Spoilers ahead. The book industry seems to have a longstanding sizing code in place for its product; differing products get their own standardized treaSpoilers ahead. The book industry seems to have a longstanding sizing code in place for its product; differing products get their own standardized treatment, via formatting or editing, to a genre-specific size. Popular Pocket books and Penguins of the forties and fifties seemed to have pretty set dimensions, and the page count was reliably 120 to 160 pages. Very often when we read a title these days it may come in a different format and the fact that it was squeezed or stretched to fit a now-nonexistent size... makes things awkward.
Interestingly there were actual federal postal codes in place in the Second World War, that allowed books of certain dimensions and weight to reach the troops overseas at very reduced rates. That may have had something to do with the rise of the Paperback. The direct beneficiary of this move toward portable, lightweight reading was the Pulps, a kind of sordid black-sheep relation to respectable books. They were action, horror, mystery, crime, sci-fi, and the kind of bloody melodrama that had covers with broken bra-straps and torn, lipstick-stained shirts.
Something about the noir sensibility lent itself naturally to Pulps and Pocketbooks. The telling of dark tales of fear and desperation somehow didn't promote a nine-hundred page rendering. At a shade over a hundred pages, the hardbitten detective thriller could still lavish the space for tricky exposition and character development, in plenty of time for the first corpse to appear. At ten to twenty-five cents a throw, however, the paperback still had to get down to business pretty quickly.
Margaret Millar's novel Beast In View runs counter to the standard noir novella (noirella?) in that no corpse finds its way into the pages for quite a while, at least within the narrow confines of a 157 page book. The reader is immediately immersed in a dreamy, paranoid world where the rules, the organizing principles, are continually revised or reversed. We're drawn into the sense that logic has deserted this particular Los Angeles tale of caution, but we have no side, no real stake in the outcome.
On the (increasingly distant) surface we have a fairly standard 'Threatened Heiress' situation, that develops nicely as an interesting psycho woman is seen as the antagonist. Sort of a Simenon with high quirk value. We have revolving viewpoints and chapters led by pursuers and pursued. Liquor and violence enter, as they must in this kind of story, and take their usual dizzying toll on the proceedings.
However. Too soon we have a body and the narrative blurs into low-grade melodrama. Murderous scorned women ! Perverse closeted homosexuals ! Ranting and raving ! Everyone becomes, at this point, some sort of psycho themselves. It's the downfall of pulp, perhaps, that there is no Good & Great Man to suffer the tragic fall. The milieu is always too morally ambiguous, and blurred by cigarette smoke.
Millar's intriguing noir setup devolves to lurid pulp boilerplate before our eyes, and that's too bad, a wasted opportunity.
The chapters when we're in the psycho woman's Pov fly along beautifully, with every appearance sharpening the keen jeopardy this character can inflict, just on a whim. She's literally chaos walking. As if to draw our attention away from the Twist that will come in the final chapters, she is the hard clean edge of a wave in an otherwise squalid sea.
Once the trustees of the safe world, the agents of the acceptable and civilized world begin casting their nets to bring her down, everything settles, and the novel loses all that unpredictable fizz and jolt. Chinatown it ain't.
“In order to distinguish the noir series from ordinary detective stories or other film cycles, Borde and Chaumeton take a different approach from subs“In order to distinguish the noir series from ordinary detective stories or other film cycles, Borde and Chaumeton take a different approach from subsequent writers on the topic, placing less emphasis on narrative structure or visual style than on the emotional or affective qualities of the films, which they describe with five adjectives typical of Surrealism: oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent and cruel.” - James Naremore, from the Introduction
And that’s why we come to this, the ground-breaking French study, published right at the epicenter of Film Noir, in 1955. The analysis offered by Borde and Chaumeton goes right to the heart of what makes these movies uniquely influential. A quick rundown of their list may be best to start with. The central themes, and their examples: • gangster & brutalism : “The Killers” “Asphalt Jungle” • mistaken identity : “Shadow Of A Doubt” • planned crime, caper : “Rififi” • the thinking cop, policier : “Naked City” “Quai des Ofevres” • pathology, criminal psychology : “Strangers On A Train” • hunted man on the run : “Dark Passage” • tormentor & prey : “Sorry Wrong Number” • ticket to the underworld : “The Big Sleep” “The Third Man” • moral corruption, dirty money : “Night And The City” • femme fatale : “Lady From Shanghai” “The Postman Always Rings Twice” “Maltese Falcon”
The era that is covered in depth is mostly 1945 through 1953, and Borde & Chaumeton make the case that noir is or may be over, in their estimation, by 1955. Little did they know that the half-life would be almost impossible to calculate. Their visionary theory, though, was that the Noir sensibility invades other narrative genres, as time goes on; in this they were absolutely correct.
