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Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s - David Goodis, Robert Polito

“You know me. Guys like me come a dime a dozen. No fire. No backbone. Dead weight waiting to be pulled around and taken to places where we want to go but can't go alone. Because we're afraid to go alone. Because we're afraid to be alone. Because we can't face people and we can't talk to people. Because we don't know how. Because we can't handle life and don't know the first thing about taking a bite out of life. Because we're afraid and we don't know what we're afraid of and still we're afraid. Guys like me.”

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It is hard to stack time for a murder that you did commit, but how about doing the time for one that you didn’t?

It is death on the LONG installment plan.

The days, the weeks, the months weigh heavy, like lead ingots are being tied to your soul. Every day that passes you feel a month older. You start to obsess about all that you had, all that you had planned, and all that you are missing out on that you haven’t even thought of yet. It is all enough to make a man get crazy...crazy enough to break out.

Vincent Parry did not kill his wife.

The trial was a sensation with the wild parties, the dark corner passions, and the unseemly adulteries making the headlines scream. Parry was made out to be a deadbeat, a draft dodger, and a man of loose morals. All of that he could beat back, but when Madge Rapf testified that his wife had whispered as she died that Parry had killed her...well...that sent him to San Quentin for the rest of his life.

Madge is complicated, a woman in an open marriage who made a real play for Parry after he’d staggered away from one of those knock down drag out fights with his wife. He’d played along, but soon realized that Madge wasn’t right for him. In fact, she wasn’t right for anyone. “He told himself she wasn’t really such a bad person, she was just a pest, she was sticky, there was something misplaced in her make-up, something that kept her from fading clear of people when they wanted to be in the clear.”

It turns out that she thought Parry was perfect for her. When he dropped her like a gunnysack full of rotten potatoes, she decided that he had to pay.

It was duck soup, escaping from prison. It was as if the prison wasn’t supposed to hold him. Escaping turned out to be the easy part. The manhunt that follows starts to make prison seem like the good old days. It feels like everyone is against him, not just the cops, but everyone who has ever picked up a newspaper with his picture emblazoned over the front fold.

Everyone that is except her.

”She came running up to him. The grey-violet blouse was supplemented by a dark grey-violet skirt. She was little. She was about five two and not more than a hundred. The blonde hair was very blonde but it wasn’t peroxide. And there was a minimum of paint. A trace of orange-ish lipstick that went nicely with genuine grey eyes. She was something just a bit deeper than pretty, although she couldn’t be called pretty.”

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When she learned he had escaped, Irene Janney came looking for him. She had followed the trial and had always thought he was innocent. She was willing to do whatever it took to make sure he got a fair shake. She hid him in her apartment. She even had stacks of his favorite musician Count Basie. ”He switched on the current and got the record under the needle. Texas Shuffle began to roll softly and it was lovely. It clicked with the fact that he had a cigarette in his mouth, watching the smoke go up, and the police didn’t know he was here.”

Bodies keep turning up, and Parry keeps finding himself in the frame. Who is the man in the Studebaker? Who is trying so hard to strap him in the electric chair? Why is Irene Janney trying to help him? Will a new face and a $1000 in his pocket put San Francisco behind him for good?

David Goodis keeps the pressure on the reader from the beginning to the end in this gem of noir. The tough talk, the cigarette smoke, and the man against the world aspects of this story reminded me of the best of James M. Cain.

”Without thinking of it, he reached in a coat pocket, took out a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. He put a cigarette in his mouth as he looked at the body. Standing there and looking at the body he lit the cigarette.

He was puzzled.

He couldn’t understand why he felt no regret, why he felt no horror at the sight of this dead thing on the ground, this thing he had killed.”

Even just going into a shop for a book of matches or someone on a street corner looking at him with an odd expression on their face or an inquizzitive cabby asking too many questions all add to the suspense. The part that wraps the piano wire tighter around the reader’s own throat is the fear that Parry himself will finally come apart at the seams and give himself up.

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The 1947 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall based on this book is good, but not one of their best. Now that I’ve read the book I’d like to watch the movie again. By reading the novel I might be able to see the movie with an enriched insight.

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