David Goodis: Wit, Wisdom and the World of Noir

Eman Omar


I was introduced to David Goodis during Freshers’ week at university. It seemed commonplace for every phoney theatre kid to have that Warner Bros. poster of the film Dark Passage, with the glaring image of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall pasted on the walls of their college dorm room. There were variations of the poster as well. There was that one with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall looking off into the distance with Bogart sporting a rolled cigarette or the one with both of them looking directly into the camera with Bacall’s piercing eyes staring straight through you. My personal favourite was the one where Bacall holds a gun, her wavy blond hair swept to the side in true Hollywood style. For me, there was always something suspenseful about women characters with guns; they were somehow more enigmatic, more powerful than a man with a gun and capable of a lot more than murder.


Dark Passage — Film Cover

My eyes saw so much of that poster that the memory became too permanent—I had to watch the film. Though I enjoyed it in all its black and white glory, there’s only so much one can learn from the tough-talking pricks and the dazzling dames of the silver screen, perpetually choked in thick clouds of cigarette smoke. To know what goes on in the mind of a noir character, reading the book becomes essential.


The first paragraph sets the tone for the novel and sums up the anxiety of the era:


“Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side there was practically nothing. The judge decided he was guilty and he was taken to San Quentin.”


David Goodis was a rare beast of his time. Born in 1917 in Philadelphia to immigrant parents, he was ever conscious of his Jewish heritage and, in fact, lived through the time when anti-Semitism was paramount in the US. The portrayal of his characters as downtrodden and fatigued share common traits with characters of Old Jewish Literature as they do with personalities in noir. Perhaps what kept Goodis inspired throughout his life were his wanderings into various slums, especially Skid Row. He chose to live and love in a segregated city, found happiness with Black girlfriends and strategically turned his lived experiences into noir fantasies. After graduating in 1938 with a degree in journalism, Goodis worked briefly in advertising whilst also writing for the pulps.


All of his works are a reflection of his sympathies for the oppressed, the oppressor, the outsider, the insider, the obsessed, the detached, the defeated and the power-hungry; thus embracing the language of noir as an agent for social criticism to portray human foibles, of the rawest kind, from his observations.


Dark Passage — Book Cover

Indeed, his Dark Passage epitomises the classic noir novel where characters stand alone; outside of society, outside of civility. They don’t have mothers, siblings, children. They don’t have someone to take care of, nor do they have anyone that takes care of them. They live for themselves and they have to survive, for themselves. Noir fiction came at a time when American capitalism was rife. ‘Individualistic’ culture began to preside over the longstanding ‘collectivist’ values of family life, which explains why noir figures turn to their immediate desires, while turning a blind eye to their fellow characters. They are on their own.


Noir emerged in the middle of a violent century: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of economic growth, it was the age of environmental catastrophe, it was the epoch of pluralism, it was the epoch of chauvinism, it was the season of political liberalism, it was the season of political obscurity, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to intergovernmental leadership, we were all going direct to autocracy. In short, the post-World War II period mounting towards a Cold War was so similar to the world described in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.


1946 was that frabjous year which, unlike its predecessor, was long anticipated, and welcomed. However, it is something of a truism to note that wars, just like economic recessions and medical emergencies, leave scars. This time period became auspicious for leaving a mark, not only on displaced populations, on politics, and on sociality in general, but also in the annals of literary history. The socio-political chaos of 1946 tapped into the specific cultural desires and anxieties of the moment and offered space for the renaissance of just about anything. This is precisely when David Goodis released his highly acclaimed book, Dark Passage, and became a pioneer and perhaps a great, if not the greatest, stylist of the hardboiled-noir axis of popular American fiction.


To speak of its bleakness and dysfunctional nature as its only characteristics, judging from black-and-white films, is not enough. Noir literature is baroque and hypocritical, just like the century it was born into. Unlike the hardcore crime fiction genre, (which noir is an offshoot of) that focuses on crime solving with a detective for a protagonist, noir holds a darker fate for its reader; where criminals and their motivations are for once centre-stage of the narrative.


Noir is protest literature; which is why the genre was so popular amongst the writers of the ‘40s in their efforts to exhibit the prejudices and injustices of the era. It also gave them free rein to spin a yarn as loose or as tight as they wanted. This new-found freedom enabled them to construct characters that may come in any gender identity or form or colour. Storylines are titillating because there are strict rules, but you don’t have to follow them. Matters escalate quickly, from first kiss to gas chamber poisoning. Right and wrong become irrelevant, values are blurred—nothing makes sense, but then, everything makes sense.


Noir is uplifting because it treads on the fine line between Kafkaesque horror and Doyle’s style of crime fiction, which evolved in the grip of a controlling public morality—thereby granting narratives a uniqueness so niche that only those who are diehard enough are able to enjoy them. It will be commodified as fiction, but read like non-fiction, only because it is non-fiction. The settings, circumstances, surroundings and characters of the genre will hold a profound resonance with the era of the publication. It will chisel away at the cracks of your psyche only for you to experience your worst fears, rejections and failures, through the journeys of the characters, once again.


David Goodies (Source: Library of America)

David Goodis's work was avant-garde in the genre of noir writing. In his 1953 fiction offering, The Burglar, he talks about a burglar, Harbin, who ‘adopts’ Gladden, the daughter of the man who taught him his trade. The storyline is of the unconsummated love between the two characters, who have a near-incestuous father/daughter relationship. Though morally incongruent by conventional standards, such work of Goodis has led to great art and helped the genre earn the title of a ‘Secret Pervert Republic’ by the crime fiction writer James Ellroy. For me, similarly, reading Goodis is like having Stockholm syndrome. His empathetic portrayal of criminals, guilty or not guilty, will make just anyone fall in love with them, which is what makes his work so special.


So why is it that Goodis’ school of noir has remained so relevant and the genre has lived on with wide readership, whilst the narratives, designed to terrify, cut so exceedingly close to the bone?


Only because it is a tiny bit true.



Eman Omar is the Digital Director for the Lahore Literary Festival, an international literary festival that takes place in Lahore, New York and London on an annual basis. A bibliophile, she regularly writes book reviews for leading newspapers in Pakistan, including Dawn and The News International. She tweets at @itsemanomar.