Noir was certainly well established before the Second World War, but B&C note that there was a period of absence, or gestation, maybe, as this style of film went undercover in the war years. The ‘anti-social’ aspect of the noir conception was perhaps not acceptable in a world already under fire. Quarantined by mutual agreement to the kind of period suspense of something like “Gaslight” during the war years, the end of hostilities released the noir concept in the postwar years, in all of its wrenching, contemporary potential. To an audience that was sobered and more accustomed to grim reality than five years before. The atmosphere critical to the genre— uncertain motive, coincidence, dread, suspicion, treachery, ambivalence and paranoia-- was finally allowed to take the stage without any conflict with wartime propaganda considerations.
Before the war, the influence of the German Expressionist film (Murnau, Lang) was evident; as the postwar period took shape, world cinema was entranced with the gritty truths of Neo-Realism, and it is safe to assert that Noir was an unsung influence in both catalogues. A pillar of world noir is Luchino Visconti’s “Ossessione”, made from the same James M. Cain novel as “Postman Always Rings Twice”. The new, cold-blooded frisson of strange intrigues emerging directly from the evil in man himself-- or woman-- ran counter to the Hollywooden scheme of mixed up kids involved in high jinks. Happy endings were now recognizably pre-war and defunct.
The Noir atmosphere is not really a whodunit situation, but set within the criminal milieu itself; or at very least in the imagination of a man or woman considering criminal options. It is not a cop story looking to find the villain, but the suspense of a practical soul drawn to evil by his own worst angels. Informers, deception, blackmail, malaise, and desperation are regulars in this environment. For audiences, the films are a trip to forbidden worlds, where eroticism, sin, and morbid curiosity take hold. And there again we have the markers of Neo-Realism as well. But there is something delightfully taboo about the ambiguity of the noir world, where the rules are changed behind the scenes, and the innocent man may find himself holding the bloody knife as dawn breaks.
For the romance aspect, there is raw sensuality in characters stripped to their last desperate hopes, living for sensation alone; there is tension and the anticipation of (unlikely) release. And a dark erotic charge to the idea that the woman you hold in your arms may be a murderer, maybe your murderer, unknown and completely untrustworthy.
Borde and Chaumeton rightly focus on the disappearance of psychological bearings in the Noirs, the way a dream state is lived by the innocent in the underworld, and the ability of the films to induce that feeling in the audience. Their contention that the root of Noir is in the uncanny, the quality of strangeness and oneirism-- maybe found on a foggy night tracking a veiled woman through the narrow lanes in the Hollywood Hills-- is on target. Uncertainty and strangeness, the unreliability of any ground rules, mean that what is right and logical in the first act will almost certainly be meaningless in the second. It is the love song of the coldwar existentialist, and only anti-heroes need apply. ...more
Overall a signature outing, a key Goodis novel that rivals Dark Passage.
We begin with an overly long set-piece in a a dive bar (the dive bar that woulOverall a signature outing, a key Goodis novel that rivals Dark Passage.
We begin with an overly long set-piece in a a dive bar (the dive bar that would be the cover set if this were a tv mini-series) that just won't let up on the clichés-- but this and much more are all forgiven once the onslaught takes place.
(Getting to know the weaknesses of Goodis, there are flashes here of his admiration for working-class drama like Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, powerful for a blue-collar writer in the fifties. Also for pinches of Freud, snips of Jung. A penchant for the aimless dialogue stylings of Godot. Forgiveable, again, for the era.)
Once the narrative is shifted violently into gear, there's no let-up, until... Somehow, curiously, we get into the territory of backstory, somewhere in the middle, and it becomes fascinating on its own. This is a Goodis specialty, that takes a reader out of the frame, explains a few crucial things, and brings him back knowing a lot more. It fits the story, as a brief release from life in the underworld ... the concept of 'has-been' is fleshed out, something of a regular thing in Goodis, and we're on our way. Down.
