Personally, I'm somewhat partial to the original edition, which I came across in the mid-1980s thanks to my late friend Mike Hart, then working at Compendium Books in Camden Town, who told me about the book. So on my next trip to Paris I bought a copy, although at the time I couldn't speak or read a word of French. The woman at the small Left Bank book shop asked me why on earth I was buying the book if I didn't know the language. I simply told her it was for a friend.
In fact, it was Garnier's book and a handful of others- Mesplede and Schleret's Les Auteurs de la Serie Noire- Voyage au bout de la Noire, novels by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Claude Izzo, and magazines like Polar, Folk and Rock, Les Inrockutibles and Cahier du Cinema- that prompted me to learn French. Looking back, reading that original edition was like entering a secret world, known only to the inhabitants of the book. What I also liked, and still like, about the book is it's refusal to conform to the dictates of what constitutes a biography. Instead, it's as much about the author's investigation, as he tries to locate the cultural remains of a writer who, up to that point, has proved elusive and close to being forgotten. In true noir fashion, Garnier hits the road, digging through archives, traipsing through the streets of Philadelphia, tracking down anyone who knew the man. Typically for Garnier, there's no shortage of information, even if some of it might at first glance seem tangential. Which, for me, makes his subject all the more interesting, though it no doubt infuriates anyone seeking a more conventional biography. It's those tangents that I've always enjoyed in Garnier's writing, here illustrated by an assortment of side trips, be it his short history of Gallimard's Serie Noire imprint or memos written by producer Jerry Wald regarding the film The Unfaithful and the never to be filmed Up Till Now, both of which Goodis worked on, albeit with varying degrees of intensity and commitment.
Writing for an American audience also allows Garnier the opportunity to set the record straight and settle some old scores. For one thing, he does his best to debunk some time-honoured myths regarding his native country's over-the-top adulation of Goodis, as well as other noirists, the more neglected and purportedly dissipated the better. Conversely, Garnier pricks the myth to which some Americans still desperately cling regarding France as the ultimate arbiter of hardboiled tastes. Of course, only a sometimes cranky Frenchman living in America could get away with it. And well that he does, because it allows him to give us the lowdown on Serie Noire's eccentric editorial policy- cutting novels to a specific length, insisting on a uniform style and vocabulary, title changes, etc.- and to make light of the French obsession with pulp fiction in general. But Garnier doesn't there. He also has an understandable a moan about those who, over the years, have purloined his work, often without citing the source. Not quite cricket, but I suppose it goes with the territory. After all, his book has always been one of the only sources on Goodis. And to drive his point home, Garnier has a further dig at armchair Goodis pundits, maintaining that few if any have bothered to follow up on his work or gone to the sources he visited all those years ago.
A Life in Black and White remains essential reading and, along with Polito on Thompson, Sallis on Himes, Freeman on Chandler, one of the best studies yet of a hardboiled writer.