happen.”

Unfortunately, Robert doesn’t realise that Gloria is one of the “Kamikaze women” we find in Woody Allen films, and as a character says in Husbands and Wives (1992)

 “I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women….I call them Kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.”  (Professor Gabe Roth played by Woody Allen)

Within minutes of meeting Robert, Gloria mentions that she tried to kill herself with poison. A warning for any man who’s listening. This is a woman with a serious death-wish:

“It’s peculiar to me,” she said, “that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying. Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it? There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me who want to die but haven’t got the guts–”

The only time Gloria shows any fight is when she meets a couple of do-gooders from The Mothers’ League for Good Morals. In a wonderful showdown, Gloria tells the women where they can shove their good intentions:

“It’s time somebody got women like you told,” Gloria said, moving over and standing with her back to the door, as if to keep them in, “and I’m just the baby to do it. You’re the kind of bitches who sneak in the toilet to read dirty books and tell filthy stories and then go out and try to spoil somebody else’s fun-”

Anyone who’s enjoyed the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? needs to read the novel from which the film sprang. Dancing is a social and cultural mechanism for romance & courtship and here it’s degraded into brutal, demeaning savagery, and the voyeuristic public’s taste for destruction harks to the modern-day excesses and morally questionable abuses of reality television.  While McCoy’s novel is ostensibly about a vicious dance marathon in which the suffering of a few becomes entertainment for the masses, Gloria understands that the marathon–the desperate struggle to survive and the demeaning obsequiousness they must show towards the audience and the sponsors are symbolic of the struggles of a bitter, hard-scrabble, poverty-stricken life from which there’s only one escape….

Review copy from Open Road Media

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Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy Hughes

“A gun’s a bad thing to have handy.”

Author Dorothy Hughes (1904-1993) is arguably best known for her noir novel In a Lonely Place (1947) which became the basis of a Humphrey Bogart film. Ride the Pink Horse (1946) is another noir novel which was also made into a film–although one that’s fallen off the radar.  Ride the Pink Horse is a strange title, but its meaning becomes apparent as the story plays out. It’s both a literal reference to a horse on a merry-go-round, and a figurative reference to the fantasy of a better life,  “playing it big, fine clothes, fine car, fine hotels, society blondes.”  It’s the sort of life envied by a man who’s been born in poverty and is accustomed to having doors slammed in his face, as he watches, with simmering resentment, a lesser man, a “weasel” of a man, enjoying the best comforts of life just because he has money and social position.

The novel’s protagonist is a man called Sailor. Travelling from Chicago, he arrives in a “hick town” in New Mexico with some unfinished business to settle with his former employer, a sleazy politician with a “weasel face” who is known as the Sen.

He came in on the five o’clock bus. He was well to the back and he didn’t hurry. He remained seated there, his eyes alone moving while the other passengers churned front. His eyes moving and without seeming to move, through the windows on the right where he was seated, across the aisle through the left-hand windows. He saw no one he knew, no one who even looked as if he came from the city.  

Sailor arrives just as the 3-day long local Fiesta begins, and the first problem he encounters is that all the hotels are booked. Sailor begins his hunt for a room, lugging his suitcase along in the dust and the heat. At each hotel, he’s told by a desk clerk that there are no rooms available, and initially he takes the rejection personally–as if his money isn’t good enough, and at one point he even begins to pull out a wad of cash to prove he can pay. His fruitless search takes him lower and lower on the totem pole until he’s finally turned away by a clerk in a dingy hotel located next to a pool hall.

Sailor is in town to recover an unpaid debt. The Sen was supposed to pay Sailor, his “confidential secretary,” $1500 for his role in the cover-up of the murder of the Sen’s wealthy wife. The murder was set up to look like a robbery that went wrong, and Sailor got a $500 downpayment. After his wife’s death, Sen cashed in a $50,000 life insurance policy and split town. Now the Sen is here in New Mexico, hanging out in the town’s best hotel and panting after svelte silver blonde Iris Towers–”an angel who strayed into hell” who is so important to the Sen that “he’d crawl over the body of a dead woman to get to her.” Sailor followed the Sen to collect his thousand bucks, but now he thinks $5,000 is a fair sum to keep his mouth shut. $5,000 will be the seed money to start a better life–the sort of life that the Sen has.

He’d set up a little safe business of his own in Mexico, making book or peddling liquor, quick and easy money, big money. He’d get himself a silver blonde with clean eyes. Marry her. Maybe she’d have dough too, money met money and bred money. All he wanted was his just pay and he’d be over the border.