“We’re almost there,” she said. Almost where? What’s she talking about? Where’s she taking me? Some dark place, I bet. Sure, that’s the dodge. Gonna get rolled. And maybe get your head busted, if it ain’t busted already. But why cry the blues? Other people got troubles, too. Sure, everybody got troubles. Except the people in that place where it’s always fair weather. It ain’t on any map, and they call it Nothingtown. I been there, and I know what it’s like and I tell you, man, it was sheer delight and the pace never changed, it was you at the piano and you knew from nothing. Until this complication came along. This Complication we got here. She comes along …
What is intriguing is that this is 1956, and basically the downslope of the Goodis trajectory; the legend is that he flamed out in Hollywood and came back to Philadelphia to grind out pulp in a bitter, alcoholic slide... a character from Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby tales. And the scattershot influences, the cumbersome intro to this novel --might make you think the worst, until the wreck blazes into life and takes off in a white-hot streak.
Somehow with Goodis you may disbelieve the circumstances, ignore the shameless cliché of the dialogue, but you believe in him when he tells you about the Dame. We are visitors in the circles of Hell, but redemption is just over there in the shadows, at the end of a trail of cheap dimestore perfume, behind some long lashes. The Dame is the third rail of noir mysteries, and accidents will happen.
Is It In His Face? Oh No, That's Just His Charms. It's not always the same city, or always a city, but it's pretty much always overwhelmingly, claustro Is It In His Face? Oh No, That's Just His Charms. It's not always the same city, or always a city, but it's pretty much always overwhelmingly, claustrophobically, surrounded by The City. And no kind of town for amateurs. In the world of David Goodis, it's never time to reflect, to rest, or to let down your guard, because you know that even at your best, the odds are against you. Open your eyes in the morning and it's already a bad bet, a sucker's game.
And that's another thing-- it's never morning, unless you're talking about four or five in the morning. Or dropping to sleep at dawn, after an unbelievably brutal night. Either way, it's always Night in Goodis, and no safe place to be.
"... everything faded, except the things in front of his eyes, the rutted street and the gutter and the sagging doorsteps of decaying houses. It struck him full force, the unavoidable knowledge that he was riding through life on a fourth-class ticket..."
In His Warm Embrace? Oh No, That's Just His Arms. Limited self-esteem, hard breaks, a tough background and a tough outlook for what's ahead. A man is always a man, eyeing the world for how he can get over, how he could beat the system. And a woman is there to get right in the way. Or if luck is rolling with her, to take him for a fool for awhile, maybe for the kicks, or maybe for a bigger payoff.
If You Wanna Know-- If He Loves You So... It's not just a tough road, but the deadliest stretch known in the literature : no compass, no signposts either, but if there were, they would read: Dangerous Curves Ahead. Once the guy meets the one broad that knocks him for a loop, he's done, no matter how long he tries to extend or control the tailspin.
It's In His Kiss. Like all of Noir, there is buried hope. There is the unreachable obsession with Redemption, coursing through the characters, always at odds with the situation, never likely and always a surprise when it appears... for that glimmering moment before the fall. And redemption looks best tall and thin, in a pale skirt.
"...She pushed the car at medium speed, sat there behind the wheel with a relaxed smile on her face as she listened to the music. Without looking at Harbin, she was communicating with him, and once she reached out and let her fingers go into the hair at the back of his head. She gave his hair a little pull. He poked around in his brain and wondered if it was possible to figure her out. He thought of her kisses. In his lifetime he had been kissed by enough women, and had experienced a sufficient variety of kisses, to know when there was a real meaning in a kiss. Her kisses had the real meaning, and not only the fire, but the genuine material beyond the fire. If it hadn't been genuine he would have sensed it when it happened. This woman had immense feeling for him and he knew clearly it was far above ordinary craving and it was something that couldn't be put on like a mask is put on. It was pure in itself, and it was entirely devoid of pretense or embroidery. It was the true feeling that made the entire business a quaking paradox, because the one side of Della was drawn to him, melted into him, and the other side of Della was out to louse him up."
Oh, Oh-- It's In His Kiss. That's Where It Is. Basically there is one, fleetingly brief moment in Goodis' novels where life's combination-lock is dialed in correctly, where the tumblers fall into their elusive destinations and a man can feel relief. And then the reach for the lever that opens the strongbox and ... then the earth falls out of its orbit.
It's always the dame that does this trick, but she's never straight, she's never front-to-back clear in her own noggin about what's going on, and what he's willing to put on the line. For the man, well, he knows he's got a losing hand, betting against the house, and the house is dealing from the bottom of the deck tonight.
There is no shortage of side characters in Goodis' world, partners in crime, well-intentioned strangers and vicious bastards, sweet girls and horrendous hags; all are fitted with the kind of traits that make them instantly memorable. Against the black oppressiveness of that city of night, the characters stand out against the urban steam and heat like visions. Oh, did I mention that it's always a grotesque summer heatwave ? It just so happens that it is. That's because the world of Goodis is hell; and it's the same as everywhere, so what's the big deal ? Just keep moving, pal.
