Friday, July 31, 2009

Female Noir: Rewriting a Genre

Just in case you haven’t noticed, I have a bit of a thing for mysteries and hardboiled noir. I’m by no means an expert on either HELL OF A WOMAN genre, admittedly, but it’s a hobby interest of mine. I just really love the way gender plays out in them: in the “Golden Age” detective novels, sleuths like Poirot, or, to go far back to the grandfather, Sherlock Holmes, were supposed to use their “manly” reason to solve problems. When a woman would step in, such as Harriet Vane in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, her detective work is, at least superficially, chalked up to her feminine intuition.

The American hardboiled genre takes this and turns it on its head; these sleuths think with their gut. The city landscapes of Noir are dark and corrupt—operating on logic within their irrational world would get you killed. And yet, we think of the hardboiled genre as being very “masculine.” Gendering genre still feels weird to me, because, of course, there’s nothing intrinsically male about any of the aspects I’ve listed and am about to list, but within the culture, these films (like many others of their time and now, admittedly) came from a distinctly male perspective. The cynical, money-hungry sleuths of the genre looked upon their cities as embodiments of the fallen American dream, and encountered villains who either didn’t play by the rules of the dream, or were amongst the groups not even allowed to play the game: women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. There’s a lot to say about the later two (and I’ll touch on a little bit of race later on in the post,) but I’m going to focus on women for now.

To hurry to the point, I’m going to simplify this a lot: In hardboiled fiction and film noir, writers portrayed women either as helpless and virginal, or scheming, sexy, and ambitious. The latter, of course, is the famous femme fatale, who would kiss and then kill to move up in the world, if need be. In films she is usually cold and selfish: sensuality without feeling. The former, well, her character usually seemed an afterthought to the femme fatale, there more to act as a last-minute love interest or foil to the femme fatale (who sometimes was even her step mother! Holy Brother’s Grimm, Batman!) than as a character in herself. In her introduction to Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, Val McDermid puts the problem quite nicely:

“I blame Raymond Chandler. I blame him for writing too well. Here’s the thing with Chandler. He had a problem with women. Vamps, victims, and vixens are the only roles he provided for us. And his perennial popularity has guaranteed his twisted view of women would remain the template whenever the hard-boiled boys hatched a new tale of the mean streets. For years, we’ve been stuck in this gruesome girlie groove because of one man’s screwed up sexuality.”

To be honest, I don’t know if it’s fair to blame it all on Chandler; I think a lot of screwed-up relationships with women contributed to this genre, and social mores contributed to this and other genres. But the point is that Noir is a very strict, template-reliant genre. We know the story: “It was dark in the city that never sleeps. She stepped into my office with hips like…” We’ve seen it parodied dozens of times. Given the format, how can you break down these gender roles and still write Noir?

Well, unsurprisingly, many of the people who find Noir fascinating are women and/or ethnic minorities. As logically follows this, many of these writers have started to take Noir back. I was introduced to woman-centric noir soon after I got out of college and had more time to read for pleasure. For my birthday last year, a friend got me Megan Abbott’s QUEENPIN and the aforementioned short story anthology Hell of a Woman, which Abbott edited. I later picked up another of Abbott’s novels, The Song is You.

At first, I was unimpressed; I think I had been expecting the stories to feel completely different, or at least feel more self-aware of the genre they were working in. They didn’t—QUEENPIN, The Song is You, and all of the stories I’ve read so far in Hell of a Woman play Noir straight through. The femme fatale still uses her sexuality to get her way. Money is still power. For the most part, no one gets a lesson about racism, classism, or sexism. So what’s the difference?

The difference is that when Noir is written from a woman’s perspective, we understand why the femme fatale is the way she is. She’s no longer the embodiment of anxiety. Whereas in typical Noir, the femme fatale is evil because she is selfish and ambitious, overstepping her gender role, in female noir (to use Hell of a Woman’s phrase,) in female noir, she is no more power or money hungry than the men she’s dealing with. The Noir world has very strict rules, as I’ve mentioned. If she does not want to be passive, if she wants to make her mark, she’s got to play by the rules of the world. And, if the world doesn’t expect brains and beauty to match, well, her brains become a hidden trump card in the game.

These women live in worlds where performing as the femme fatale is sometimes the key to being taken seriously, as in Abbott’s QUEENPIN. Here, a young woman learns the ropes from mobstress Gloria Denton, the queen of the underworld. Instead of suffering through a boring secretarial job where she finds herself subjected to sexual harassment, she suddenly finds herself controlling her sexuality—and making more money at that. Also interesting is Abbott’s inclusion of an Homme Fatale, a man we all know from the start will betray her in the end, but whose beauty is such that she can’t resist. Silly? Yes, but no more than the idea that a beautiful woman can destroy a man’s judgment.

“The Chirashi Covenant” by Naomi Hirahara takes on the “Femme fatale has the hapless hero kill her husband trope, as well as the exoticizing of Asian women in one stroke. I find this one fascinating precisely because I can imagine how different the story would be if the white male antagonist, Bob Burkard, had been the protagonist instead. Instead of being an alluring exotic woman who seduces him and begs him to kill her husband, Helen Miura is an intelligent, lonely Japanese-American woman struggling with the insular nature of her life after the WWII internment camps who has an affair with Bob. (In this story, she takes no part in her husband’s murder; it’s Bob’s impulse.) As often happens in fiction, her identity conflict becomes summed up in romantic questions, as if dating outside your culture is the ultimate way to betray it. Of course, things become even more deadly as the story takes a further turn into the Noir, and Helen is no angel in the midst of all that happens (I’m not talking about sexually either.)

Although most female noir works that I’ve read so far have female protagonists, Abbott’s The Song is You doesn’t have the gender-reversal perspective. After a brief prologue from the point of view of a murder victim’s sister, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Gil Hopkins, a studio publicist in 1950’s Hollywood, who takes us through the rest of the story. Hop, as he’s called, has privilege problems and cannot seem to connect with the women in his life–not so different from a archetypical Hardboiled hero. But as he tries at once to solve a two-year-old murder and keep others from solving it, he finds his ideas about women challenged. He starts to understand the nature of the game. He questions whether he should really blame women who have ventured into dangerous situations to help keep afloat in the dark side of Hollywood and found themselves victims (I know that one’s a no-brainer to most of us, but, as I said, Hop has privilege problems.). In one of the most poignant moments, of the novel, he realizes the full extent of what it meant to have abandoned Iolene, a black woman, at a sleazy club with known sexual predators. With horror, he realizes that if the men he left her with treated white women so inhumanely, he could not imagine how they would treat a black woman. No, guilt is not enough, but it’s these moments where he begins to understand the privilege behind the typical Noir judgments that we really see the subtle ways that Abbot is playing with the formula even without a woman’s perspective to guide us through.

I suppose it would be easy to argue how much these stories help really feminism or find many ways in which they are problematic (but, as we’ve been discussing, so is much fiction.). After all, Noir is a genre which glamorizes the dark underbelly of the city, to borrow its own phrase. Ultimately, even if it’s fun to see women level the playing field or have the upper-hand, despite them having to use their “feminine wiles” to do so, it’s still unfortunate and uncomfortable that these are the options they have in this world to be assertive and independent. But I think that part of the point of female noir is exposing these problems; this is, from a Noir perspective, the result of asserting independence and ambition when society only sees you as your body. Also, well, ideal or not, I’ve got to admit that I find them a lot of fun despite the dark subject matter. If you’re a fan of thrillers, they’re worth checking out. They raise a lot of interesting questions about gender, genre, and how to re-imagine a story that’s been told one-too-many times.

NOTE- I apologize in advance for any incoherence. It’s been over 100 degrees F here, which I’m not used to, and I’ve not gotten much sleep because of it. Still, I didn’t want to waste my guest blogging week, and so here you go.


