An Interesting Neutrality

In the Wall Street Journal, Lee Sandlin discusses two hard-boiled crime authors whose work has recently been anthologized, Paul Cain and David Goodis. I’m pretty familiar with Goodis, but Cain (no relation to James M.) is new to me. Sandlin assures me I haven’t missed much—Cain was tasked with writing Dashiell Hammett-esque stories for Black Mask in the 30s after Hammett himself struck out for Hollywood, and falls short in comparison. Indeed, the best part of the review is a bit on what made Hammett’s prose work so well. Hammett, Sandlin writes, had a

freakish knack for making neutrality interesting. Every object in a Hammett novel registers with unnerving clarity, even when it doesn’t appear to signify anything at all—as in this aria to an office desk:

Ragged gray flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.

It’s as radiant as an Edward Hopper painting, and as eerie. It means nothing in particular, and yet it seems to hold within it the silence of the entire American landscape. Hammett’s deadpan brutality inspired generations of truculent, thuggish, bullying private eyes; because of his influence, the average hard-boiled novel is like the world’s surliest Internet comment thread. But his more enduring legacy is in the way he was able to infuse the flatness of the American vernacular with this strange visionary cool.

“David Goodis is my favorite writer though I hardly know why.”

A nice thing to stumble over: For about a month now Lou Boxer has been keeping a blog dedicated to the life and work of crime novelist David Goodis. It’s a worthy project, and Boxer is the right person to do it (he helped put together Goodiscon, a festival dedicated to Goodis’ work, and his research was helpful when I was working on an a piece on some Goodis reissues a couple of years back). The Writer in the Gutter is a little all over the place, stuffed as it is with photos, pulp-magazine covers, essays, and some overly enthusiastic use of the highlight tag. But it seems determined to capture a lot of elements of Goodis’ life—personal, literary, and potboiling—and it includes Robert Polito‘s fine introduction to The Street of No Return reissue, which helps explain why he’s worth all this obsession:

David Goodis (1917-1967) appears to be the figure always most in need of reclamation, his books drifting out of print, his status shadowy, ever elusive…. [S]entence-by-sentence, I would argue, Goodis is our most crafty and elegant crime stylist. Noir is characteristically a language of objects, places, and names, an idiom that in a few bluff words summons worlds. Listen to the opening sentence of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me: “I’d finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him.” William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley: “Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek.” But noir language just as distinctively proceeds by chipping away at the world and itself until there’s only a vanishing distress signal from a void. Early on in Dark Passage (1946) Goodis advanced a vernacular prose of rococo repeated phrases that limn, then all but erase his characters.

David Goodis on Film

I feel mildly mortified that an entire film series dedicated to David Goodis happened and that I failed to hear about it; last week the Pacific Film Archive wrapped up “Streets of No Return,” featuring 10 films based on Goodis stories. You probably know about a pair of them: Dark Passage, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. Both are worth renting, though Steve Seid‘s assertion that the latter is “faithful” to the original novel is a little off. (That book was originally titled Down There, which, as I noted in a review of Goodis a while back, is one of the all-time great noir titles.)

I’m eager to see Descent Into Hell, another great noir title, which is based on Goodis’ The Wounded and the Slain. Better still, I’d like to get back to more of the man’s books. For a quick glimpse on the despairing, gritty tone that Goodis mastered, see Duane Swierczynski’s blog, which recently posted the opening passage of Goodis’ final novel, Somebody’s Done For. (Swierczynski’s blog has lots of great Goodis-related content in addition to that.)

There’s apparently an award for everything, and the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association has announced its nominations for the Dilys, given to the mystery and crime novel that its member bookstores most enjoyed selling. This sort of thing would be off my radar entirely, except that one of the nominees, Marcus Sakey‘s The Blade Itself, was one of the best crime novels I’ve read in recent years. To be truthful, I don’t keep up with the genre as much as I’d like to, but the novel scratched a lot of itches: it’s a Chicago novel that understands how fractured Chicago’s class structure is, its heroes are defined by their ordinariness (something I’ve always liked about George Pelecanos‘ books), and there’s an out-of-time, postwar noir feel to the story that recalls my all-time favorite noir author, David Goodis. Here’s what I wrote about The Blade Itself for Kirkus Reviews:

One man’s attempts to shake off his checkered past are foiled when his old partner in crime returns.

Danny Carter and Evan McGann used to be a great team. The two grew up in Bridgeport, a rough-and-tumble and predominantly Irish Chicago neighborhood, where they quickly graduated from shoplifting to knocking over pawnshops. When one such heist goes bad, Danny’s able to get away without being caught, but Evan winds up doing a seven-year prison bid. Once paroled, Evan makes a beeline for Chicago, where Danny’s been keeping his nose clean by working as a construction foreman and settling into a comfy life with his girlfriend, who runs a hip nightclub. A standard-issue kidnapping plot ensues, but though there’s a ring of familiarity to the material, Sakey proves he has the chops to eventually do better things. He has a great feel for the moral dilemmas created by Danny’s return to criminal life, and he makes the most of Chicago’s geographical split between its north side (upscale, educated) and south side (working-class, pugnacious) without overworking the metaphor. The dialogue has all the efficiency and punch the genre demands, and Evan is a fully imagined thug-he’s simultaneously charismatic and fearsomely violent, and though his actions strain believability in the later chapters, he never becomes a tough-guy caricature. (And Sakey doesn’t shy away from describing the occasional bit of savagery in unsettling detail.) The author is working with themes and tones reminiscent of George Pelecanos; he shares the same interest in exploring the ill-lit corners of a city, prefers heroes who have a rough past and some dirt under their fingernails and has little interest in police or professional gumshoes. That streetwise attitude makes him a valuable addition to Chicago crime lit, a landscape currently dominated by authors of detective stories (Sara Paretsky) and legal thrillers (Scott Turow).

A promising start from a writer willing to get deep into a city’s grit. Agent: Scott Miller/Trident Media Group