There are five novels here. "Dark Passage" is beautifully done, five stars all the way. The next two, "Nightfall" and "The Burglar" are superb, singular noirs better than most, if not quite on the level of the first one. The final two are Goodis lost at the pulp fairgrounds; biographical details suggest that by the time he got to "Moon In The Gutter" and "Street Of No Return" he had gone around the bend. Maybe with alcohol, maybe with mental issues, but certainly the novels are grim, extreme, hallucinatory at this stage.
My impression, and I'm nowhere near the end of reading all of Goodis, is that he is a kind of American Sartre, a two-fisted Dante being backed into a solid wall of desperation and doubt. Thinking all the while, transcendentally, nursing the idea, about this one ... kiss. ...more
Good crime novels are very often characterized by the short & sharp quality of the prose, the hard clean lines of the structure. Very much the casGood crime novels are very often characterized by the short & sharp quality of the prose, the hard clean lines of the structure. Very much the case here, with a story that moves very quickly through an environment that is described in brief, effective strokes.
Something else, though, and that is a vein of sympathetic insight running through the necessarily noirish circumstances. Tough situations in some hard-crime novels are sometimes left a little unexamined due to the constraints of the telling, as in the classic "just the facts" approach.
In The Expendable Man, 1963, there is a much deeper feel for the characters and the precise pitch of the drama. Tempting to attribute that to the fact that the author is a woman, rather than, say, a male ex-cop or similar. But that doesn't necessarily add up; what's true is the fact that this story is able to shift gears, roaring along at full speed, from the internal to the external, from the complex fears of the protagonist to the crushing realities of the underworlds he finds.
Always a pleasure to find a great new author. For me they are frequently found in the past. I'll be reading all the Hughes I can lay my hands on....more
It was a necessary train ride, off the eastcoast grid to the center of the rust belt. It was a necessary six hours, even before whistle-stops and unexIt was a necessary train ride, off the eastcoast grid to the center of the rust belt. It was a necessary six hours, even before whistle-stops and unexplained lulls were counted in. After a high-proof holiday and a few sleepless celebrations, the ride back to college was generally comfortable and quiet.
This was still the era of The National Limited, The Broadway Limited and other time-honored routes. New fabric protective mats every trip on the shoulders of the seats. Smoking cars, Pullman Captains and lounge cars with a bartender; linen tablecloths in the dining car, a single-stem carnation in a weighted glass flute on every table.
Somehow like ships, long-distance trains sometimes seem to lose the edge of the wind, waste their energy on the flats and find themselves grounded somewhere, becalmed, on a siding near ... nothing at all. On a good day, that happened only once or twice.
It was my luck to slip into a coma-like sleep after the doldrums and false starts, lulled by the quieting of the train from the light snow falling on the rails. When I woke up the car was pitch black and gliding through unfamiliar terrain. Conductors no longer loudly announced the stops, but headed down the aisles whispering "somewheretown, next," or "mumbleville, arriving shortly," just under their breath, so as not to disturb the pervasive, rumbling quiet. I didn't recall ever hearing these towns before. I had overslept my stop.
In a disquieted lurch, I grabbed my luggage, perhaps including the manual typewriter's carrier case that disguised a thick pack of Lps, and went for the exit in bloodshot fury. Having seen this sort of Holden Caulfield reenactment before, the night porter suggested that I wait until the city of Johnstown came up, where they had, he explained, taxis, hotels, lights. At this hour. There were no more trains today, and I'd have to overnight in this unforeseen urban center, if it wouldn't be too much trouble.
The meeker and more polite the Pullman porters got, the more everyone knew that was the sign they were interacting with grand-scale assholes. So you knew at that first lowered glance and demure suggestion that they were still with you but, well, you were pushing your luck. These were generally clever, reasonably paid black men at a time of tricky, changeable racial conditions and unsaid segregation codes; they operated both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line, sometimes in a single trip. They knew how to control carloads of white businessmen with less than a gesture and no fuss. I would wait, in a seat nearby the door, until the glitter of Johnstown's skyline gently shimmered into view.
Finding myself at the only lit building in a scruffy warehouse section of a dead city, I checked into the Penn-Hunt-Dimentia Hotel, where I was tossed the keys to a 13th floor doornumber somewhere in the thousands. Nothing added up, or made much sense, and the elevators were upstairs, on a darkened mezzanine landing.
