“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:
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 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