Four Novels: Nightfall, Down There, Dark Passage, The Moon in the Gutter
The Killer Inside Me
The Hunter (also published as Point Blank)
The Man with the Getaway Face
The Score (to be published in August)
The Green Eagle Score
The Black Ice Score
The Sour Lemon Score
Slayground (to be published in August)
Although they are frequently lumped together, mystery fiction and crime fiction are two very different fish. Mysteries attribute a superior logic to virtue, and turn the pursuit of evil into a civilized and often bloodless game. Crime fiction, on the other hand, acknowledges that law tends to be an attribute of power, rather than virtue, that its exercise can be messy and its boundaries ambiguous. It suggests that the protagonist, and by extension the reader, might just as easily be on the wrong side of the law as on the right. Such representation, literary or otherwise, has rather infrequently been encouraged by those who legislate such things. The myth of Robin Hood was cleaned up; that of Jesse James was made banal; the arch-criminal Fantômas was replaced by the superdetective Judex. The Hays Code set a long list of specific prohibitions for American movies, e.g., the sympathy of the audience was not to be thrown to the side of crime; revenge was not to be justified; methods of crime were not to be explicitly presented.
These doctrines were handed down in 1930 and applied in 1934. The timing was significant. It was the Depression; most Americans were looking in at money from the cold, and crime had wide appeal as an alternative. The pulp magazines were not regulated, however, and writers of the “hard-boiled” school were beginning to throw over the mechanical conventions of the mystery and to blur the distinction between good and evil. Even so, Hammett, Chandler, and the rest continued to rely upon the detective-protagonist. Their heroes, though scarred and disillusioned, were still righters of wrongs. James M. Cain, for all his melodrama and ham-fisted writing, intuitively identified with the criminal, and by doing so tapped into the popular subconscious and spotlit the sex appeal of crime. Cain’s heroes were usually square citizens who got into crime by scratching a persistent itch and having the itch multiply and turn malignant. The masochistic vicarious lure of trouble and guilt grabbed bystanders of capitalism who had the quarter to spend on a paperback.
Cain spawned a genre. The ingredients of compulsion, self-destruction, revenge, and blind chance awakened a kind of poetry in pulp writing, and in the movies adapted from it. The French, with their talent for banding and tagging, dubbed the style noir, referring not only to the dominant color scheme of the expressionist-influenced films, but also to the original roman noir, the gothic from Sade to Poe. The style’s cinematic wing has been well known stateside for at least ten years, even if few seem to have noticed it the first time around, but the novels have yet to receive their due. Most, in fact, have been out of print in English for some thirty years, although they have been preserved abroad, notably in Marcel Duhamel’s Série Noire imprint at Gallimard in Paris.
The reprinting of the work of David Goodis and Jim Thompson fills a significant gap in the continuity of postwar American fiction, a link between popular literature and the avant-garde. So many years of attention abroad and neglect at home have almost caused these writers to seem foreign, or at least expatriated. Goodis, for example, is known in the United States, if at all, as the author of Down There, which as Shoot the Piano Player became a screen hit for François Truffaut, and of The Moon in the Gutter, turned into a gigantic dud by Jean-Jacques Beineix. Nevertheless, Goodis was an archetypal American pulp writer. He had the usual Grub Street nonbiography: born (in Philadelphia), schooled (Indiana, Temple, journalism degree), and then, simply, he wrote. After an unsuccessful brush with upper-case literature, Goodis chose to write for money, or at least for the small change of western, horror, mystery, war, and adventure pulps, and then for radio serials. In 1946, after ten years of this, his novel Dark Passage was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, filmed by Delmer Daves with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and published in hardback, leading to temporary fame and a few more prestige publications. By the early 1950s, though, he was back in the ghetto of paperback originals, publishing with sleaze houses like Lion and Gold Medal, and there he stayed.
The four novels in the Zomba collection present Goodis at his most personal, which is to say his most obsessive. Goodis’s invariable plot shows his hero, unjustly accused of a crime, attempting to clear his name. The hero is punch-drunk from the ordeal, and the third-person prose takes on the tentative and repetitious rhythms of his internal monologue, so that the books seem to take place in a fog, or underwater.
The most striking is Dark Passage. In it Vincent Parry, a former bond-house clerk, escapes from San Quentin, where he has been unjustly held for the murder of his wife. He is rescued and hidden by a stranger, Irene Janney, for complex and perhaps unfathomable reasons. Chance brings Parry a friendly plastic surgeon, who revises his face, and a blackmailer, who unwittingly arms Parry for the job of finding the true killer. The Delmer Daves film was much prized by the Surrealists for the inexplicably fortuitous amour fou between the two leads, the first-person camera’s impersonation of Parry before he finds his true (Bogart) face, the bizarre, dreamlike finale which suggests a musical-comedy idea of heaven. Nevertheless, the movie only begins to suggest the poetic qualities of the novel, and not at all the nervous tremor of its prose.
