Tag Archives: classic noir

The Black Angel: Cornell Woolrich (1943)

“Death is man’s greatest gift from Nature.”

Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) began his writing career producing Jazz age novels along the lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but by 1934, in debt and unable to sell his work, he began to focus on the crime genre. Using pseudonyms, he wrote a vast number of stories and novellas for various pulp magazines before embarking on his Black Series: The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), Black Alibi (1942), The Black Angel (1943), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948). An impressive number of films have been based on his work, including a film version of The Black Angel starring one of my personal favourites, Dan Duryea. Woolrich was not a fan of the film as it was greatly altered from the source material. Not only is Woolrich a major contributor to film noir, but he is also considered one of the greatest American crime writers of his period. Lucky for us he gave up on the F. Scott Fitzgerald theme.

The story begins with 22-year-old narrator, Alberta Murray, rummaging through the cupboards only to discover that a number of items belonging to her husband, Kirk, are missing. She finds his valise locked and heavy, and jumps to the conclusion that he’s packed his bag and intends to leave her. This is not a decision based on hysteria; Alberta has deliberately ignored a number of tell-signs that her husband is having an affair. The most notable of these is a gold compact she discovered in a pocket. It was engraved to “Mia,” and a little detective work behind the scenes led Alberta to believe that the Mia who owned the compact was also the same Mia, “who looked good to stay away from,” employed by a nightclub. More detective work and Alberta tracks down Mia’s address and what appears to be a very tacky love nest with a turquoise colour scheme and monograms everywhere you look.

A few hours later, Alberta’s husband is arrested for a murder that she knows he did not commit, but according to the police, it’s an open-and-shut case. Taking an address book and a clue from the scene of the crime, Alberta decides that if she wants to save her husband from the electric chair she’ll have to do the sleuthing on her own.

The structure of the novel then follows Alberta’s investigation into four names from the address book. These are four men from Mia’s life, and since Mia wasn’t a very nice woman, so it follows that Alberta is going to have to meet lowlifes and crooks on her determined path to the truth. Alberta is called “Angel Face” by her husband which gives us a clue about what she looks like–she’s a stunner, but her beauty is the look of innocence. Underneath that look, however, she’s steel, and even though Alberta is terrified at times by those she encounters, she never once deviates from her plan to investigate the murder until she finds the truth.

The book’s biggest weakness is arguably its basic premise–Alberta’s determination to save her husband–the man who cheated on her, packed his bags and planned to split. Would most women bother with this heel? Isn’t it more plausible that Alberta would say sayonara to her cheating spouse and let Kirk fry? Or does Angel Face also have an Angel Nature? I chalked up Alberta’s decision to save her no-good husband to the idealism of youth, and, after all, Alberta’s initial reaction when she discovers that her husband is cheating is not anger but dismay. Regardless of Alberta’s decision to save Kirk, the man is still a heel and although he’s off stage for most of the book, at one point Alberta visits him in prison, and he makes a last request of her after she insists, against the odds, that he’ll be a free man soon:

He smiled as though he had his doubts. “but in case, in case I don’t, afterward, after it’s over–Angel face, you won’t let anyone else bring you flowers home at night or kick around the coffee, will you? Don’t let anyone else–I know you’re young yet–but that belongs to me.

Ain’t that sweet? So let me get this straight– ‘Save yourself for me, honey, even though I didn’t do the same for you’….

Woolrich takes us on a tour of both the high and the lows of the city: the seedy bars, the flop houses, the nightclubs, the dope fiends, the mansions of the blue-blood rich–all the way to the lavish penthouse suite of a psychotic gangster.  Here’s Alberta in a bar where she meets one of Mia’s earlier victims, the hollowed-out shell of a man.

I’d never been in a Bowery drinking place before. I’d heard the phrase “the lower depths”; I don’t remember where.  I think I read it once. This was it now. The lowest depth of all, this side of the grave. There was nothing beyond this, nothing further. Nothing came after it–only death, the river. These were not human beings any more. These were shadows.

And there was one thing more pathetic than themselves, more eloquent of what had become of them. It was the hush that fell when I came in. That bated breathlessness. I went into many places after that, but never again did the same thing happen in just that way. Men in a barroom will often fall silent when a woman comes in. This was not that. This was not admiration or even covetousness. I don’t know what I would call it myself. It was the memory of someone in each man’s past, someone like me, long ago, far away, come back to mind again for a moment, before the memory darkened again and went out-forever. It was life’s last afterglow glancing off the faces of the dead as I brushed by them.

This passage also reflects the idea that while Alberta’s quest is to save her husband, it’s a quest that is, ultimately, a process of experience and maturity for Alberta for she enters a “world of jungle violence and of darkness, of strange hidden deeds in strange hidden places, of sharp-clawed treachery and fanged gratitude, where compunction and conscience are just other words for weakness and used as such.”

There’s one later passage when Alberta notes that gangsters have splashed aftershave on their faces, and she silently marvels that they are just like other men–except they operate without a moral centre. For some reason, that was one of my favourite parts of the book–perhaps because it’s just so simple. Alberta’s nickname may be Angel Face, and while she’s a decent person, when she begins her investigation and penetrates the dark universe of crime and corruption, she becomes The Black Angel–inadvertently bringing death and destruction in her wake and capable of whatever it takes.  According to Woolrich’s biographer, Francis M. Nevins Jr, the dark, destructive angel is a recurring motif found in Woolrich’s work–I’m thinking The Bride Wore Black.

The Black Angel’s ending–dark, haunting and extremely troubling–makes this novel something very special in a twisted noir way. There’s a loneliness here in Alberta’s journey to the truth, and that loneliness and isolation seems to be reflected in everyone she meets. For fans of the genre, or for those who haven’t tried Woolrich, this dark tale of the forbidden world of lust, despair and madness perforated by decency and goodness is well worth catching. Moral choices are a turning point for those confronted with the opportunity to commit crime. In Alberta’s case, there’s an inversion of that common scenario, and the moral choices are made when she pledges to find the real murderer. One intriguing, lingering question remains when the book concludes.  Will her life ever be so simple and innocent again?….

Review copy from the publisher via Open Road Media.

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Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: Horace McCoy (1948)

“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? : Horace McCoy (1935)

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: Dorothy Hughes (1946)

“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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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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Filed under Fiction, Goodis David, Swierczynski Duane