Home > Book, classic, Genre, mystery, Review > Book Review: David Goodis Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s by David Goodis

Book Review: David Goodis Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s by David Goodis

Black Library of America cover showing covers of 5 original books.Summary:
The Library of America collects together great pieces of American literature into themed books.  This can be anything from an author, to writing on aviation, to the Harlem Renaissance, to transcendentalism.  This collection is David Goodis’s best works, all of which happen to be noir.  Obviously the most well-known noir author is Raymond Chandler, but one of Goodis’s works was made into a Bogie and Bacall movie, so he’s not too far behind.  The books in order of year published included in this collection are:

Dark Passage–A man framed for his wife’s murder escapes San Quentin and investigates the case with the aid of a beautiful woman in San Francisco.

Nightfall–A WWII veteran on his way to Chicago for a job finds himself inextricably linked to a robbery and murder and goes on the lam.

The Moon in the Gutter–A dockworker becomes obsessed with figuring out who raped his sister, leading to her ultimate suicide.

The Burglar–A man in his 30s who fell into the world of thieving during the Great Depression tries to get out but his tutor’s daughter keeps sucking him back in.

Street of No Return–A hobo finds himself implicated in a cop murder in the middle of race riots between whites and Puerto Ricans.

Review:
I am a huge fan of noir.  I even took a noir class in undergrad, so when this showed up on Netgalley, I knew I wanted to read it, particularly since I recognizedDark Passage as a film I had watched last year.  Surprisingly, we didn’t read any Goodis in that class, so it was fun to try out someone who’s not Chandler.  I think Chandler found more of a niche than Goodis what with the fact his main character is the same in every novel.  Goodis explores a bit more.  His books all have a noir feel, but they don’t follow the exact same formula.  For instance, instead of a hardboiled private dick, you might get a hardboiled thief or artist or hobo.  Plus the books tend to be a bit more tragic than most noir I have read.

Goodis’s writing at the sentence level has the tongue-in-cheek wit that I so enjoy.

“Madge is a fine girl.”
“Maybe one of these days she’ll get run over by an automobile.”
“It’s something to pray for.” (location 801)

He also is fabulous at setting a scene so richly that it seems as if it is our world but simultaneously is Wonderland.

She had seated herself in a deep sofa that looked like it was fashioned from pistachio ice cream and would melt away any minute. (location 5039)

The mystery aspects of his storylines are unpredictable, don’t always wrap up neatly, and yet make sense once they are revealed to you.  Unfortunately, these strengths are offset by his weak romance writing.  Every single romantic interest in all of the books are a small-framed, lean woman with light brown hair.  The author has a type, we can definitely see that.  Beyond that, though, the love is always instant.  They see each other across the room and fall for each other.  And both people acknowledge this and say it’s something that can’t be helped and they are at its beck and call.  This would be less of a bother except that the main characters often make important decisions based on this new “love.”  For instance, one of the characters gives up his career for this woman he barely knows.  Who does that?! It’s therefore difficult to be sympathetic to the characters when you are thrown out of believability.  That’s unfortunate because the scene setting and mystery plots are so strong.

The best work of the bunch is The Moon in the Gutter where the impetus for a lot of the action is not the romantic interest, but the love between siblings.  Additionally, it looks at issues of class, being stuck where you are, having who you can love and build a life with dictated to you by that classism innate in society.  The grittiness is extreme.  We’re talking about a dockworker dealing with his sister’s rape and subsequent suicide.  Yet Goodis acknowledges the good there too for the blue collar dock workers and their families.  Their lives are passionate and intense in a way that sitting around sipping wine and discussing the symphony just isn’t.

Overall, Goodis exhibits a lot of the qualities of good noir writing.  His style is dark and gritty, often with a femme fatale.  His stories offer more variety than those of other noir writers, but still fall solidly within and as a great example of the genre.  I recommend this collection to those who know they are a fan of noir, and the book The Moon in the Gutter to those who aren’t and would like to dip their toe in.

4 out of 5 stars

Buy It

Source: Netgalley

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