Goodis looks at a thought over and over again, holding it up to show minutely different angles, building it by fractions of inches. The thought spreads like a rash; the reader wants to scream:
He remembered he hoped she would never come back and he was afraid she would never come back because there was something about her that got him at times and he wished there was something about him that got her. He knew there was nothing about him that got her and he wondered why she didn’t pick herself up and walk out once and for all. She was always talking in terms of tall bony men with high cheekbones and hollow cheeks and very tall. He was bony and very thin and he had high cheekbones and hollow cheeks but he wasn’t tall. He was really a miniature of what she really wanted. And because she couldn’t get a permanent hold on the genuine she figured she might as well stay with the miniature. That was about as close as he could come to it. She was very thin herself and that was the way he liked them, thin. Very thin. She had practically no front development and nothing in back but that was the way he liked them and the first time he saw her he concentrated on the way she was constructed like a reed and he was interested. He disregarded the eyes that were more colorless than light brown, the hair that was more colorless than pale-brown flannel, the nose that was thin and the mouth that was very thin and the blade-line of her jaw. He disregarded the fact that she was twenty-nine when she married him and the only reason she married him was because he was a miniature of what she really wanted and she hadn’t been able to get what she really wanted.
But Goodis retains a crisp pulp sense of narrative pacing, so that the story doesn’t flag while the characters are being bitten to death by memories and speculations. Goodis is also fond of dream sequences, color imagery, conversations with the dead, bits of drugstore Freud that would be laughable if they could be interpreted. As it is, they seem random and just deranged enough to be natural developments of the story.
In Nightfall (1947), the unjustly accused hero, pursued both by a gang and by the law, has to remember what he did with the gangsters’ money when he escaped from their clutches. In Down There (1956), the unjustly accused hero is a former concert pianist, lying low as piano player in a dive, watching helplessly while former acquaintances come and drag him back through what he is trying to forget. The Moon in the Gutter (1953) is a callow bit of nonsense involving a murder and its aftermath in a colorfully fake slum panorama. It doesn’t work largely because of Goodis’s failure to construct and inhabit his usual troubled, passive hero. He has no affinity for the man of action, and renders him as hollow and portentous. The real Goodis hero is a martyr specimen who has to be pushed past the breaking point in order to advance the plot, and even then retains his inner purity. This purity is so genuine that Goodis’s novels, at their best, are heartbreaking.
Jim Thompson had a career similar to Goodis’s, if somewhat longer. He was head of the Oklahoma Federal Writers’ Project during the Depression, and went on to write twenty-nine novels, mostly paperback originals, before his death in 1977. He also wrote screenplays (notably The Killing and Paths of Glory for Stanley Kubrick) as well as their inverse, novelizations (including the one for the TV series Ironside). If Goodis, in his books, represents one end of the noir equation, the innocent Justine beset by horrors, Thompson is the other, the corrupt Juliette. His novels are morally so rotten as to be of nearly clinical interest. Why is it, for instance, that in three of the four currently reprinted novels he sets up the identical situation of having one character kill two others and then make it look as though they killed each other?
Murder is an enjoyable, if compulsive, activity in Thompson’s books, like eating potato chips. Yet his novels are thoroughly devoid of either the macho posturing or the righteous pretext of duty to be found in most pulp violence. His heroes are usually cheerful and thoroughly psychotic. As Barry Gifford notes in his introduction to the Black Lizard editions, Thompson’s writing mirrors the schizoid duality of his characters, veering sharply between carefully stylized prose and penny-a-word sensationalizing. Similarly, he seems to be cheering on his protagonists, making them sympathetic, their confusion understandable, even as their killings pile up, but he cannot resist meting out punishment at the end, reserving for them the most agonizing fates. Novelists are often accused of playing God, but few have wallowed in the conceit quite as lustily as Thompson.
Pop. 1280 (1964) could almost be taken as his statement of purpose. Nick Corey is sheriff of the smallest county in Texas. He likes to sleep, eat, drink, and screw, and dislikes any kind of exertion. Most people think he is simple-minded, or at least malleable. Nevertheless, when people annoy him, he kills them, and pins the deed on someone else he doesn’t like. He remains ostensibly good natured and without a speck of doubt or remorse. Throughout the book there are scattered hints that he is considerably more canny than he makes out. These parallel an increasingly blasphemous suggestion, unveiled at the end: