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The elements of noir are simple—you can reduce them to David Goodis book titles. In the late ’30s, the Philadelphia author began writing the first of his 18 novels, all of whose names evoke blood and desperation so efficiently that you can practically smell the booze and trash cans in the alley: The Moon in the Gutter, Of Tender Sin, The Blonde on the Street Corner, Fire in the Flesh. (His best title neatly defines the spot where every noir takes place: Down There.) Goodis’ writing career ended in 1967 with Somebody’s Done For, and among those somebodies was Goodis himself: He died the same year, by all accounts a penniless alcoholic.
Those accounts are sketchy, and the available details hew so closely to the cliché of the drunk, tormented novelist they’re a little hard to trust. Goodis was born in 1917 and began writing after he graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree. Early success in the pulps allowed him to quit his job at an ad agency, and he eventually moved to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter. After six years, though, he could claim only one writing credit; in 1950, Warner Bros. booted him from the lot for his lack of output, as well as his affinity for liquor and prostitutes. So he moved back to Philadelphia and couch-surfed at the homes of friends and family members. He wrote, drank, wrote less, then died, either from cirrhosis or a stroke. In the 40 years since his death, Goodis has attracted a devoted clutch of partisans—in January the first-ever Goodiscon was held in Philadelphia—and his 18 novels have remained intermittently in print. But his work has never quite enjoyed the reputation it deserves: that of the equal of Cain, Hammett, Chandler, or Thompson.
It’s hard to see why. True, he could be a hack; at his peak he was writing 10,000 words daily, and it often showed. “The Blue Sweetheart,” a short story included in Millipede Press’ new reissue of 1947’s Nightfall, draws some painfully obvious connections between a woman and a precious diamond, complete with purple lines about a “tortuous journey along the paths of bitter memory.” But Chandler potboiled too. Goodis has a skimpy bio, but nobody loved Hammett better for knowing he was stationed at an Alaskan island during World War II. And if the true measure of a noir author’s muscle is a classic film adaptation, Goodis can claim a pair of them: 1947’s Dark Passage, a top-shelf Bogie-and-Bacall vehicle, and Shoot the Piano Player, François Truffaut’s 1960 adaptation of Down There and a prime example of the French New Wave’s early obsession with American crime fiction.
What Goodis has always had going against him—and what both of those films tamp down somewhat—is his tone. His heroes are usually self-pitying, often suicidal. In one scene in Of Tender Sin, a man is repeatedly dispatched by an abusive ex-girlfriend to scour the streets of Philly during a snowstorm to locate a particular brand of coffee she likes. The mix of sadism and self-loathing is disturbing and, for those who prefer their genre fiction stick to tough-talking dicks and platinum blondes, no fun. But those conflicts are what energize Goodis’ work. First published in 1955 and newly reissued by Hard Case Crime, The Wounded and the Slain is a prime example of the torments he deals in. James and Cora are a New York couple vacationing in Jamaica in a desperate attempt to revive their marriage. She’s cold and dismissive; he’s slowly sinking into alcoholism. When another vacationer hits on Cora, James doesn’t get mad; he figures Cora’s finally got a sweet deal and decides to make Jamaica the end of his line. When he’s warned to “stay the hell away from Barry Street,” he naturally hails a cab heading there.
After a long night of drinking, James is accosted by a mugger, whom he kills. The rational part of James’ brain tells him he acted in self-defense, but bleakly, James won’t let himself off the hook. “On the surface you cut his throat in self defense, and under the surface, under all the rum and silliness, your mood was homicidal,” he tells himself. “Now go ahead and try to deny that.” The Wounded and the Slain ultimately becomes a tale of James’ redemption, but that element gets delayed practically to the last sentence; its core is James’ self-flagellation. It’s a risky strategy. The narrative is constantly flirting with repetition and melodrama, but Goodis has ginned the structure with a counterweight: the colorful mass of characters he bounces James’ despair off of (the woman he once had an affair with, the stoner thug who blackmails him, the skeptical Kingston detective). More important, Goodis has mastered hard-boiled patter. His prose is so clean and unaffected, it’s your fifth-grade grammar teacher’s wet dream, and his sense of humor is spectacularly bone-dry. Miserable, James turns on a radio and listens “to a calypso singer complaining to the neighbors that they should stop stealing from his kitchen, his wife was getting too skinny.” Beat. “It wasn’t very good calypso.”
Nightfall, first published in 1947, is even less concerned with plot. Jim Vanning, a commercial artist living in Manhattan, is being hunted by a group of bank robbers who believe he ran off with $300,000 of their ill-gotten money. He’s also being watched by a detective who’s trying to suss out what Vanning did with the satchel of cash. Vanning denies stealing the money, but the money hardly matters—the satchel is just a MacGuffin. Nightfall’s real story is about Vanning’s despair about how to behave rationally when he knows he’s being watched and the detective’s self-questioning about whether a man can ever act with integrity without falling under suspicion. It’s a relatively big theme for a noir, but Goodis keeps the story earthbound, rooting it in cynical observations designed to keep the mood of paranoia going. To that end, Goodis’ humor is more blackhearted than usual; the detective’s wife, for instance, “had the kind of face they use in fashion magazine ads where they don’t want to concentrate too much on the face.”
Nightfall’s mood is so deeply existential it’s easy to imagine that Goodis left a spot for No Exit and Nausea in his liquor cabinet; the real world, he argues, is so shallow and deceitful that the only possible escape is artistic abstraction. In an odd but telling scene, Vanning takes a break from being hunted and pops into an art gallery, where he chats up a surrealist painter. “The two of them moved along from oil to oil,” Goodis writes, “discussing the importance of shadow in surrealism, the effect of color on shadow, the effect of shadow on color, the effect of color and shadow on line, and it became one of those conversations that could very easily go on for years.” Fine art usually shows up in noirs as a symbol of the glorious virtue that our hellhole of a world is lacking, but Goodis stretches out the scene, as if he really wants it to go on for years; he makes Vanning and the painter loath to part from each other and return to their humdrum realities.
Street of No Return, first published in 1954, is the weakest of these three reissues; in many ways it reads like a rehearsal for Goodis’ triumph, 1956’s Down There, which is also set in Philadelphia’s Skid Row and centers on a talented musician who’s hit the skids. The problem with Street isn’t its alcoholic hero, Whitey, an erstwhile up-and-coming Sinatra-type who got his larynx smashed after he got too interested in a mobster’s girl. The problem is with what his nickname represents in the story: Whitey is caught in the midst of a race war between whites and Puerto Ricans in a neighborhood called (no subtlety here) the Hellhole, and Goodis strains to suggest that everybody would get along fine if only there weren’t mobsters around busily creating conflicts. It doesn’t help that Goodis’ attempts at Puerto Rican dialect lead to howlers like, “I fix thees bastard so he no talk.”
Explaining how Goodis gets out of this mess requires giving away the book’s ending: As soon as the race war cools and Whitey is no longer under suspicion, the first thing he does is head back to where he started in the novel: He grabs a bottle of whiskey and looks for his drinking buddies. They then find a comfortable spot on the sidewalk and settle in for the final sentences: “The pavement was terribly cold and the wet wind from the river came blasting into their faces. But it didn’t bother them. They sat there passing the bottle around, and there was nothing that could bother them, nothing at all.” Noir loves to romanticize the dimly lit portions of the city, but only in Goodis does a trip to the gutter qualify as a hero’s reward.