Without a hotel room and a place to wash, Sailor is acutely aware of his dusty, sweaty and rumpled appearance. It’s been a long time since Sailor has felt this small, and as he shuffles around town trying to find a room, he strikes up a relationship with a “fat and shapeless and dirty” man dubbed “Pancho Villa” by Sailor. Pancho Villa isn’t the man’s real name, of course, but this is an indication of Sailor’s attitude towards Mexicans. To Sailor, a portly dark-skinned man instantly becomes Pancho Villa, and “Pancho” is good-natured enough not to take offense. He’s the owner of a small, cheesy merry-go-round named  Tio Vivo, and soon Pancho and Sailor become drinking buddies.  Sailor discovers that the only people who show him any kindness are the Mexicans and the Indians, and yet while Sailor acknowledges this, he’s also very uncomfortable with the idea that he’s been relegated, by default, to this portion of the population. 

Not long after arriving in town, Sailor spots a Chicago cop named Mac, and at this point it’s unclear if Mac is there for Sailor or for the Sen. A game of cat-and-mouse begins between the three men as they alternately court and avoid the inevitable showdown. 

Sailor is not a particularly appealing protagonist. He arrives in town full of attitude towards the Mexican and Indian residents. His thoughts are full of racial commentary, and this makes for uncomfortable reading at times. As the novel wears on, however, Sailor’s actions never quite match his racist thoughts, so ultimately the racist part of Sailor seems to be a veneer more than anything else–a way of trying to establishing distance from the Mexicans and Indians he professes to disdain, and a way of trying to plant himself into the more affluent echelons of white society.

In Ride the Pink Horse Dorothy Hughes examines the class divisions in American society. The Senator is at the top of the heap, and Sailor, his one-time minion, given the taste of the good life, now wants to have what the Sen has. He envies him his room, his clothes and his woman. Frequently Sailor finds himself cast out of the better things in life by circumstance. He can’t for example get a room, and if he can’t get a room, he can’t take a shower. When Sailor tries to make his move, Mac, his doppelgänger, is lurking in the background, trying to offer Sailor choices that he doesn’t want.

On the down side, Ride the Pink Horse is not a page turner. While the plot scenario implies tension, it’s largely absent from the novel. Instead there’s a repetitiveness, a circular motion to the action that implies both an inevitability and an inescapability, and of course a circular motion that mirrors the cheap thrill of the merry-go-round.

He stood there, helpless anger knotting his nerves. Monotonously cursing the Sen, the dirty, double-crossing, lying whoring Senator Willis Douglass. It was the Sen’s fault he was in this god-forsaken town and no place to rest his feet. He hadn’t wanted to come here. He’d wanted it less and less as the bus traveled farther across the wasteland; miles of nothing, just land, empty land. Land that didn’t get anywhere except into more land, and always against the sky the unmoving barrier of mountains. It was like moving into a trap, a trap you couldn’t ever get out of. Because no matter how far you traveled, you’d always be stopped by the rigid mountains.

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Nightfall by David Goodis

“All in all, it was one of those extremely unfortunate circumstances, and it had started on a day when it simply hadn’t been his turn to draw good cards. He could have died on that day or on the day following or the week following. He could have died on any of those several hundred days in the months between then and now, so what it actually amounted to was the fact that all this time he had been living on a rain check and it was only a question of how long it would take until payday arrived.” 

American author David Goodis (1917-1967) wrote a number of noir novels, some of which were made into film, and curiously all five titles in the recently released Library of America edition of Goodis’s work made it to the screen. This is, of course, perfect for my film-book obsession, so it should come as no surprise that I’m reading my way through this collection.

Nightfall is the second novel in the Library of America edition, and it follows Dark Passage. In Dark Passage, an innocent man, framed for the murder of his wife, escapes from San Quentin and runs headlong into a woman who is interested in his case and offers to help him.  Nightfall is the story of another innocent man–a man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he’s been running ever since….

The novel is set in Manhattan and begins on a hot sticky night when a man named Vanning, a commercial artist, decides to go out of his apartment and have a drink or two. As it turns out, this is a big mistake. Vanning is a man on the run, a man who’s running away from some very nasty and determined people who think he has $300,000 from a Seattle bank robbery. Vanning knows the bank robbers won’t give up when there’s $300,000 at stake, and he knows it’s just a matter of time before they catch up to him.  