“January Cold came in from two rivers, formed four walls around Hart
and closed in on him.” --Black Friday

What did it take for noir novelist David Goodis to get the type of literary attention he deserved?
The god damned French.
Actually, the god damned French New Wave. (Well, to be fair, the French had admired David Goodis as a literary artist already by then, but just play along.)
Wet behind the ears director Francois Truffaut plucked Down There from the newsstand and turned it into Shoot the Piano Player, a seminal film, a new direction in cinema, a more playful and inventive style that aimed for realism over glamour, and using American pulp as its sandbox. And while Truffaut kept the basic storyline (he moved the location from Philadelphia to France, of course) and the stream-of-consciousness internal monologues that helped Goodis stand out from his peers, he changed enough of the details and elements that the critics give him most of the credit for classing up a cheap pulp novel, rather than admitting that the work of Goodis was always several steps ahead of the other Gold Medal paperback writers, the work good enough to stand up beside the book that had earned him literary fame in the mid-Forties—Dark Passage.
So why is it that in spite of such a strong note of support from a now legendary director, along with the obviously well-deserved attention of his best known works, David Goodis remains a cult writer amongst the literati?
By the time Goodis escaped his failed screenwriting career and returned home to Philadelphia to settle down, the type of noir work he’d been applauded for in the Forties had been relegated to the paperback racks. Cheap, disposable, just like those pulps Goodis had slaved over in the thirties under many different names and many different themes, purely for money and the experience. He’d climbed out of the pulp pool, publishing a solid literary novel before hitting it big with Dark Passage. After trying to build on that success in the movies, but not getting very far at all, his return to novels meant a return to the mean streets, noir dark as midnight.
Today’s critics can’t help but temper their praise of Goodis with a little “not bad…for pulp” attitude. In a review of The Blonde on the Street Corner on, David Ulin admits that Goodis “is a lost master of hard-boiled fiction, a writer who has never received his due,” before going on to say about the book, “Ultimately, there's nothing remarkable about this, except for the acuity with which Goodis traces the trajectory of broken dreams.” It seems an odd backhanded compliment, almost an oxymoron.
But maybe that’s spot-on. Goodis could’ve been a giant, one whose novels might somehow have been accepted beyond the cult readers, beyond the newsstand readers, beyond those looking simply for an entertaining way to pass a few hours. He could be in the canon with Hammett and Chandler, or at least enjoy the popular resurgence of the less talented (but still grand) Jim Thompson, another pulp toiler who never seemed to climb out of whatever rut he’d dug for himself. What would it have taken for Goodis to “receive his due”?
Perhaps we should start by looking at the package itself--the paperback original. It’s never gotten the appreciation it deserves. Scottish crime writer Allan Guthrie tells me, “There aren't any writers of mid-20th century paperback original crime novels who are given credit as great writers…Then Goodis' books weren't reprinted for decades. And when they were reprinted, it was by small presses. As a result, most literary critics have never heard of Goodis.” One wonders if Goodis and the other paperback writers knew that they were risking literary oblivion when they signed on for this “experiment” in publishing. Economically, it felt right. Readers ate the shit up, sending sales skyrocketing for writers like Goodis, Spillane, McBain, and Hamilton. The novels were short, cheap, and everywhere. Well, everywhere except the reviewer’s desk. Almost like class warfare--it didn’t matter how good the final product was if the messenger wore a cheap suit and used rough slang.
To be fair, some writers still managed to achieve literary success after a run of pulp novels. Just check out a list of Gold Medal alums and you’ll find Kurt Vonnegut, Elmore Leonard, John D. MacDonald, along with several other surprises. Goodis is also on that list, and nearly everyone agrees his novels are head and shoulders above almost all the pulp writers slaving away back then. So his being passed over for so many years could be connected to the fact that it’s hard to remember a novel that’s printed on cheap paper and designed to fall apart. No one meditated on the striking craftsmanship and depth of the Goodis they had just read. They just wanted the next one. And the next. All forgotten by the time television had entrenched itself as an easier way to kill time than books.
Or could it be that he was too ahead of his time? That what we now consider to be pretty tame on the scale of lewd entertainment could’ve been marginalized as slightly-above-pornography at the time? In his review of Black Friday at Bookmuch, Chris Pickering writes“…the extreme violence described isn’t even remotely as shocking as I was led to believe. Though the description of the disposal of a dead body can conjure up many an unwanted image, there’s little to fulfill the bloodlust of today’s Tarantino obsessed readers.” Ahead of its time then, but now it’s not up to speed with our own pulp culture? I can’t agree. It still packs a punch, mainly because Goodis doesn’t concentrate on the gore or the violence so much as he does Hart’s reaction to it, and its later consequences. Seems like the literary engine at the heart of the novel is working just fine, thank you.
It could also be said that maybe Goodis’ obsessions kept him from expanding his subject matter, thus forever writing the same book--an artist/writer/musician who aims for the stars but comes up short, then somehow ends up tangled in crime. There’s always a blonde, there’s always a brother, and nobody ever leaves happy. We are reminded of the moment in Black Friday when Hart evaluates Rizzio’s paintings, telling him they’re very good. Rizzio reacts like he hadn’t heard that before, none of his gang ever giving him credit for his talent. In fact Charley, the head guy, becomes suspicious of Hart after that before figuring a way to use his painting smarts to help them in the robbery. We think of the moment in Down There when Lena reveals to Eddie that she knows more about his past as a famous concert pianist than she had let on, and how that triggers some bad memories for our melancholy hero.
Has Goodis really led us in psychoanalytical circles? Do all of the artists and all of the brothers and all the women really point his failure to live up to the success of Dark Passage, having to deal with his brother’s schizophrenia, and his own internal struggle in dealing with the opposite sex? If so, that shouldn’t be counted against him as a literary icon. Wasn’t Hemingway himself obsessed with sports and women? Fitzgerald with bored rich folks? Steinbeck with class warfare? Many classic writers have recycled their obsessions endlessly, always chipping away at their souls one novel at a time. In noir, James Ellroy is consumed with his mother’s murder. George Pelecanos writes mostly about the hard knock life on the streets of Washington D.C. Rather than marginalize Goodis’ work because of the similarities in his novels, we should celebrate the dark core around which his fiction swirled, always revisiting the same themes, ever so close to refining them into the Great American Novel…but not quite getting there.
Then again, maybe it’s just the darkness itself keeping readers away. The same could be said of many noir writers, working in a commercial genre while writing work that the mass audiences don’t find so appealing. They want justice, not despair. A satisfying ending instead of heartbreak. Noir novelist Vicki Hendricks thinks that may be a burden Goodis had to shoulder, as well as successive generations if writers who slink around in the darkness: “The worlds we create are narrow in scope and appeal only to certain strange people, like the writers themselves. The die-hards who love Goodis are those who find beauty in the darkness and ambiguity of life, but that taste is not easily shared with most readers who want to escape just such feelings. Also, possibly Goodis-type readers are generally the loners who don't tend to proselytize, preferring to keep their ‘guilty pleasures’ secret.” So we’re masochists, aren’t we? We bemoan Goodis’ lack of recognition and hope that his reputation will one day creep up until he’s on par with the masters, exactly as he should be. But we’re afraid to share him with the world, thinking the literati might suck away all that we find special about him if given the chance, somehow stealing the secret mojo only the chosen few know currently enjoy. That’s the problem with cults, isn’t it?
Since we’ve already got all of the Goodis books we’ll ever have, there’s no danger in pushing him out into the sunlight. The novels are good, each new reissue not only standing up well next to the noir writers of today, but surpassing them with Goodis’ instincts on human nature--where our society was headed, and how some people just can’t seem to shake their self-destructive tendencies even in the face of certain doom. If we want the novels of Goodis to survive, let’s start making the point that he was a prophet, one of the Old Testament variety. It’s all going to end bad, bad, bad. But Goddamn it, if things have to end in horror, make that horror as vivid and sublime as you can.

