A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Five Noir Novels of the 1940’s and 50’s is one of those Library of America books that tend to be a bit intimidating to anyone just looking for a good read. They’re thick volumes with plain black dust jackets and have silk ribbon bookmarks–as if they’re too good to have a napkin, receipt, or movie ticket wedged between the pages–and they’re usually associated with authors like Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, or Faulkner. But in the past 15 years or so the Library of America has slowly expanded it’s selections to include classic popular fiction. The mysteries came first, with Raymond Chandler getting an LOA volume in ’95, then Dashiell Hammett in ’99. Next came the speculative fiction crowd, with H.P. Lovecraft getting his volume in ’05 and Philip K. Dick getting the first of three volumes in ’07. But the most surprising of all is their latest selection, five hardboiled noir novels by easily the most obscure author they’ve ever published in a single volume, David Goodis.
Maybe the prestige of being published in the Library of America will establish Goodis alongside Chandler and Hammett as a first tier name in genre fiction. He deserves it. Goodis is every bit as good as Hammett and, while no one will ever quite match Chandler, Goodis comes close.
The novels are just enough of a departure from the work of those two noir luminaries to still seem fresh. Hammett and Chandler never payed too much attention to the mystery itself. They were all about character, atmosphere, and suspense, not clues and red herrings. But they still clung to the detective as a protagonist and the detective story as a framework. Goodis gets rid of all of that. The main characters, who are never detectives, may do a bit of detecting–if you can call it that–and there is usually something mysterious at the heart of the plot, but that’s about as close to the traditional mystery as these novels get.
Three of the novels, Dark Passage, Nightfall, and The Burglar, share very similar themes, not to mention a pervasive, brooding sense of paranoia. Dark Passage follows escaped convict Vincent Parry in his attempts to avoid capture and prove his innocence; in Nightfall, Donald Vanning is also hiding from the law but is forced to confront them head on in order to pursue a beautiful woman; and in The Burglar, Nat Harbin attempts to abandon the gang of thieves he leads so he can be with the girl he loves. All three are moody and dark in the best way–that suspenseful, page-turning moodiness that basically defines noir. Nightfall strikes me as the best of the three. Vanning is the most likeable of the protagonists, and the plot proves to be the most thrilling. Maybe it helps, too, that Nightfall is probably the only novel in this collection that could be said to have a happy ending.
The Moon in the Gutter and Street of No Return are a bit different. They have more of a social awareness, dealing with poverty and, in the case of Street of No Return, racial struggles. But both are still about lonely male protagonists who struggle, fight, and fail to make precious meaningful connections. In The Moon in the Gutter we follow a stevedore named Kerrigan as he’s forced to choose between taking revenge for the death of his young sister or taking his one chance to leave the Philadelphia ghetto; in Street of No Return, a hasbeen singer who lost his shot at the big-time for a beauty named Celia, and then lost the girl too, makes one last attempt to be with the love of his life. If your only going to read one novel in this collection I suggest The Moon in the Gutter. It’s short, powerful, and, unlike the other four novels, entirely believable. There’s no imaginative plot twists, or too good to be true escapes from danger. It’s just great gritty realistic fiction with a suspenseful plot, and reads like a summing up of the best things about Goodis’ writing.
Review by Matthew