Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s
Dark Passage • Nightfall • The Burglar • The Moon in the Gutter • Street of No Return
The pulp poet of the lost and the desperate gets his due: five noir classics from the author of Down There (Shoot the Piano Player)
Read an interview with volume editor Robert Polito on Reader's Almanac, the Library of America blog
Among the pantheon of American crime writers—those masters of noir whose powerful vernacular style and dark and subversive themes transformed American culture and writing—David Goodis was a unique figure. Born in Philadelphia, he brought a jazzy, expressionist style and an almost hallucinatory intensity to his spare, passionate, uncompromising novels of mean streets and doomed people. Though little acknowledged during his lifetime, he has long enjoyed an international cult following, and his works have been adapted for the screen by directors including François Truffaut, Samuel Fuller, Jean-Jacques Beineix, and Jacques Tourneur.
Now, for the first time, his best work is collected in a single volume. Goodis experienced a brief celebrity when his novel Dark Passage (1946) became the basis for a popular movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The story of a man railroaded for his wife’s murder and forced to assume a different identity after escaping from prison becomes in Goodis’s hands a lyrical evocation of urban fear and loneliness. Nightfall (1947) further develops the theme of the innocent pursued, as artist Jim Vanning becomes accidentally embroiled in a violent robbery and must evade criminals and police alike.
In The Burglar (1953), first published like all his later novels as a paperback original, Goodis explores his characteristic notion of the criminal gang as surrogate family, wracked by thwarted aspirations and contradictory desires. The book’s reluctant criminal hero might be taken as a self-portrait of Goodis himself: “The way he operated was quiet and slow, very slow . . . always artistic without knowing or interested in knowing that it was artistic, always accurate with it and always extremely unhappy with it.”
The Moon in the Gutter (1953) is one of Goodis’s many tours of the down-and-out neighborhoods of his native city. William Kerrigan’s pursuit of the riddle of his sister’s death in an obscure alleyway provides the starting point for a tortuous journey into “the darkness of all lost dreams.” In Street of No Return (1954), another skid row odyssey, a famous crooner scarred by violence descends into dereliction. From its opening in the freezing wind of a November street corner through its explosive ending, it is imbued with Goodis’s deep identification with “the unchartered society of the homeless and the hopeless.”
Robert Polito, editor, is a poet, biographer, and critic whose Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson received the National Book Critics Circle award. He directs the Graduate Writing Program at the New School. He is also the editor of volumes #94 and #95 in the Library of America series, Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 40s and Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, the latter of which includes David Goodis’s classic novel Down There.
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