Anthony Neil Smith is the author of PSYCHOSOMATIC and THE DRUMMER. He was also editor and co-founder of the late great internet crime zine PLOTS WITH GUNS. Over thirty of his stories, and a handful of essays, have been published in the last six years, two of them receiving honourable mentions from the editors of BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Southwest Minnesota State University.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Several years ago I taught The Blonde on the Street Corner to a summer school class of undergraduates. One of the students stated that she understood perfectly Ralph Creel’s frustration at not being able to break free of whatever prevented him from escaping the street corner, his dippy friends, and his parents. He was on a permanent merry-go-round, never able to grab the brass ring. She especially understood those long walks in the park. She understood because, she confessed, she was both a creative person and a manic depressive, and thought Ralph was. It is this kind of ability to embody in stories what readers understand at a most personal level that makes Goodis a fine writer. For some, it’s his description of working class men; for others the look, feel, and smells of the kind of city in which they grew up; for still others it’s his protagonists’ letting go of pent-up frustrations in a whirlwind of feral violence.

Goodis seemed to have found a way of universalizing what may have well been a personal existential situation. In doing so, he generalizes his neuroses into obsessions rooted in 20th century urban life. Manic depression is one of these, and so is restoration, if not regeneration, through violence. Those epic street fights, extensions of the writers’ interest in prize fighting, still thrill his readers. Another kind of objectifying is Goodis’ unique treatment of self-hatred. That is a subject on which much has been written, particularly from the point of view of ethnic (especially Jewish) minorities. Stereotypes about one’s physical weakness, vulgarity, or sexual dysfunction get deep under one’s skin. Goodis, unlike writers such as Philip Roth, Samuel Ornitz, Michael Gold, Woody Allen, or Bernard Malamud, does not write about Jewish people and their experiences. Self-hatred, however, is a chronic disability in both his minor and major characters: Kerrigan, and also his clownish drinking buddy Mooney, and Newton Channing, the slumming alcoholic in The Moon in the Gutter; Chet in Street of the Lost; James Bevan in The Wounded and the Slain; Ralph in The Blonde on the Street Corner.

Typical of noir crime novels is inevitability and stoicism. The most striking heroes (and that is the way I think of them), Black Friday’s Hart, Street of No Return’s Whitey, and Piano Player’s Eddie, seem to eat and breathe not embittered resignation but rather the grace under pressure that is so important to Hemingway’s protagonists (who also have psychic wounds under which to bear up). They, like Goodis’, are no less fascinating because they are pessimistic, or because they have left behind forever the kind of American Dream that empowers consumerism, uses “decency” as a shibboleth, and sanctifies security. Other writers whose best insights echo in Goodis’ pages include Kafka (don’t even try to escape) and Berthold Brecht (“There’s only two kinds of people in this world, the ones who get kicked around and those who do the kicking,” straight out of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny but recalled in “Black Pudding” by an ex-con hiding in a tenement in Philly’s Skid Row). A lot more about David Goodis, including his literary and editorial influences, needs to be discovered before we can give him his due as the substantial American writer he is. For example, film maker Larry Withers has uncovered his amazing travel itinerary.

Among writers describing Philadelphia, Goodis is the one that makes me imagine he is with his characters as he describes their lives. He must have been there alongside them: the hobo hotels of Vine Street; the bars, hash houses, and residences of Port Richmond or Southwark; a wind- and rain- flooded Delaware Avenue, the bizarre congestion of machines, aromas, men and trucks at the pre-dawn Dock Street market. Goodis passionately puts his readers into the picture, making the setting a living extension of his characters’ anger, brutality, hard-bitten community spirit, and stoic nobility.

Goodis seemed to have found a way of universalizing what may have well been a personal existential situation. In doing so, he generalizes his neuroses into obsessions rooted in 20th century urban life. Manic depression is one of these, and so is restoration, if not regeneration, through violence. Those epic street fights, extensions of the writers’ interest in prize fighting, still thrill his readers. Another kind of objectifying is Goodis’ unique treatment of self-hatred. That is a subject on which much has been written, particularly from the point of view of ethnic (especially Jewish) minorities. Stereotypes about one’s physical weakness, vulgarity, or sexual dysfunction get deep under one’s skin. Goodis, unlike writers such as Philip Roth, Samuel Ornitz, Michael Gold, Woody Allen, or Bernard Malamud, does not write about Jewish people and their experiences. Self-hatred, however, is a chronic disability in both his minor and major characters: Kerrigan, and also his clownish drinking buddy Mooney, and Newton Channing, the slumming alcoholic in The Moon in the Gutter; Chet in Street of the Lost; James Bevan in The Wounded and the Slain; Ralph in The Blonde on the Street Corner.

Typical of noir crime novels is inevitability and stoicism. The most striking heroes (and that is the way I think of them), Black Friday’s Hart, Street of No Return’s Whitey, and Piano Player’s Eddie, seem to eat and breathe not embittered resignation but rather the grace under pressure that is so important to Hemingway’s protagonists (who also have psychic wounds under which to bear up). They, like Goodis’, are no less fascinating because they are pessimistic, or because they have left behind forever the kind of American Dream that empowers consumerism, uses “decency” as a shibboleth, and sanctifies security. Other writers whose best insights echo in Goodis’ pages include Kafka (don’t even try to escape) and Berthold Brecht (“There’s only two kinds of people in this world, the ones who get kicked around and those who do the kicking,” straight out of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny but recalled in “Black Pudding” by an ex-con hiding in a tenement in Philly’s Skid Row). A lot more about David Goodis, including his literary and editorial influences, needs to be discovered before we can give him his due as the substantial American writer he is. For example, film maker Larry Withers has uncovered his amazing travel itinerary.

Among writers describing Philadelphia, Goodis is the one that makes me imagine he is with his characters as he describes their lives. He must have been there alongside them: the hobo hotels of Vine Street; the bars, hash houses, and residences of Port Richmond or Southwark; a wind- and rain- flooded Delaware Avenue, the bizarre congestion of machines, aromas, men and trucks at the pre-dawn Dock Street market. Goodis passionately puts his readers into the picture, making the setting a living extension of his characters’ anger, brutality, hard-bitten community spirit, and stoic nobility.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Goodis Grave Site Memorial

“January Cold came in from two rivers, formed four walls around Hart and closed in on him.” --Black Friday
Goodis remembered in January 2009

DAVID GOODIS by William Sherman

David Goodis doing the Limbo
(Latin limbus, edge or boundary, referring to the "edge" of Hell) - How Low Can You Go?

(DAVID GOODIS essay as it appeared in the 2007 GoodisCon Program)

For those who, like myself, cathect to the work of David Loeb Goodis, 1917 - 1967, there is a Literary Conference in his honor to be held in his home city of Philadelphia, where he lived most all of his life (except for his years in Hollywood), in Logan and on North Eleventh Street (East Oak Lane). It will be held January 5 - 7.

All of Goodis' seventeen or more novels were out of print when he died. Even the Truffaut film of DOWN THERE as SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER didn't lead to the reissue in his lifetime of any of his prose fiction. Neither did it matter to publishers that Henry Miller had said: "I think the novel is even better than the film."

During the past twenty years, when his books have begun to come back into print, first in France, then in England, now here, even his admirers who have written superlatively of his work: Geoffrey O'Brien, Nick Kimberly, Adrian Wootton, David Schmid and others, still see him in the tradition of crime fiction, when, as Goodis had written to me in 1966, "Very few of the protagonists of my novels operate on a criminal level. They live in neighborhoods of low real estate value, which is a different thing entirely." Goodis' work can be said to be noir, bleak and existential. His novels, in my opinion, are among the most dreadfully powerful and honed in all of twentieth century literature, in any language. He is not, of course, everyone's cup of tea.

