Pulp Pages spotlights the best of hardboiled and noir fiction of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.
“The streets were dark with something more than night.” - Raymond Chandler
“David Goodis didn’t write novels, he wrote suicide notes,” mystery writer Ed Gorman once wrote. "He was a sad, suffering guy and he was able to get that sadness and suffering down on paper."
It was almost as if he couldn’t wait for early ambition to dissipate so he could take up pen and pine. Born in Philadelphia in 1917, he graduated from Temple University and published his first novel, a literary work entitled Retreat From Oblivion, when he was 21. Embarking on a more pragmatic and profitable route after its commercial underperformance, Goodis started to turn in prodigious amounts of stories to the pulp magazines, taking up writing novels once again in 1946 with Dark Passage. Made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Dark Passage became Goodis’ dark passage, in effect, to Los Angeles as a scriptwriter and uncharacteristic Hollywood hobnobber. That is, until, homesick and nursing some wounds from an earlier brief and soured marriage, he retreated in 1950 back into ostensible oblivion to the family home in Philadelphia, where he lived with his parents.
Making a living now meant turning to the paperback publishers, including Fawcett Gold Medal, which had just started publishing paperback originals rather than hardcover reprints. As one of the reliable "Gold Medal boys" that included John D. MacDonald and Bruno Fischer, Goodis wrote such forbidding works as Cassidy’s Girl and Of Tender Sin, and for Lion Books such noirish novels as The Burglar and Blonde on the Street Corner, in addition to 1954’s Black Friday. The ever-prolific Goodis imbued these books with his own inherent melancholy and despair; the downtown street life seediness he was drawn to; and such autobiographical details as his relationship with his schizophrenic brother, the after-effects of his divorce, and love of jazz and boxing.
“Paperbackdom’s bard of Skid Row, poet laureate of the American Failure Story” — as writer Lee Server portrays Goodis in Over My Dead Body — died at the age of 49 in 1967. And if his despondent succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver had indeed rendered his distressing but self-deprecating writings as prolonging-the-agony “suicide notes” of sorts, Black Friday’s tense, tortured and ultimately tragic storyline is signaled in and sustained from the start, from the very first line: “January cold came in from two rivers, formed four walls around Hart and closed in on him.”
Circumstances in Philadelphia have trapped main character Al Hart, an educated and once affluent New Orleans artist on the run from murder with mitigating circumstances. And sometimes trying to escape the mired-up obsessions and fear of his own making – a dread he realized whenever he gave in to the urge to look back, when “all he could see was the streets and the houses on both sides of the street and the empty pavements. That was all. That was what had been chasing him. The emptiness.”
But it was all just an anxiety-ridden reprieve from a reality that demanded his capture. So when the runner stumbles, and Hart chances upon a criminal gang and becomes more and more embroiled in their activities and secrets, he opts for the relative security this set-up and refuge brings.
At whatever cost. To uphold the impressive charade that he’s on the lam for murdering his brother for money alone — forget the humane considerations entailed — Hart now needs to pass himself off as a professional heister. The gang, now expanded yet variously and initially wary and distrusting, juggles for psychological equilibrium as they hole up in a house in preparation for a home robbery and elaborate art theft. The plans call for Hart’s actual art expertise, but what wasn’t figured on is the jockeying for romantic position that comes along with the introduction of two trademark pulp-fiction femmes, fatale or not, who have the ability to blow Hart’s cover. One is a brassy moll “more solid than soft, packed into five feet five inches and molded majestically,” and the other a sweet out-of-place victim of circumstance with an “out of the ordinary face. The eyes were pearly violet. The eyes were ninety-nine percent of her.”
While a hard-pressed Hart completes the love triangularity at play, he finds it in his interest to prove, unwillingly, his pulp-frictional tough-guy mettle by helping Charley, the gang leader, decapitate and cut into incinerator-ready pieces a fatally injured gang member. Hart’s a “professional” now, so there should be no reason for him to resist such expedient measures. Nonetheless Goodis finds a unique and drolly diversionary way to handle the absurdly violent and gruesome task:
- The sounds of the hack-saw and the knife were great big bunches of dreadful gooey stuff hitting him and going into him and he was getting sick and he tried to get his mind on something else, and he came to painting and started to concentrate on the landscapes of Corot, then got away from Corot although remaining in the same period as he thought of Courbet, then knowing Courbet was an exponent of realism and trying to get away from Courbet, unable to get away because he was thinking of the way Gustave Courbet showed Cato tearing out his own entrails and showed “Quarry,” in which the stag under the tree was getting torn to bits by yowling hounds, and he tried to come back to Corot, past Corot to the gentle English school of laced garments and graceful posture and the delicacy and all that, and Courbet dragged him back.
And Charley said, “Hold him higher up.”
With his eyes shut tightly, Hart said, “Tell me, Charley, did you ever do this before?”
“No,” Charley said.
Women and wise-guys, complications and implications. Hart sets in for the set-up, to pull a job that happens to fall on a Friday the 13th, a day that has the potential to be, as Charley puts it, a Black Friday – for certain people a “day that never ends. They carry it with them all the time. Like typhoid carriers. So no matter where they go or what they do, they bring bad luck.”
Hart could almost feel the four walls of January cold closing in more and more…