15 July 2010

Old school noir

David Goodis is one of the finest writers you never heard of. You may be familiar with the Francois Truffaut film Shoot the Piano Player--that was an adaptation of Goodis' 1956 novel Down There. Goodis also wrote the screenplay for the 1947 Bogart & Bacall vehicle Dark Passage, which was based on Goodis' novel of the same name. In 1965, Goodis sued United Artists and ABC-TV for copyright infringement, claiming that the hit show The Fugitive was plagiarized from that book. The case was ultimately settled in Goodis' favor in 1972, but he had died by then. Wikipedia claims "the case is still regarded as a landmark decision in intellectual property rights and copyright law." (Details here.) Despite the fact that you probably never heard of David Goodis, you have encountered his work or his legacy. What you ought to do is pick up one of his novels. I blogged earlier about the superb The Wounded and the Slain, recently re-issued by Hard Case Crime. I just finished Night Squad (1961), and Cassidy's Girl (1951) awaits me on the shelf. I found them at Moe's Books in Berkeley, and both are 1990s Vintage Crime/Black Lizard editions. Night Squad is the story of Corey Bradford, a disgraced ex-cop who goes to work for a gangster. At the same time, he's recruited for undercover work by a special "black ops" police outfit--the Night Squad--charged with taking down the crime bosses. Bradford has his own reasons for playing both sides against middle, and the book is really the story of him figuring out who and what he's loyal to. It's set in "the Swamp," the squalid ghetto of an unnamed city where street violence, drug abuse, prostitution, and corruption are the norm. Goodis uses the crime novel form to explore larger themes like betrayal and reconciliation, and to look at people in an unadorned, brutally frank way. He's not judgmental, in fact, he's sympathetic to even the most hardened and vicious of his characters. The tone and mood of his work is bleak, but surprisingly, is never hopeless. It's a tough balancing act, something it takes a master to pull off. Even if crime fiction isn't your bag, you can't help but notice the lucidity and vividness of Goodis' prose, and you can't help but be moved by his empathy for the down-and-out, the distressed, and the desperate. I think you ought to put David Goodis on your reading list so he'll be one of the finest writers you have heard of.

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