No one has ever matched his relentless narrative drive, and the street accurate down home spoken language, and although the classical psychoanalytic theory which runs like a leitmotif through many of his novels is reductionist, the psychology nevertheless has a curious power, as Leonard Kaplan has said, which, I think, can be attributed to the fact that most of his novels were written for a readership of the working-class, and the lower middle class, taking public transport, perhaps reading on the train or tram. It was an America before fast food and malls and the smiles of "have a nice day." OF TENDER SIN, recently reissued, is his SCARLET LETTER, and it also provides a good example of how he refuses to over determine behavior, thus avoiding complexity but, in his best work, striking home. Goodis does not condescend to his characters, ever; he has only empathy for the outsider, for the "internal exile" he himself was. Most of the people who inhabit his books, are "out of it" people who have fallen from grace, and those who have never received any grace, living as they do as invisible marginals on the fringe, tenderloiners, living in a world where the sex and violence hold the Nausea at bay. His compassionate heroines are sometimes warm and feminine, and others are hard-fighting, hard-loving, sometimes hard-drinking, women who are still able to give of themselves to their man. It has been often said that Goodis is the poet of the losers, of romantic loners, both men and women. The primary value in Goodis's world is love.

Because he tempered his narrative gift during World War II in magazines like BATTLE BIRDS and FIGHTING ACES, and MANHUNT, and he is said to have written five million words in five years, sometimes entire issues of a magazine under a variety of pseudonyms, by the time he got to the pulps, after five years in Hollywood under contract to Warners, initially due to the success of his DARK PASSAGE, there was no fat, only lean in his fiction. Everything was pared to its essentials.

A myth grew up around him, that he sought out large obese black women in bars, and would entice them to abuse him, verbally at least; however, gossip is not "lusimeles" and it should be remembered, as Dr. Louis Boxer, Goodis aficionado and Conference organizer, has pointed out: Goodis' last serious lady friend was the distinguished Afro-American artist, Dr. Selma Burke. Goodis died, Dr. Boxer says, of a "cerebral vascular accident" in Albert Einstein Medical Center in North Philadelphia. He had refused to give up his wallet to muggers and suffered a beating which, a few days later, proved fatal. Ironically, no one does fisticuffs like Goodis, at least in his books; one thinks of Hemingway and bullfighting.

In the U.S. in the last century, it is only the very best of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, West (in MISS LONELYHEARTS) (and a very few others: Flannery O'Connor, or Steinbeck, or Richard Wright, or Kerouac at the top of his game, Malamud at his most magically real) that can match Goodis's extraordinary poetic prose power, heightened language as if one were reading a naturalist hallucination without losing narrative flow and beat. This is rooted and grounded most often in his novels in his native Philadelphia, not the center city “affluence” but the hard-core Philadelphia through which "the sullen Delaware" runs, near where Poe and his child-bride lived with her mother a century before. His exactitude of psychological geography, and the meandering through the hard streets, and also the swamps and pines of South Jersey, bring a verisimilitude.

Every commentator on Goodis seems to believe that the haunted characters of his fiction are projections of the writer himself. He seems never to be granted the benefit of aesthetic distance, when, in fact, many of his characters might well be derived from the tortured mental peregrinations of his brother, Herbert, a "paranoid schizophrenic", the brother for whom Goodis provided the financial support. And for his parents as well. Yet, Goodis is always decried for returning to his native city, to his parents' home, to care for his brother, after the Hollywood years, and his Hollywood eccentricities, particularly the lack of desire to spend the money he was getting, can also be viewed in terms of the needs of his family he was supporting. None of his still extant friends remember him as a drinking man; yet, it is assumed the alcoholics in his books, are somehow him.

He didn't die in financial need, as I incorrectly stated in my obituary for him in SIGHT AND SOUND (Winter, 1968/69). He left a considerable estate, which covered his brother's institutionalization after the writer's death.

In a piece on his work published by Laura Rosenthal and Andrei Codrescu in The Corpse, I commented that all of Goodis' novels were a no-exit brand of nihilism, genre within genre since written to formula, layered with despair and loneliness. But like the music of Miles or Coltrane or Monk or Billie Holiday, and jazz pervades his books as it did Kerouac's, Goodis' work does not bring you down, except into deep levels of your own consciousness. He refused to think highly of his great achievement as a novelist, writing to me that most of his novels were "nothing" - although he did say that in addition to DOWN THERE (his masterpiece), he had something to say in FIRE IN THE FLESH and in STREET OF THE LOST, books he then considered his best. I never met David Goodis. I was planning on seeing him in Philadelphia, Spring 1967, and negotiating the film rights to one of his novels, but his sudden death intervened. His death also terminated for all intents and purposes the six figure lawsuit he had prosecuted through a family firm against the makers of the TV series THE FUGITIVE, plagiarized from Goodis's work. After his death, the lawsuit was settled out-of-court in Goodis's favor, but with only a measly financial reward.

There is no religious view in Goodis's work, so that even in those books, like FIRE IN THE FLESH, where there is redemption, there is no way out, only death at the end of it. Yet he does not rule out chance and meaningful co-incidence, the unconscious, the fact of our human divinity as Cid Corman once put it. And, I think, he admires and respects the courage of many of his protagonists to commit to honorable action, even against all the odds. In fact, there is more “redemption” in Goodis’s novels than might otherwise appear. From his last cloth bound published book, his third, and perhaps his most under-rated, BEHOLD THIS WOMAN, a novel which portrays a fat and sensuous and violent and schemingly-intelligent working-class/lower middle-class American Lady Macbeth (whose portrait is lightly sketched in the opening and the closing of the newly reissued THE BLONDE ON THE STREET CORNER), an embodiment of pure evil, to the last novel published in his lifetime, NIGHT SQUAD, there is at the end, the possibility of male-female love relationships deepening. It should also be noted that BEHOLD THIS WOMAN was published in France as LA GRACE (The Bitch, or The Strumpet) and this is an oversimplification since the title also alludes to the protagonist’s daughter becoming a woman, overcoming, if you will, the evil step-mother. It is, of course, a fairy tale, where youth and innocence can triumph, and although the ending is earned, the mature love at the close of NIGHT SQUAD is more satisfying. Goodis was also a master at prose fiction's version of "the pathetic fallacy" - or "thing talk" as it is sometimes called in the hard-boiled world. Something like: Loneliness blew into town after she left and took up permanent residence in his easy chair.

One could blog on, but for now it is enough to note that GOODISCON 2007, is being held, 40 years after his death. More information can be accessed on the web. There is a biography, as yet untranslated, which gives a wealth of information: Philippe Garnier's GOODIS: LA VIE EN NOIR ET BLANC (Life in Black And White).

Bill Sherman, from the Feltonville neighborhood of Philadelphia, is a writer and former university lecturer in England and Wales. Further information and also His latest publication is a chapbook titled THE MANA OF THE MOAI, a special edition of Spanner magazine (#41, 2004).

Sunday, July 26, 2009


What was missing in 2009?

I mean, apart from

The economy


Chelsea in the European Final?

Noir Con.

And did we feel the loss.

I sure did.



Our wondrous lady who managed to arrange an event for the homeless during controlled

mayhem that any mystery event entails.

Deen Kogan is our own Mother Theresa of mystery

Sure, they are so many mystery events in the year that we are nigh spoilt for choice.


Noircon was sadly missed.

But trust me, it’s not like they were sitting on their laurels after two hugely

successful festivals.

Lou and crew have been working literally 24/7 to ensure that Noir Con 2010 is ultra


And phew-oh, is it ever?

The David Goddis Award is being presented to one of the most beloved writers in

mystery and also,

the most elusive.

Not that he’s avoiding us, or attempting to create a blog enigma, no, he is truly a

humble man who

shuns the spotlight and continues to write books that are rapidly becoming the

social commentary of

our times.

And the award for publisher goes to ……….flat out, just about me favorite independent.



Wonderfully engaging


A fine musician.

What’s not to love about a publisher who takes his band on grueling road tours to

keep the publishing

company afloat.

Noir Con 2008 was stunning.

