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Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and '50s

– tekijä: David Goodis

Muut tekijät: Robert Polito (Toimittaja)

JäseniäKirja-arvostelujaSuosituimmuussijaKeskimääräinen arvioMaininnat
1875115,132 (4.35)2
Collects five crime novels of David Goodis all dealing with unfortunate people and dark doomed settings.

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näyttää 5/5
Reading Goodis was prompted by various descriptions of Shoot The Piano Player, especially intrigued that Truffaut and other French New Wave directors held his work in high regard. It proved a fortuitous introduction. Goodis has a distinctive voice in the noir canon, I look forward to reading more.

Within Dark Passage and Nightfall I see an abiding interest in setting up an unlikely premise, to the point of straining credulity, and then carefully and realistically exploring how regular people would behave when faced with such circumstances. Neither story features a detective or even a protagonist in control, but (a different cinema reference now) closer to Hitchcock's everyman mistaken for someone else. Whereas Hitchcock often leavened his treatments with dry humour, Goodis (in these two novels at least) holds out hope -- not to provide a Hollywood ending, nor even to taunt his characters, but seemingly part of his realism. Sometimes that hope pans out, other times it doesn't. Either way it's not a con, for the character or the reader.

That approach (unlikely premise treated realistically once set in motion) could be seen in The Burglar and The Moon in the Gutter, as well.


It was impossible not to compare to the Bogart film, and would have selected this to read first even were it not sequenced that way in the LOA edition. Discovering that Goodis's Down There was the source for Truffaut's film clinched my interest in Goodis: that was two interesting noir films, both adapted from the same novelist. Predictably Goodis's book has its own story, and I noticed points of agreement and other points of divergence, but in most cases I was happy with the choices of author and director.

Hope here plays out distinctly from the filmed version, and I think for the better. The novel ends with Parry's phone call, not yet a triumph, but holding out promise of a reunion. That's more important to the story (if not to Parry) than the reunion itself.

Goodis's narrative voice, unlike Chandler or Hammett or Macmurray, is not the tough guy but delivered with a jazz inflection. Uncertain I would have put a finger on it myself, but editor Polito remarked it and once primed, examples appear as though keyed. A striking example the repetition of phrases, especially as words in a character's mouth or in their mind as opposed to those of the narrator. The repetition conveys both a manic state of mind, but also a sense of riffing on a theme, improvising as Parry attempts to figure out a way forward, a way out of a jam; or questions his past decisions in moments of panic or claustrophobia. (Parry cites specific jazz 78s, too, Goodis slyly hinting at his jazz motifs.)


A wackier setup even than Dark Passage, and Goodis makes the most of it, doling it out in pieces and keeping the reader in suspense along with amnesiac Vanning. Hope is held out as a possibility of settling down, a solid relationship, nothing celebrity or fairy tale, but the imagined life of a regular joe. Goodis plays with this prospect, hope experienced by Vanning as a seesaw as first Martha appears legit, then as complicit, back and forth.

It was inevitable that someday this thing should catch up with him, and although he had sensed that all along, he had tried to stretch it as far as possible. That was a wholly natural way to take it, and he couldn't condemn himself for acting in a natural way. [217]


The premise here seems less contrived than others, at first glance: the criminal gang as substitute family. Goodis adds his trademark loony twist through the generational aspect of that family, with Harbin (the titular burglar) in a borderline incestuous relationship with the daughter of his mentor and father figure, the burglar who adopted him and raised him as a career thief. As usual, the internal tensions and the various characters' attempts to extricate themselves unfold realistically from this unreal starting point, and suggest an allegorical reading. Similar, too, is the pervasive melancholy shot through with glimpses of hope, which play out in various directions, the reader along for the ride. Here the primary (but by no means the sole) example is Harbin's link to a woman outside the family, the promise of a clean break. The pattern is found with each of the four members of the gang, not only Harbin, and each falls hard for someone they aren't in a relationship with.

Goodis's description of his protagonist criminal is a ringer for Goodis himself, as flagged by editor Polito: "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." [337]


A Cannery Row setup, and the opening chapters show signs of Goodis's prolific production: prose is hackneyed in description, scenes, and dialogue. Stevedore Kerrigan obsesses over the murder of his sister, to the point of threatening his current situation. Again a push to leave the current family situation, and even a prospect of it, but again the impossibility of breaking away from the anchors of past identity and past behaviour.

