Category Archives: Goodis David

Nightfall: David Goodis (1947)

“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: David Goodis (1953)

“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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Dark Passage: David Goodis (1946)

“You see these lines on my face? They’re anniversary presents.”

As a fan of crime author Duane Swierczynski, I read one of his blog posts arranging a bus trip on Saturday January 7th 2012 to the Philadelphia gravesite of David Goodis (1917-1967). I won’t be joining, but reading about the trip inspired me towards my own David Goodis Tribute (and there will be more later this year). I’m a fan of the noir film Dark Passage which is based on a Goodis novel. It’s an extremely clever film in which we don’t see the protagonist’s face until deep into the story. This “point of view shot” or “subjective camera” shows the action as if the camera is literally the protagonist’s eyes. There’s a good reason for the use of this camera technique, of course, as at one point in Dark Passage the main character has plastic surgery after escaping from San Quentin.

The face in question belongs to Humphrey Bogart; there’s no mistaking that signature voice, and the role of the weary, hunted Vincent Parry is perfect for Bogart. It’s a magnificent film–not only for its teaming of Bogart and Bacall but also for its vivid San Francisco setting. At the time of its release, New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther called Dark Passage an “over-stretched fable,” but then again he also called Night and the City ( a film that makes my top noir list) a “turgid, pictorial grotesque.” It’s a fair bet to say that Crowther didn’t care for noir… But back to the book. And here it begins:

It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.

That brilliantly simple passage establishes several things: Vincent Parry, just “a little guy who wasn’t important” repeatedly gets the shaft in life. Note the passive voice in the last line: “he was taken to San Quentin.” That passive voice reinforces the idea that there are bigger forces at work pulling the strings in Vincent’s life. And as we learn more about Vincent, we see that he’s never got a break: orphaned at 15, he stole food and ended up in a reformatory. After being brutalised by a reformatory guard, Vincent’s self-defense ended with more punishment, and that’s how life is for Vincent. He struggles against the injustice meted out by society and ends up being flattened even further. As a result, there’s a more than a streak of defeated fatalism to Vincent’s psyche. Perhaps that’s why he initially meekly accepts a life sentence at San Quentin.

Back to Vincent and San Quentin. What crime is former clerk Vincent convicted for? Well, it’s an ugly one–Vincent’s wife, the trashy Gert is murdered–her skull bashed in with an ashtray. The Parrys’ marriage was noticeably volatile and adulterous, and with a witness who caught Gert’s dying words that Vincent swung the ashtray, Vincent, with no alibi, gets life at San Quentin. At first life there doesn’t seem too bad, and that’s because Vincent doesn’t want much, but then as his existence becomes unbearable, he plans a bold escape….

From this point, fate seems to continue its plan for Vincent, and by the end of the novel, seemingly good luck eventually turns into horrible coincidence. But wait a minute… is there such a thing as coincidence in noir? Or is coincidence just a dark disguise for the tricks of fate?  After escaping from San Quentin, Vincent is picked up by a young attractive, wealthy girl named Irene–a girl who’s taken a special interest in Vincent’s case. Taking considerable personal risks, she whisks him off to her luxury apartment and urges him to hide there until things cool down and she can facilitate his escape from the country. Vincent is suspicious of his good luck:

He said, “If I had a lot of money I could understand it. The way it is now I don’t get it at all. There’s nothing in this for you. Nothing but aggravation and hardship.”

Fate, however, has some cruel games in store, but enough of the plot. What of Goodis’s style?

Goodis has a remarkable way of snaking paragraphs and sentences together. Here’s an example:

Parry was thinking about that as he entered the gates of San Quentin. He hoped he wouldn’t run into any brutal guards. He had an idea that he might be able to extract some ounce of happiness out of prison life. He had always wanted happiness, the simple and ordinary kind. He had never wanted trouble.

He didn’t look as though he could handle trouble. He was five seven and a hundred and forty-five, and it was the kind of build made for clerking in an investment security house. Then there was drab light-brown hair and drab dark-yellow eyes. The lips were the kind of lips not made for smiling. There was usually a cigarette between the lips. Parry had jumped at the job in the investment security house when he learned it was the kind of job where he could smoke all he pleased. He was a three-pack-a-day man.

In San Quentin he managed to get three packs a day.

See how he snakes those paragraphs together? Note the use of repetition and pacing in another section. Goodis would be a great subject for linguistic study. Just think of the fun to be had with T-sentence analysis:

He sat there looking at the floor and smoking cigarettes. He smoked nine cigarettes in succession. He looked at the stubs in the ash tray. He counted them, saw them dead there in the heaped ashes. Then he wondered how long it would take until the police arrived. He wondered how long it would be until he was dead, because this time he wouldn’t be going back to a cell. This time they had him on a charge that would mean the death sentence. He looked at the window and saw the thick rain coming out of the thick grey sky, the broken sky. He decided to take a run at the window and then stopped and turned his back to the window and looked at the wall. He stood there without moving for almost a full hour. He was going back and taking chunks out of his life and holding them up to examine them. The young and bright yellow days in the hot sun of Maricopa, always bright yellow in every season. The wide and white roads going north from Arizona. The grey and violet of San Francisco. The grey and the heat of the stock room, and the days and nights of nothing, the years of nothing. And the cage in the investment security house, and the stiff white collars of the executives, stiff and newly white every day, and their faces every day, and their voices every day. And the paper, the plain white paper, the pink paper, the pale-green paper, the paper ruled violet and green and black in small ledgers and large ledgers and immense ledgers. And the faces. The faces of statisticians who made forty-five a week, and customers’ men who sometimes made a hundred and a half and sometimes made nothing. And the executives who made fifteen and twenty and thirty thousand a year, and the customers who sat there or stood there and watched the board. The customers, and some of them could walk out of that place and get on their yachts and go out across thousands of miles of water, getting up in the morning when they felt like getting up, fishing or swimming around their grand white yachts, alone out there on the water. And in the evening they would be wearing emerald studs in their shirt-fronts with white formal jackets and black tropical worsted trousers with satin black and gleaming down the sides, down to their gleaming black patent-leather shoes as they danced in the small ballrooms of their yachts with tall thin women with bared shoulders, dripping organdie from their tall thin bodies as they danced or held delicate glasses of champagne in their thin, delicate fingers.

The Library of America is releasing a 5-volume set of Goodis novels in 3/12: Dark Passage (made into film), The Moon and the Gutter (made into film), Nightfall (made into film), The Burglar (made into film), Street of No Return (yes! made into a film). I have a review copy of this volume so I’ll be getting to the other novels soon. This review came as the result of reading my own copy of Dark Passage. I read a Goodis novel some time ago that I wasn’t crazy about and it’s always hard to persuade yourself to take a second spin with an author you weren’t that enthusiastic about for the first round. In this case I’ve no regrets I returned to Goodis. Dark Passage is a masterpiece of noir.

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