An attendance of everyone who’s the biz in the mystery world

Megan Abbot

Scott Philips

George Pelecanos

Jim Nesbit

Gary Philips

Judy Bobalik

And would be writers note

Agents like

Lukas Ortiz

Scott Miller

Mingling quietly among the fun were the duo of

Reed Coleman

Jason Starr

And all singing the praises of Dr Lou Boxer

Gary Gillespie

And the magnificent Deen Kogan

With a wondrous homage to David Goodis which was the raison d’etre of us being there.

Dennis Mc Millan managed as usual to steal all fashion accolades and indeed, gave a

whole new

meaning to the wearing of a fedora, a linen suit and a guitar slung casually over

his impeccable


Now that is class.

At any given moment, you could grab a brew with Duane Swieczernski

Robert Truluck

Shannon Clute

Vicki Hendricks

Jen Siler

Seth Harwood

I kid thee not

This is how the festival began for me.

I flew from Galway to Newark

Don’t ask

Then got the train to Philly

I was heading for a sandwich and brew on the Amtrak and I noticed a guy carrying a

copy of PRIEST.

There isn’t a writer on God’s somewhat green earth won’t tell you, that is the best

feeling on the

whole damn planet

How I met Seth Harwood.

And it literally just got better from there.

I got to meet the Asian answer to Britney Spears and her considerable


But Reed Coleman tells that story so much better than me as he was in the firing

range of


The armed female cop who , once I passed the metal detector, moved towards me, and

as I put up me

hands, she asked

‘Can I have my photo taken with you?’

I think she thought I was Lee Child’s Dad.

Such was Noir Con




Roll on 2010 and honest, you don’t have to carry a copy of me book if you’re on

Amtrak, I’ll but you a

brew anyway.

That’s how delighted I’ll be to be there again

Our renowned Irish Playwright , Brian Friel wrote the terrific play

…………………………….Philadelphia Here I Come.

In all the ways that matter, I never left

Thank God and Noir Con

Saturday, July 25, 2009


NoirCon is based on Raphael's famous masterpiece, The School of Athens [Scuola di Atene (1509-1510)]. NoirCon is an opportunity for members of the Noir World to join together and discuss ideas, laugh and celebrate their art.

Like the "Salon" [An annual exhibition of works of art by living (and in the case of NoirCon, both living and dead) artists, originally held at the Salon d'Apollon.] NoirCon is meant to be a gathering of stimulating people of quality under one roof, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings, often consciously following Horace's definition of the aims of poetry, "either to please or to educate" ("aut delectare aut prodesse est").

Lest us not forget the "symposium" [Latin, drinking party, from Greek symposium : sun-, syn- + posis, drinking] of the ancient Greeks as well. NoirCon is a convivial meeting for drinking, music, and intellectual discussion among the ancient Greeks and not so ancient and new NoirCon devoutees.


by Bill Pronzini

How does one define noir, or hardboiled, crime fiction?

Not easily. The labels “noir” and “hardboiled” themselves make it difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a precise definition. Both terms have been used and abused by readers, writers, and critics so long and so often that, as with most literary labels, their meanings have become blurred.

A better approach is to list some of the elements contained in the best crime
stories of this type. These elements are not the only ones, of course, but they’re among the most important. The more of them that an author incorporates into a novel or story,the greater its merit.

The noir crime story deals with disorder, disaffection, and dissatisfaction. Throughout the genre’s seventy-year history, this has remained a constant and central tenet. The typical noir character (if not the typical noir writer) has a jaundiced view of government, power, and the law. He (or sometimes she) is often a loner, a social misfit. If he is on the side of the angels, he is probably a cynical idealist: he believes that society is corrupt, but he also believes in justice and will make it his business to do whatever is necessary to see that justice is done. If he walks the other side of the mean streets, he walks them at night; he is likely a predator, and as morally bankrupt as any human being can be. In the noir world, extremes are the norm. Clashes between good and evil are never petty, and good does not always triumph, nor is justice always done.

A quality noir story must emphasize character and the problems inherent in human behavior. Character conflict is essential. The crime or threat of crime with which the story is concerned is of secondary importance.

It must be reflective of the times in which it was written, providing an accurate,honest, and realistic depiction of its locale and of the individuals who inhabit that locale.

Even more important, it must offer some insight into the social and moral climate of its time. It must, as critic David Madden once wrote, “reflect [its] world in a way that is at once an objective description and an implicit judgment of it.” Entertainment alone is not sufficient.

Even though it involves some type of violent crime, it must not use unmotivated violence or violence for the sake of sensationalism. The mere threat of brute force is often enough.

It must have, in Benjamin Appel’s phrase, “living people talking a living language,” however harsh, cruel, or obscene these people and that language may be.

And finally, it should generate what Raymond Chandler called “a smell of fear.”
When all of these elements appear in a single work, and mesh together with a strong plot and a distinctive narrative voice, the result is a true noir classic.

Friday, July 24, 2009

NOIR by Rabbi David Wolpe

“The eye has a light part and a dark part. One can only see through the dark part”

Why does noir stir our souls? For some the darkness is only a pose; that is the literature that ends up discarded, forgotten. It is the adolescent noir, the boy in his bedroom chewing on the eraser and writing gloomy poetry. But the real noir, where we feel the writer’s mortal struggle with shadows, that takes hold of us, makes us feel that this shadow is somehow our real home, the soul’s resting place.
What is it about the code of noir that is so deeply enmeshed with our internal world? Noir seems composed of two elements, each in themselves true and deep, which can never be reconciled. The first is the reality of evil. Noir has no traffic with redemptive social programs, or gradualist therapy – it believes in evil. Literature that does not believe in evil can take no more than a racing dive into the human psyche. You must go down, down to a place where there are no explanations, no etiologies, no therapies. Just blackness. Just the cruelty that people do to one another. Where power is its own pleasure and horror its inevitable result.
The second reality is the necessity of a moral order. In classic noir literature we feel the evil because it is set against goodness. Man is the only animal that both laughs and cries, wrote Hazlitt, because man is the only animal struck by the difference between what is and what should be. In that terrain noir lives, its trenchcoat a symbol of fending off the swirling mess of a world that will in the end, strip the characters naked. Moral ambiguity thrives in the noir literature but only by making clear what goodness is, by holding up the standard which the characters acknowledge and periodically, violate.
That is why the prose of noir, like the prose of this essay, can so easily overheat. Who can write calmly about the dark if there is a glint of light? And the hero, if hero there be, must be disillusioned, if not at first, then in time. For in the world of noir, even though some ideals strike us as credible for the moment, in the end disillusion sounds like truth.
Bruen’s Jack Taylor’s drinking is not a disease. It isn’t allowed the comforting label of self-medication. It is the sensibly self-destructive reaction of a man who lives in disillusionment. What saves his humanity is wit, because noir wit is the recognition that we all know this makes no sense, that we can step back and achieve the distance that mockery gives us, yet the world grinds on, taking us with it, nonetheless. Humor saves the noir hero, but only for an instant; the pain roars back, mocking the mockery that was a brief respite. The French poet Valery said it for all noir literature when he commented that God made the world from nothing, and the nothing still shows through.
So characters are not only individuals, but primal forces. Women incarnate sexuality, men violence, both careening toward a plot that seems carved into the structure of the world. It never changes; there is a straight line from Delilah to Dietrich. Some will be credulous and others cunning, but in the end no one will win.
Why is it noir, and not “black”? The French name carries intimations of sexuality, to be sure; just saying it in French hikes up a hem. But also there is a swirl to the sound of the word, an image of sinking into something murky and endless, that will in time envelop us all. Since of course that is at the bottom of the noir pool – death. The specter that haunts us all gives noir its pain and power. Like the poisoner’s victim, we all see it coming, but too late to find an antidote. The slow inevitable ending of a fragile creature; it is the story of noir, and our story.
It remains only to be said that, done right, it is also a helluva read.

Rabbi David Wolpe
Sinai Temple
10400 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90024

Thursday, July 23, 2009


(First Published in HORROR GARAGE issue #2, Fall 2000)


An acquaintance of mine who talks (unaffectedly) like an Elmore Leonard character confronts me: "Why you always wearin' black, man? That a goth statement or what? Ain' t like, you know, it' s non-conformist, with all the people wear black.".