Also on Vanning’s tail is seasoned cop, Fraser, a man who’s losing sleep at night because he can’t see Vanning as a bank robber:

The record says the man’s a bank robber. A murderer. It adds and it checks and it figures. They’ve got witnesses, they’ve got fingerprints, they’ve got a ton of logical deduction that puts him in dead center. And what I’ve got is a mental block.

Fraser just can’t place Vanning as the hardened hood at the center of a nationwide manhunt, and Fraser has made a study of Vanning:

It’s the best shadow job I’ve ever done. Know every move he makes. Got it down to a point where I can leave him at night and pick him up when he walks out in the morning. I know what he eats for lunch, what kind of shaving cream he uses, how much money he makes with the art work. I know everything, everything except what I need to know.

To Fraser, Vanning is a “paradox.” He leads a quiet life, puts in a full day’s work and minds his own business. Did Vanning, a former navy officer with no previous record, simply go off the rails one day, participate in a bold bank robbery and commit murder along the way? Fraser’s job, with a coordinated effort with the police departments in Denver and Seattle, is to trail Vanning in New York and find the missing $300,000. Fraser is under pressure to deliver something–Vanning with the money is the preferred choice, but with the clock ticking, it looks as though Fraser will be hauling in Vanning–with or without the money. Something just doesn’t fit right with Fraser, and at the back of his mind he has nagging doubts about Vanning’s guilt.

I know Vanning. For months now I’ve been walking behind him, watching every move he makes. I’ve been in his room when he wasn’t there, when I knew it would take him a half-hour to finish a restaurant meal. I’ve been with Vanning hour after hour, day after day. I’ve been living his life. can’t you see? I know him. I know him. I” And the rest of it came out in a low tone , rapid and strained–”I understand him.”

One night, when Fraser returns home to his wife after thinking that Vanning is tucked up safely in bed, Vanning breaks his habits and decides to go to a bar for a drink. A shapely blonde starts giving Vanning the eye, and they leave the bar together. Has fate swung in Vanning’s favour? Has he met a decent, kind woman, or does she have another game afoot?Here’s Vanning in a flashback moment, and this gives a great example of Goodis’s style–a style that isn’t shy of the repetition of words, and a style that picks up momentum giving the sense of rising tensions and a nightmarish sequence of events.

There was a pale blue automobile, a convertible. That was a logical color, that pale blue, logical for the start of it, because it had started out in a pale, quiet way, the pale blue convertible cruising along peacefully, the Colorado mountainside so calm and pretty, the sky so contented, all of this scene pale blue in a nice even sort of style. And then red came into it, glaring red, the hood and fenders of the smashed station wagon, the hard gray of the boulder against which the wrecked car was resting, the hard gray turning into black, the black of the revolver, the black remaining as more colors moved in. The green of the hotel room, the orange carpet, or maybe it wasn’t orange–it could have been purple, a lot of these colors could have been other colors–but the one color about which there was no mistake was black. Because black was the color of a gun, a dull black, a complete black, and through a whirl of all the colors coming together in a pool gone wild, the black gun came into his hand and he held it there for a time impossible to measure, and then he pointed the black gun and he pulled the trigger and he killed a man.

Nightfall shows the bleak realities of life on the run, and how even the simple things are unattainable or fraught with danger. Vanning longs for a normal life, and it’s this longing that leads him to make a mistake. Of particular interest in this novel is the relationship between Fraser and Vanning–it’s as though the two men are on opposite sides of the same mirror. Fraser identifies so well with Vanning that he’s convinced he’s following an innocent man–even though all the evidence screams otherwise.

Of the three Goodis novels read so far, I’d rank them in this order: The BurglarDark Passage, Nightfall. Review copy from publisher.

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The Burglar by David Goodis

“Look at the way he moves around. This is a trace artist. It’s a very special gift. One in a million has it. Like a mind reader, a dealer in some kind of magic.”

The Library of America edition of five noir novels by David Goodis (1917-1967) is not only a compendium made for noir fans, but it is also an acknowledgment of this author’s contribution to the genre. Many of Goodis’s novels have been long-out-of-print, and if you can dig up used copies, some of the titles fetch a pretty price. For this volume, The Library of America has included:

Dark Passage

Nightfall

The Burglar

The Moon and the Gutter

Street of No Return

To sweeten the deal, all five of these titles have been made into films. Earlier this year, I wrote a post on Dark Passage. It’s a tremendous novel–a story that explores the plight of an innocent man who went to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. This story was made into an unforgettable film which featured the iconic Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The Burglar is another winner from Goodis, and if you love noir fiction, then do yourself a favour and read this. It combines elements of the inescapable reach of fate, the heist, the lam, and the femme fatale, and the result is one of the darkest noir tales I’ve read in a long time.

