“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 Burglar, Dark Passage, Nightfall. Review copy from publisher.