I just shrug and say, "It' s the closest thing I' ve got to being part of a tribe." He accepts that.

But it's deeper than that; quite literally deeper. Deepness not in the sense of profundity, but in the sense of something that comes from way down, underneath.

I don't always wear black. But anyone who knows me isn't surprised to see me in black. I'm in black more often than not. There's some justice in making a joke of it -- like the darkly-draped daughter in Beetlejuice, her mopey affectations, her romantic morbidity: Tim Burton making fun of himself. The Harvey Keitel character in Jane Campion's Holy Smoke dresses all in black. A young woman deconstructing him jeers something like, "What's that all about? Does it say 'I'm an individual'?"

But it goes a layer further down. The farther you go, the less light there is: things get dark.

And yes it's tribal, too. You've got to have some axis of relating. For some, it's their tribe, plain and simple; but then there are those dressed all in black who scuffle and mosh with me at Ministry and Sisters of Mercy concerts who are saying, This is my tribe but my tribe is the untribed, the unacknowledged Diaspora. I am the defective.

So is it just the black banner of romanticized alienation? Is it post-punk fashion classicism? Admittedly, it serves those functions. But, take this on faith: I wear black because I'm in mourning.

And I write noir for the same reason. Two media for the same expression. One side is passive mourning, the other side is active mourning. Active mourning for me is anger. No mourning is real or complete without anger.

The easy thing would be to dismiss all goth and all dark sartorial stylings as arrested adolescent melodrama. It would be easy to dismiss much of film noir, or the novels of James Ellroy in the same way. Film noir is just chic arrested-adolescent melodrama, some might say. Self indulgent romanticizing of bitterness, of resentment, of despair, of morbid fixation? Yes and no. With a deeper understanding: just no.

Such tropes are self indulgent only if they don't serve a larger function. Noir serves several. The artistic function, obviously: fine expression can be made for any subjective, all-too-human state of mind, adolescent or otherwise. Is any genuine emotional expression, artfully rendered, truly self indulgent?

Postmodern theorists -- with their political agendas -- will point to noir film and fiction (and music?) as a poeticizing of the working class's quandary; oppression dramatized, Edvard Munch like expressionism rendering the lack of choices in a closed, mazelike, claustrophobic, corrupt society. The political ramifications are difficult to dispute. But that's not its deepest level; not its deepest shadow, its greatest value. It's something -- oh but existential and ontological are buzzwords that have lost their meaning.

Of course, it's almost common knowledge that horror and morbid rock help us digest death. Don't Fear the Reaper...

There are other, more resonant functions. Certain artists take on an almost shamanistic role in the service of mourning -- usually unconsciously or, in the case of Marilyn Manson, half consciously. Some of us were made to be those particular vacuum tubes in the clumsy old fashioned computer-mind of the Collective Unconscious. Believe it or not, goths (setting aside the bogus Columbine variety) are here to serve. They mostly don't know it themselves. I am one of those vacuum-tubes whose social function is -- partly by inherent nature and partly by inherited nature -- to protest, to mourn; to amplify and relay mourning and anger for the collective mind.

A noir writer naturally processes woundedness with both objectivity and with empathy for the other wounded; with something more elegant, more eloquent, more valuable than self-pity. Something more broadly useful than mere catharsis: Self knowledge. Carl Jung described the self as a vast dark sphere -- a little spot of light on the sphere, a tiny section of it, is our ordinary understanding of ourselves.

Think of Lou Reed's superbly drawn portraits of junkies (the anthem Heroin; the philosophical decadent in Street Hassle) and speedfreaks (How Do You Think It Feels? from his album Berlin). Are those portraits just romanticizations of self destruction? Or are they almost Raymond Carveresque short stories that help us understand ourselves? I think they're deeply functional -- and deeply, redemptively satisfying for those of us who've been there.

This capacity for functionally exploring noir made my noir writing possible: my novels, stories and story collections, my contribution (one of two screenwriters) to the archetypically goth film The Crow.

But underlying it all -- I wear black, I write noir out of personal hurt, personal anger, and that place where personal suffering resonates with collective suffering.

And so: the following Five Reasons, drawn from real life, chosen as representative; from my life or the world's life. I could have picked other examples. Originally there were Seven Reasons, but I cut two very personal ones out of respect for the feelings of family members -- and some of the more sensitive reading public.

Probe with me these five cicatrices; the tissue lifts away easily; these wounds are poorly healed, not at all annealed.

Five Reasons I Wear Black
In no actual order of importance:

1. A month ago the newspaper blandly reported that a little girl was found chained to a bed in her crank-addict mother's bedroom. She'd been chained there continuously for six years...When I was a drug-use -- and I used in the apartments of addicts -- I glimpsed rooms where children were trying to sleep on the floor; their parents had sold their beds. I gave their parents money and drugs. I facilitated, I magnified their misery. I wear black in my regret; I write noir for those children, all those children, the children of addicts; and for the addicts, who want to stop hurting their families and abandoning their children, and can't; and for those who've lost the ability to want to stop hurting their children. I wear black for them, I write noir for them.

2. There was a little boy...There was a little boy, seven years old, who was pressured and intimidated and then imprinted: he was molested by someone older, a neighbor. He was taught to have sex at seven. He was taught that it was a secret. He was tormented by perverse visions that kept him awake at night. His father died when he was ten -- they'd never been close. That's two ways to lose your father. He grew up a sex and drug addict. He was clumsy, a misfit, often beaten up till he learned to fight; he was kicked out of high school. He was a punk rocker but didn't even feel he belonged there. He fell into hustling for awhile and was raped and left in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. Later he got married four times and hurt four women. He's in recovery now and in a good, lasting marriage, but it still hurts. It's supposed to. I am that boy. I wear black for him; I write noir for him.

3. John Wayne Gacy tortured children to death. He enjoyed telling people, later, that after a while these little boys begged him to kill them. There are people who collect his paintings. Who covet his trading card in the Serial Killer Trading Cards pack. I wear black for those children; I mourn for those children; I write noir to remember them... Two cops found a bloody fourteen year old boy wandering the streets, dazed -- he indicated he'd come from a certain house, nearby. He seemed confused, so they took him back to the house. The man there said the boy was his gay lover, had been drinking or something, was confused. The boy tried to tell the cops but they didn't listen -- fantastically obtuse, they turned him over to the man, who took him inside and killed him and ate him: Jeffrey Dahmer. I wear black for that boy � Not so long ago there was a man in Alaska who picked up wayward women, took them in the mountains, hobbled them, and then hunted them down with a bow and arrow. There are many, many graves still undiscovered in those mountains. I wear black for those women ... I wear black, I write noir, for a humanity dogged by the serial killer in every human brain: brains wired for primitive, outmoded responses, warped by genetic or nurturing misdirection, diabolic programming to find reward in cruelty -- the same wiring, a little less fixedly imprinted, that thrilled us when we watched the CNN footage of smart missiles shattering Iraq. . .And I mourn for those who think serial killers are chic, are campy fun; the stunningly cynical who think they're some sort of salaciously-delightful postmodernist art project: I wear black to mourn for their dead souls.

4. There are children in Africa -- nine years old, ten and eleven and twelve -- who're taken away from their parents by "rebels." Sometimes the children are forced to kill their parents, their brothers and sisters, before they leave with the "rebels." They're taught to use automatic weapons to kill government soldiers and anyone who stands in the way of the "rebels." And the "rebels" addict them to crack cocaine and then send them, stoned and psychotic, firing weapons they can barely lift, into villages of the sort they themselves were taken out of, to kill. To create filling for mass graves�Mass gravesI An innovation of the modern world -- in the old days they left them for the buzzards. But the making of mass graves was brought to a high state of technique in the Holocaust -- No amount of familiarizing, no Spielberg films or memorials, can take away the pain of those who suffered there. I wasn't there, but I can feel the pain hanging in the air, I can hear the unheard prayers: I have only to lift my head and listen. Children lying, alive, in the mass graves, waiting in their mothers'arms, waiting for the machine guns; some not dying till the smothering dirt covered their faces. The mass graves then; the mass graves now: There are always newer, fresher mass graves. Somewhere in the Balkans someone is surveying the land, in some sense, for new mass graves to come even as those that haven't quite settled are being dug up by the U.N. Mass graves in Malaysia; in South America. Maybe, mass graves will be dug for as long as human beings drop their spoor on the beaten trails of the sickened planet. They'll off-road in their SUVs to dig new mass graves. I wear black, I write noir, for the tangled bodies in the mass graves. I write noir, I wear black, for those African children. Because that's the kind of world we have made.