Did Goodis write this novel any different, under any more pressure or circumstances? Maybe not, but while the inventiveness remains (especially with the complicated backstory and cast of characters), I didn't find the story ultimately persuasive.


to read:
  elenchus | Feb 16, 2021 |
This review only pertains to Dark Passage:

David Goodis’s 1946 novel Dark Passage could not possibly be more aptly named than it is because this is one of the darkest novels imaginable. According to the Library of America, Dark Passage is the novel that gave Goodis the little bit of fame that he enjoyed during his lifetime, and that was primarily because the book was turned into a popular movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Other than that relatively brief moment, it appears that his work was kept alive mostly by what LOA calls an “international cult following” which included several prominent European film directors who adapted Goodis’s work for the screen.

The story begins with Vincent Parry escaping San Quinton Prison where he has been jailed for the murder of his wife. Parry, though, is one of those rarities among a prison population that never stops protesting its innocence - he really is innocent. He did not kill his wife, and he was convicted of the crime almost entirely based upon the trial testimony of a friend of his wife’s. Now, recognizing the perfect set of circumstances that have come together, Parry makes his escape and heads for San Francisco where he hopes to hide out long enough to figure his next step.

Parry’s luck bizarrely continues long enough for him to reach the city. And that’s where his real problems begin.

With Vincent Parry, David Goodis created one of the most paranoid characters imaginable, a man who cannot afford to be wrong about any of the people he encounters in the city while he tries to figure out how to disappear forever. He is paranoid, but he is justifiably paranoid, and Goodis places the reader inside the man’s head for pages at a time, eerily allowing readers to experience that feeing of paranoia for themselves. We literally hear, word-by-word, what is going on inside Vincent Parry’s head as he faces one critical situation after another.

Dark Passage is not a long novel, coming in at around 200 pages depending on which edition you read, but it paints a picture of 1940s San Francisco that is hard to forget. This is a city where life is lived in the shadows and after dark, a place where every one (including the cops) seems to have angle, a place where nothing is exactly as it seems and no stranger should be trusted. It is a city whose underbelly is not confined to only a few blocks, and as Parry moves through it, searching for a safe way out, things begin to happen to him. People die, people fall in love or think they fall in love, and several of them expose the blackness of their own hearts to the world.

Bottom Line: Dark Passage shows clearly why David Goodis has come to be known as somewhat of a pioneer of American noir novels. His distinctive style, and his feel for troubled characters and city streets, make his writing stand out even in a genre filled with more famous writers. The Library of America volume of five novels, in which this is the first entry, also includes: Nightfall (1947), The Burglar (1953), The Moon in the Gutter (1953), and Street of No Return (1954). ( )
  SamSattler | Jan 8, 2021 |
Read Nightfall - more of a novella than a novel. Definitely has noir elements, but wasn't the most believable story. Very upbeat ending and laced with 'pop' psychology. Very easy to imagine Nightfall as a B movie.
1 ääni FKarr | May 9, 2019 |
Down There
This is a story from the hard side of life starring Edward Webster Lynn. When we meet him he is the piano player in Harriet's Hut, a local bar. Ten tears ago he had been a concert pianist starring regularly at Carnegie Hall. The author writes in a dark noir style. He takes the reader into a world of poverty and danger where everybody lives on the edge.
Harriet's is presided over by the bouncer known as the Harleyville Hugger. He is an ex-wrestler who can still break a man in half with his bear hug. Clarice is an ex-carney acrobat who now makes her living doing horizontal acrobatics for three dollars per performance. Harriet, the owner, is a tough woman who lives with the Hugger.
The story opens with Turley Lynn, Eddie's brother, trying to get some help to get out of his latest trouble. He and his brother Clifton have stolen a couple of hundred thousand dollars from the mob and have two guys hot on their trail.
The story picks up the pace when Feather and Morris, the two guys chasing Turley, find Eddie and take him for the proverbial ride. From there on the story has plenty of action with constant reminders of what life down there is really like.
Eddie the piano player just glides through this world with a half smile on his face playing the constant stranger. The violence and emotional intensity of what happens to Eddie in "Down There" changes his life. As the reader I was right in the middle of the action. The author provides a myriad of details as he tells us the story of Eddie's life. I am left with vivid memories of the place and the people. I recommend this book highly and I intend to look for more titles by this author.
  wildbill | Jun 7, 2013 |
This volume, if read without pause, would certainly point out some serious shortcomings in Goodis's work, which on occasion include plotting, characterization, and the writing itself. It would also point out some strengths, including a consistently dark vision that doesn't gloss over or trivialize the dark side of American life in the worse parts of town. Though Goodis himself didn't come from the lower classes, there rarely seems anything contrived about his lowlife or burnt-out characters. If you're reading this book in a comfortable living room in a quiet, safe neighborhood, you'll want to stay right there. The streets that Goodis writes about are best visited between the covers of a book.

