DAVID GOODIS ‑ POET OF THE LOSERS                                     by Dave Moore


According to the anonymous blurb, "David Goodis was one of the most brilliant and original post‑war writers in the mould of Chandler, Hammett and Cain," but I think there's more to it than that.  Comparison with these masters of crime‑writing may be a good marketing ploy, but it disregards Goodis's own unique contribution to the genre.


Geoffrey O'Brien was closer to the mark: "David Goodis is the mystery man of hardboiled fiction. ... He wrote of winos and barroom piano players and small‑time thieves in a vein of tortured lyricism all his own. ... He was a poet of the losers. ... If Jack Kerouac had written crime novels, they might have sounded a bit like this."  He's right, there is something of the soul of Kerouac in Goodis's writing.  Not altogether surprising, since they had similar life‑styles and both experienced the alcoholic downside of life, and, although this killed them at a relatively early age, they both lived long enough to write about it.


David Loeb Goodis was born in 1917 to a respectable Jewish family in Philadelphia.  He has two younger brothers, one of whom dies of meningitis, aged three.  An avid story‑teller during his youth, Goodis attends high school in Philadelphia and then moves to Indiana University for a year before returning to Temple University in his home town, where he graduates in 1938 with a degree in journalism.  He is then employed by an advertising agency and begins work on his first book, a novel in the Hemingway style called RETREAT FROM OBLIVION. This is published by Dutton in 1939, and Goodis moves to New York to embark on a writer's career.  There he finds plenty of work in the flourishing pulp industry and is soon turning out as many as 10,000 words a day, under a variety of pseudonyms, for many different publications, such as HORROR STORIES, TERROR TALES, WESTERN TALES and DIME MYSTERY MAGAZINE.  This work continues throughout the war years, with Goodis contributing stories to aviation war magazines such as BATTLE BIRDS and DARE‑DEVIL ACES.  It is claimed that during this period he wrote some five million words in five and a half years for the pulps, a prodigious achievement, and also provided scripts for many radio serials, including Hap Harrigan, House of Mystery, and Superman.  Goodis attempted more novels at this time, but they were all rejected until, in 1946, DARK PASSAGE was serialised by the Saturday Evening Post, published in book form, and bought by Warner Brothers for film treatment.


Goodis is on his way.  He signs a six‑year contract with Warners and moves to Hollywood, where he had been briefly in 1942, scripting DESTINATION UNKNOWN for Universal, and meeting and marrying the mysterious Elaine, who leaves him the following year on their return to New York but who is to mentally scar Goodis and form the basis of the female character in many of his later novels.  For Warners he writes the script for THE UNFAITHFUL, a loose remake of Somerset Maugham's famous THE LETTER in 1947, and that same year DARK PASSAGE is released, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, although Goodis is unhappy about the changed ending forced upon that film.  He becomes disenchanted with the movie industry.  Many of the scripts he works on, including an early draft OF MISSING PERSONS and an adaptation of Chandler's THE LADY IN THE LAKE, remain unproduced.  His novels fared better. NIGHTFALL and BEHOLD THIS WOMAN were published in hardback in 1947, and OF MISSING PERSONS, seemingly influenced by Jack "Dragnet" Webb's police‑procedural radio series, followed in 1950.

That year, 1950, Goodis retreats back to Philadelphia, living the life of a recluse with his parents and younger brother Herbert.  At night he breaks away and begins visiting the black heartland of ghetto bars and nightclubs, drinking with obese black women who seem to satisfy his cravings.  At that time paperbacks were replacing the pulps, and it was to this market that Goodis turned, writing a dozen or so paperback originals for Gold Medal and Lion throughout the 1950s. In these novels Goodis drew from his experiences of low‑life in the ghettoes of Philadelphia and wrote about losers, drunks, outcasts and derelicts.  Many of the books were about previously respected characters, now disgraced and down on their luck ‑ a crooner in STREET OF NO RETURN, a concert pianist in DOWN THERE, an airline pilot in CASSIDY'S GIRL, an artist in BLACK FRIDAY, and a policeman in NIGHT SQUAD ‑ and could all reflect Goodis's own perceived status at that time.  Other novels, such as STREET OF THE LOST and THE MOON IN THE GUTTER, concern eternal Skid Row no‑hopers condemned to live and die in the lower depths.


These novels attract the attention of French readers, who doubtless find in them some of the stark qualities of their own existential writers.  In 1956 director Jacques Tourneur films NIGHTFALL, and that same year a movie version of THE BURGLAR is released, with a screenplay by Goodis, and starring Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield.  (An inferior film of the book, called THE BURGLARS, set in Greece and starring Jean‑Paul Belmondo and Omar Sharif, is released in 1972.)  French director François Truffaut makes an acclaimed film version of DOWN THERE (which he calls SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER) in 1960, starring Charles Aznavour as the pianist, Eddie.


Goodis's final Gold Medal book, NIGHT SQUAD, appears in 1961.  He continues living at home, with his schizophrenic brother Herbert, caring for his father until his death in 1963, when he becomes the sole supporter of his mother.  In 1965 he brings legal action against the producers of the famous TV series THE FUGITIVE, convinced that they have stolen the idea from his DARK PASSAGE. His mother's death in 1966 hits him hard, and he admits himself into a psychiatric hospital.  He dies, aged 49, on 7 January 1967 at the Albert Einstein Medical Center.  That same year his final novel SOMEBODY'S DONE FOR is published by Avon in its Banner imprint.  It's a well‑crafted work with a suspenseful plot, and seems likely to have come from the earlier period of his writing.


Following his death, nothing by Goodis is available in print in the USA for twenty years.  His books continue to sell in France, in Gallimard's Série Noir, and a couple also appear in the UK, from Priory Books, in the 1970s.  Some 16 years after his death, in 1983, four of his best novels are reprinted in the UK, in a Black Box Thrillers collection by Zomba.  That same year, THE MOON IN THE GUTTER is filmed, with Nastassia Kinski and Gérard Depardieu.  It isn't until 1987 that Goodis is republished in his own country, by the Black Lizard Press of Barry Gifford (he of WILD AT HEART fame), and these editions continue to be made available today by Random House's Vintage Crime imprint.


David Goodis is remembered as a skilled writer, famous for literary devices (known in the trade as "thing language", according to Mike Wallington): "The empty room looked back at him," and "quiet came in and sat down."  In CASSIDY'S GIRL, his unformed thoughts "stood on a little invisible shelf, looking down at him."  In NIGHT SQUAD Corey Bradford's metal police badge talks to him, and in DARK PASSAGE there's the celebrated dialogue sequence between Parry and his dead friend Fellsinger.  Colour pervades several of the novels ‑ the green of NIGHT SQUAD, orange/yellow of DARK PASSAGE, and tan of THE BURGLAR.  Goodis was a unique and gifted craftsman whose work deserves not to be forgotten.  It is pleasing that many of his books are easily available once more and that he is at last receiving some of the recognition he deserves.

Check out this illustrated bibliography of the books of David Goodis.



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