5. Was it fifteen years ago? Between wives, one of my periods of sexual adventurism. Sex, then, replacing drugs. A certain bar in Los Angeles where any kind of liaison is possible. I was picking up a half-mad young woman, telling myself she needed the consolation I would give, and maybe I'd slip her some money as she seemed more or less broke, though not quite a whore. Then a guy she knew a little came in, and started hustling the two of us. A threesome -- not since Plato's Retreat, and why not? So we went to a depressing motel on La Brea. There was some desultory sex, but I lost heart as I saw the scars on her legs, and as she told me how she got them, and how she couldn't feel much in a lot of her body below her waist because of the baseball bat her father had used on her. So I proposed to leave -- I could see she was afraid of the other guy, who had tattoos of skulls biting into the necks of little girls, and one that said KILL THEM ALL AND LET GOD SORT EM OUT. I tried to get him to go with me, but he wouldn't. He assured me he just wanted a place to sleep, and I let it slide, thinking, sure he's a crack addict but, shit, that don't make him a woman beater, and I decided, in my dazed hurry to get away from them, that she would be okay. I left -- though I sensed, vaguely, that she was scared to be left with the guy and yet didn't want to leave the room -- and only the next day did I really begin to worry. A month later I asked about the girl in the bar, a place she'd been a regular. No one had seen her for a month. The hustler came in; I asked him if he'd seen her. No, not since that night, he said. I could see such raw fear in his face when I mentioned her. Looking into his face, I knew the son of a bitch killed her. I told myself I was wrong, I was being paranoid. I came back to talk to the guy the next day -- they said he'd left the state. All I can do now is pray for her and tell her I'm sorry. I write noir for her; I wear black for her.

There are something under six billion other reasons to wear black; to write noir. Somebody has to play the dirge.

Please go to

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Noir From Way Back
by Woody Haut

It seems like noir has always been a part of my life. My first inkling of it came from my father, Albert Haut, a news photographer in Chicago and Detroit from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s. An autodidact, Wobbly and early reader of Hammett and Chandler, he would sit back and, with a cigar in his mouth, tell me stories of those days, most of which would qualify as what could be now termed as noir. Al was born in Whitechapel, London and raised in Harlem. After serving an apprenticeship as Ben Hecht and Carl Sandburg’s copyboy on the Chicago Daily News for $5 a week, he was handed his first assignment as a “picture-snatcher” in the newspaper’s rush to cover a deadly fire that occurred when a dirigible crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank building. He would go on to work as a photographer for the St Louis Post-Dispatch, Detroit Free Press, Associated Press, Reuters and Wide World. I was particularly fond of telling me the one about how he amongst the first (along with W.R. Burnett) to arrive at the scene of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Then there was the time he was roughed up and had his camera smashed by Al Capone’s gang for picking the wrong moment to take a shot of their boss, only, on the following morning to receive a letter of apology from Capone, along with a new camera. I also liked his stories about John Dillinger, photographing him first in the courtroom, then, after a tip-off from his girlfriend, just after he was gunned down outside the Biograph theater. My dad said he had to pin Dillinger’s eyes open to make it look like he was still alive. There were tales about Bonnie and Clyde, Jack Johnson, the Ford workers’ strike at Dearborn, travelling with FDR, etc.. If I had to pick my favorite photograph of his it would be his shot of Sugar Ray Robinson getting knocked out of the ring by Jake LaMotta, which Martin Scorsese recreated in Raging Bull, freezing the frame at the exact moment of my dad’s photo. Unfortunately, because my dad sold the rights to his photos whenever he changed jobs, none carry his name. But, then, I guess that’s fairly noir in itself. I’m sure it’s because of those stories and photos that I’ve had a lifelong love of noir fiction and film. And it’s why when I see a film noir or read one of those classic noir novels, I always feel as if, in some way, I’ve come home.

Woody Haut is a journalist, noir historian and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (all published by Serpent’s Tail).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Patricia Highsmith & Michael Jackson

Patricia Highsmith & Michael Jackson: How the Dark Lady of American Letters Met the Self-Styled King of Pop

By Joan Schenkar

It is early December, 1984, just two years after "Thriller," the twin towers of Michael Jackson's revolutionary music video and album, shot to the top of the charts.

Patricia Highsmith, the sixty-three year old Dark Lady of American Letters, is in the fourth decade of a shadowy self-exile from the United States. Her life's work to date –- twenty novels and short story collections including her two masterpieces, Strangers On a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) –- has long since been corralled into the "thriller" category. But when it comes to music, her pleasure is worlds away from Michael Jackson; she loves Mozart and classic Broadway musical comedies.

Highsmith and her favorite character, the talented Tom Ripley, share some serious identities with the still beautiful, still visibly black, still apparently male twenty-six year old creator of "Thriller."

This connection is obvious to no one but Pat Highsmith. Just now, she is intending to write a story about "someone like Michael Jackson." Or does she mean it to be a story about someone like herself?

Highsmith has been living in Switzerland and France, shuttling between two houses in which she doesn’t feel comfortable, travelling between two countries whose languages she refuses to speak. Her physical moves have been as extreme as her moods. And her moods began on the day in 1924 when her mother Mary wed her stepfather Stanley and shattered Pat's childhood dream of marrying her mother. The violence of her imagination continues to circle this incident, the most painful laceration of her life.

Highsmith's single-minded pursuit of silence and peace has made her a restless exile from Texas, from New York, from England, from France -- from everywhere, really. Her love life – a Pandora's box of sexually and intellectually interesting women, a few good men, and some deeply disturbing fantasies – is almost always kept secret. A fortune teller once told her mother that Pat should have been a son not a daughter, and Pat believes this. The word "transgressive" might have been invented for her.

Just now, she is living in a Swiss village so steeply ringed by mountains that in winter her 17th century stone house gets less than two hours of sunlight a day. There are bars on the windows of its bottom floor, and she imagines it to be a submarine bathed in emanations from the granite in the mountains. She spends her time in this dark house taking notes, talking to herself, and thinking up little inventions to lighten her days.

The radiant beauty of her youth is gone. Years of drinking, depression, and raging internal fires have ravaged it. But Pat can still magnetize a room or a guest with her piercing, dark-eyed glance that darts up from under her bangs; assessing you, says one young friend, "with the shrewdness of a homicide cop looking for evidence of wrongdoing."

Perched in a rocky canton in the world's most pristine country, Pat’s mind just naturally turns to images of cancer, toxic waste, radiation, poison, rape, torture, the horrors of nuclear war... and to Michael Joseph Jackson, the twenty-six year old American pop star whose personal life is not yet a matter of public record and whose music and dancing have taken the world by storm.

But it isn't Jackson's music Highsmith is interested in --- and it isn't his moonwalking.

Highsmith's subject in all her writing has always been the double, the Alter Ego, and its natural enabler: the alluring and dangerous act of self-transformation. She first proposed it in "Strangers on a Train", turning Plato upside down to make it work: "There's also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush." In "The Talented Mr Ripley", she gave it a triumphant shape – the shape of the American Dream -- and a successful form in the character of Tom Ripley, a young grifter of indeterminate sexuality, who, like his creator, wants only "the best" in life, slips in and out of different roles with ease, confuses love with murder, and gets away with everything.