Dark Passage *** 1/2
I initially read this as the third of three back-to-back-to-back Goodis books, and I drew a few conclusions about the author. First, for the most part he is a very good writer. Some of the conversations in his books, especially, are entertaining and quite humorous in an ironic or dark way. Second, he really has a thing about nasty women. This book features another one whose testimony put the book's protagonist behind bars for murdering his wife, which he says he didn't do. Third, the men LIKE the women to be nasty to them. This is really the hardest part of his books to read. The men are weak and passive for the most part as the women treat them like dirt (or send them across town in a blizzard for a particular brand of coffee, as happened in the last Goodis book I read, then curse at them even when they actually bring back the right thing.) Fourth, there will be a few people along the way who turn out to be human and offer their help.

The plot of Dark Passage has a lot going on, and from the escape to the book's conclusion, you'll remain absorbed, if in a semi state of disbelief at the somewhat random nature of events, though not as random as "Of Tender Sin". I'll have to rewatch the Bogart movie made from this and see how much they changed from Goodis' original story.

I just read this book for the second time and I'll stick with my *** 1/2 star rating. What really sticks with me this time is just how unreal the whole story is. You could almost believe that, like poor Peyton Farquhar, Vincent Parry is dreaming the whole thing in the moments he is being crushed by a stack of barrels while trying to make his escape. Parry's character veers back and forth from the most incapable pitiful male you can imagine to someone who is able to think quite shrewdly (about his escape and the way he manipulates a couple of people in the book). This isn't too believable, nor is the woman who rescues him or the miraculous "new face" he gets for $200. Still, the fascination of the individual scenes makes up for these shortcomings. While never believable, Dark Passage still has an interesting author's voice behind it.

Nightfall *** 1/2
(Also a repeat of an earlier review of mine)
Interesting story with a lot more psychology thrown in than usual. A few implausibilities make it not as realistic as some hard-boiled noir novels, but Goodis avoids most of the traps in writing such a story and rises above most of his competitors. A few cases of over-writing from time to time, but none of them make you cringe. This is a fairly early work, and I intend to keep reading his other books to see how he improves.

The Burglar **
(Repeat of an earlier review)
Immensely bleak and often tedious, this isn't one of Goodis's best works. Some of the writing is pretty maudlin, and while there is a lot of time for the characters to interact, the interactions aren't nearly as interesting as in his better books. In those books, the gloom flows more freely and seems natural. Here, it seems a bit contrived. Nice settings, however.

The Moon in the Gutter ***
Rather static, but memorable, story of a dockworker living on the bad side of town, with a good-for-nothing brother, a layabout father, a nagging stepmother, the stepmother's daughter (who is also his lover), an uptown drunk, and the drunk's sister, plus a few more oddball characters. Frankly, it all comes off as something of a nightmare as the characters attempt to form some sort of real human bond with each other--but either Goodis can't write it that well, or, more likely, the emptiness of the relationships is the center of the book. The story revolves around the dockworker's younger sister, who was driven to suicide after being "ruined", and the dockworker's search for the responsible man. Highlights of the story include a couple of very impressive fight scenes. The writing occasionally descends to some really awful flowery sentences, but these are far between and don't spoil the unremitting doom and gloom. Once again, Goodis proves himself the King of the Downer--but there is enough grit and truth here to make it memorable.

Street of No Return ****
This was a great way to end this volume. A Skid Row bum, following a mysterious figure, tries to help a dying cop in an alley (in the aftermath of a race riot) and is accused of the crime himself. The bum turns out to have quite a back story, and that flashback is the only interruption in a tale that otherwise is told pretty much in real-time in the course of a few nighttime hours. The plot relies on on a few implausible coincidences, but that doesn't dull the effect as the story builds to a rousing climax. Only for the almost always gloomy Goodis could this narrative be called upbeat, but as things are revealed during the course of the night, the bum begins to find strengths within himself--or perhaps he is just past the point of caring about life and death. Page for page, this is the most consistent good writing in the volume. The story's ending is both effective and satisfying, with some ends left loose just like the real world. ( )
2 ääni datrappert | Jun 17, 2012 |
näyttää 5/5
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Collects five crime novels of David Goodis all dealing with unfortunate people and dark doomed settings.

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