The Burglar drops us right in the action by beginning with a “foolproof” burglary which takes place in a mansion. The burglar of the title is Nathaniel Harbin–a 34-year-old man who has made this his career–not by intention, but by fate. The story finds him the head of a gang of 4, and together they make a successful, tight team. Harbin is the brains behind the operation. He picks the jobs and methodically makes the preparations.

He had never been caught and despite the constant jeopardy he had never been forced into a really tight corner. The way he operated was quiet and slow, very slow, always unarmed, always artistic without knowing or interested in knowing that it was artistic, always accurate with it and always extremely unhappy with it.

The other members of the gang are: Blaylock, a nervous man in his 40s who’s been to prison and swears he won’t go back, Dohmer who’s not too swift in the brain department but has his uses as muscle, and the waif-like blonde Gladden, whose job is to case the joints the gang target for robbery. Gladden is the daughter of Harbin’s dead mentor, Gerald–the man who saved Harbin from starvation and taught him the trade. A strange relationship exists between Gladden and Harbin–”something about it was unnatural.” He feels responsible for her, and yet while Harbin is deeply troubled by his relationship to Gladden, he can’t define why and he can’t get rid of her.

Glow from a streetlamp far back came through the rear window, came floating in to settle on Gladden’s yellow hair and part of her face. The glow showed the skinny lines of her face, the yellow of her eyes, the thin line of her throat. She sat there and looked at Harbin and he saw her skinniness, this tangible proof of her lack of weight, and in his mind he told himself she weighed tons and tons and it all hung as from a rope around his neck.

Goodis takes us inside the heist with an incredibly tense scene. The goal for the gang is $100,000 in emeralds (worth over $845,000 in today’s terms). The heist goes smoothly… well almost… but after the heist things start to unravel. That’s as much of the plot of this incredibly dark tale as I’m going to reveal. But I will say that things don’t unravel in quite the usual way. The tension never stops and when the violence explodes, Goodis writes with a raw, shocking intensity.

Here’s a scene with Gladden and Harbin sitting inside a bar that’s dimly and eerily lit with green bulbs:

He leaned back in his chair, his head to one side a little as he studied the pale green glow on the top of Gladden’s head.

“Always,” he said, “after we do a job you get dreamy like this. The haul doesn’t seem to interest you.”

Gladden said nothing. She smiled at something far away. “The haul,” he said, “becomes a secondary thing with you. What comes first?”

“The dreamy feeling,” Gladden slumped languidly, “Like going back. Like resting on a soft pillow that you can’t see. Way back there.”

“Where?”

“Where we were when we were young.”

“We’re young now,” he said.

“Are we?” Her tall glass was lifted, her chin magnified through the rum and soda and glass. “We’re half in the grave.”

“You’re bored,” Harbin said. 

“I’ve been bored since I was born.”  

The characters in The Burglar operate in a twilight life that exists outside of society. Harbin’s gang is composed of losers who don’t have regular jobs or normal lives and the constraints demanded by their profession bring a heavy price. Together they operate as a family, and they are fairly successful, but it’s when those relationships chafe and begin to unravel that the trouble begins. Goodis shows the sliding scale of morality here, and as Harbin and his gang enter a maze of miscaluation and deception, they run headlong into true evil. Harbin’s sense of being trapped by fate is illustrated through his memory of being 16 “with lifted thumb begging for a ride” and right at the brink of death when he was picked up by seasoned burglar Gerald and taught the trade. There’s the sense that fate took Harbin for an 18-year-long ride and now he’s back at the point of his death, the point of his life right where Gerald intervened.  

As the situation unravels and Harbin tries to repair the damage, interpersonal relations underscore repetition, and foreshadowing reinforces the inescapable nature of fate. Written with an underlying yet overpowering sense of doom, this tale’s haunting conclusion has to be one of the most memorable in the genre. Mystery writer Ed Gorman said that “David Goodis didn’t write novels, he wrote suicide notes,” and after reading The Burglar, I see what he means.

I’m hoping that The Library of America has a second Goodis volume in the works….

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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