My suite's ambience wasn't aided by the bare-bulb ceiling fixture, so I switched that off and went back to the coma I had been missing since the train. It wasn't till the cold light of day that I began to have a real look around.
College wasn't at any danger of going anywhere in my absence, so I began to have ideas about having some kind of adventure. Something unusual, explainably unavoidable, while doing my duty to get back, within a completely reasonable delay. As soon as I called down for "room service" it became obvious that I might want to get back on a train quicker than all that. Seems there was no such thing, not now, not ever, no sir, and it wasn't really understood very well by the morning desk staff, who seemed pleasurably confused by the inquiry.
As I spoke I was looking around. The Hotel was massive. The train station far below the window ledges fit perfectly into the picture. I was in a depression era city, bleak and gray and unappealing in the hard winter light. The closed-up storefronts on the street below must have served an industrious populace once, forty or fifty years ago, but were now immobilized, seized-up and still, like the barber's poll with it's stripes derailed, skewed and dusty, the stopped station clock, and the shop windows featuring broken mannequin parts.
The room was threadbare of course, but nondescript and banal in the décor of the Thirties Commerce Traveller, flat and unadorned by design. The phone I was holding in my hand was a kind of museum-piece, so obsolete as to seem installed for culture shock, curated for its shiny, black antiquity.
Dashiell Hammett's Nightmare Town is at its best when it gets to these kind of banalities, the astringent quality in an Edward Hopper interior.
It hardly needs saying that I was down that old elevator to the street, and out of there long before the first train of the day rumbled into mumbletown. Suspiciously heavy typewriter case in hand, I did have the whole rest of college to consider, didn't I?
The situation with this collection appears to be that this was a kind of odds-and-ends group of short fiction that was knocking around in Hammett's poThe situation with this collection appears to be that this was a kind of odds-and-ends group of short fiction that was knocking around in Hammett's possession at the time of his death. Mrs Hammet, Lillian Hellman, collected and wrote an introduction for this compilation, in 1962. Some were published in the likes of 'Ellery Queen', and some were never before seen, basically novellas looking for a revision and an expansion to become novels.
And an odd group it is. You can't really miss finding something here that is worthwhile on some level-- but, there are some really strange and pulpy moments. We find Hammett trying his general formula in all shadings of story, location, and genre here. Every story a Hopper painting, with that unspoken dread invariably repaid in full.
There is a classic San Franscisco Chinatown piece, called, with all blatant pulp-orientalism intact, "Dead Yellow Women". Noirish inscrutability, exotic and intricate locations, all the usual suspects-- gunmen, weasels, bookies, rats, mandarins and a dragon lady. What more could anyone ask.
A good society scandal story, with cult murder and runaway heiresses, is called 'The Scorched Face' :
...A night wind from the Pacific was creaking a grocer's sign down below, swaying the arc-light above. The wind caught the woman as she passed out of our building's sheltered area. Coat and skirts tangled. She put her back to the wind, a hand to her hat. Her veil whipped out straight from her face. Her face was a face from a photograph ...
Which goes Noir Baroque when we get to the cult house and ring the bell :
...A big black man in a red fez, red silk jacket over red-striped silk shirt, red zouave pants and red slippers opened the door.
Is there really anyone who can stop turning the pages at that point ? I think not.
Another bright moment is called "This King Business" which goes really far afield, to Eastern Europe, in fact, for a hard-bitten brush with the espionage / suspense genre. Far from homebase, we find just what we need-- untrustworthy operatives, secret societies, and that classic of twenties fiction, the charmingly innocent Heir-To-A-Fortune-- running dangerously amok in strange, unorthodox circumstances. And, of course, a femme fatale or two, as is contractual in these situations. (Erskine Childers and John Buchan certainly beat Hammett to the origins of the spy tale, but this holds its own pretty well with any early example of the genre. Just kind of wacky to have the snappy-comebacks Noir tough-guy hero, involved where normally you'd have a suave-but-deadly type...) Good fun, and a reminder that even good writers have to stretch sometimes in an effort to reinvent things that have become a little too codified.
Those are three good ones; there are less-good ones. (A kind of Detective / Wild-West misfire, complete with horses, sixguns and banditos... to be avoided.) For any Hammett fan or completist, though, it's very interesting to see the kind of Alternate Takes the noir master was playing around with, and-- hard to fault him for the misfires, given that he wasn't around to do the deciding on what went into this collection. ...more