In each of her books, Pat has paid special attention to the way dress can affect and express character. In life, she is particular about clothes and chooses costumes -- crisply ironed Oxford shirts, black loafers, vests, well-cut boy's pants – that announce her androgyny. Sanity is a central preoccupation: "I think I have some schizoid tendencies, which must Be Watched," she wrote grimly. "I fear the madness in me, quite near the surface."

When Pat turned her coroner's gaze to the young Michael Jackson, it was his budding "schizoid" tendencies she thought she saw; tendencies she had long since identified in herself: his obsession with costumes and transformation; his irrevocably divided character; his desperate attempts to retrieve the golden childhood he never had by surrounding himself with children and animals. (They had Peter Pan in common, too: Pat named a cat Tinkerbell, Michael called his kingdom Neverland.)

Those tendencies would metastasize grotesquely in Michael Jackson over the next quarter of a century until some variation of "Is he all there?" came to be the second question people would always ask about the self-styled King of Pop.

So it would have been with some sense of kinship that Highsmith, on the morning of December 10, 1984, hitched her chair up to her roll-top desk, lit up another Gauloise jaune, tightened her grip on her favorite Parker pen, and began –- very shrewdly, for the limited amount of information she had about him -- to parse Michael Jackson's character in a paragraph.

In 1984, Mr. Jackson had not yet attracted world-wide derision by adopting the chimpanzee Bubbles as a kind of double. In 1984, he had not yet publicly dedicated himself to Narcissus by composing his signature song, "Man in the Mirror" (1988), nor had the successive waves of child molestation charges that would wash over him in the 1990's yet submerged the brilliant dancing, the unearthly voice, the increasingly stylized spectacles designed to cover the wounded vulnerability. When Pat Highsmith decided to pin him to her butterfly board, the press was still treating Michael Jackson as a pop angel; a cuddly cross-over youth phenomenon -- despite those violent videos in which he dressed in military drag, plucked definitively at his crotch, turned into a slavering monster, and frolicked with ghouls. It would be a decade before his plastic surgeries, his bent for cross-dressing, his uncompassed roamings and his unruly urges began to make his name a byword for "transgression."

Although she never wrote her Jackson story, Pat Highsmith managed to be the first person to bring back the news about Michael Jackson, as much from the ends of her nerves as from anywhere else. And what she wrote that morning in 1984 was something like an epitaph for a lost boy, twenty five years before his death -- an epitaph couched in the low, flat, compellingly psychotic murmur she used for all her later work. It is, like most of what Highsmith wrote, a stunning shortcut into the perversities of the human heart. And it has, unlike so much of what is now being written about Michael Jackson, the virtue of absolute clarity:

A type like Michael Jackson, in love with himself. Sterling image to the public. Schizo finally. He talks to himself as he dresses. He becomes two persons within himself. Friends are aware of this –-- but the boy is a money-maker.

Guest Butler Joan Schenkar is the author of The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith coming this fall from St. Martin’s Press.

To read more about Highsmith's "The Price of Salt" on, click here.

© 2009 Joan Schenkar

Friday, July 17, 2009

NoirCon 2008 Logo

Mark Your Calenders for 2010! November 4th,5th,6th and 7th in Philadelphia, PA

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


(Ken Bruen writing about NoirCon 2008)

NoirCon 2008    4/4/2008 by davidgoodis39.







Noir continues to be the bĂȘte noir if you’ll forgive the pun, of the Mystery community.

Debate as to what exactly is noir is as diverse as it is convoluted.

I think Jon Jordan of Crime spree has put the final flourish on this never ending search for the precise definition.

He said that he doesn’t have a ready made description but he knows it when he reads it.

No truer words.

As it hits you like a Mack truck between the eyes.


Megan Abbot

Vicki Hendricks

Al Guthrie

Ray Banks

Duane Swiercynski

Jason Starr

And trust me, you’ll know you haven’t accidentally stumbled into a cosy.

Cosy it ain’t.

But memorable, phew-oh.

Despite the reams written as to the division between Noir and other mystery genres, I don’t hold with that for one minute.

The more variety we have, the healthier the whole genre becomes.

Which leads me to the dark if not necessarily holy trinity.

Lou Boxer, Deen Koogan and the quite extraordinary Greg.

Their work to make Noir con happen is exhausting to just read about.

And in common with most advocates of Noir, here is the wondrous contradiction..........nicer, more warm hearted people you couldn’t meet

They ensure that yes, it is, as the T.V show proclaims..............Always sunny in Philadelphia.

Noir con has a program for three days of all things noir that die for.

Panels consisting of the best talkers in the biz, movies, tours and names you’d travel a continent to meet.

Among the many treasures, you get a chance to meet the most colourful publisher of all

Dennis Mc be legend writ huge.

His beautifully editions of the very best writers are a joy and a wonder to behold and he is essentially a one man operation and never..................never..........deterred.

He has the secret of sartorial elegance in clothing down cold if not indeed noir.

I think David Goodis would have been well pleased to hook up with Dennis

Lou Boxer has uncannily managed to channel David Goodis, to the point that Lou published his newspaper column with D.G. as the column’s photo and is still trying to persuade readers that it’s not Lou.

The t-shirts, badges and other gems readied for the convention are art in themselves.

Already the buzz is out and years down the pike, the boast will be

‘Noir con 2008, I was there.’

With the unspoken riff

‘Where were you?’

The Noir Woodstock and without the mud.

What’s not to love.

The spectre of David Goodis will of course loom large and iconic and as the best noir is full of contradictions, I think David Goodis will finally step into the light.

How perfect is that.

Monday, July 13, 2009

GoodisCon 2007 Program Cover

A Literary Conference Dedicated to the Life and Work of David Goodis

january 5,6,7 2007

philadelphia, pennsylvania


021_18A by you.

David Loeb Goodis

March 2, 1917 – January 7, 1967

NoirCon 2010

(Thanks to Matt Lewis and OUT OF THE GUTTER)

NoirCon 2010

(Thanks to Matt Lewis and OUT OF THE GUTTER)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

David Goodis and NoirCon

David Goodis in Atlantic City.

NoirCon is dedicated to the memory of David Goodis - The Writer In The Gutter.

Atlantic City, New Jersey

David Goodis builds a mound of sand resembling the rear section of an airplane. He has a stick between his knees to control the mythical WW1 biplane. He starts shouting “I am Captain Roy Brown, World War I flying ace of the Royal Canadian Flying Corps. I am aiming the guns of my Sopwith Camel biplane towards a flying circus of Fokker Dr.I Dreideckers triplanes. Ah! I see a blood red triplane below me. I make a quick Immelmann turn and come up behind him, I take very careful aim. I set off two short bursts, His wing is breaking up, he is falling. This is Captain Roy Brown, reporting. I am very excited. I do believe I have downed the famous Red Knight of Germany, Baron Manfred Von Richtofen!”

“Years down the pike, the boast will be: Noircon, I was there.” Ken Bruen

Saturday, July 11, 2009

NoirCon 2008 - Saigon Noir

NoirCon 2008

Saigon Noir


Reed Farrel Coleman

A few months before Noir Con, Lou Boxer, one of the event’s main organizers, wrote to me asking that I do a piece for the program on their guest of honor Ken Bruen. Given my long standing friendship with Ken and my respect for his work, I was only too happy to oblige. Within a few days, I sent the piece off to Lou. Lou was so pleased with the piece that he came back with a second request: Would I make a speech in Ken’s honor at the banquet?

I was myself honored to be asked and set about the task of writing the speech. I didn’t want to repeat what I had written in the program and, as the speech was to strictly honor Ken’s work and was to precede his receiving an award, I thought it only proper to strike a more serious tone. I solicited quotes on Ken’s work from crime writers in Ireland, the UK, and the USA. I received some amazing responses not only in praise of Ken’s work, but explaining how influential and inspirational his work had been to others.

It took me weeks to get the speech just right, tweaking it, practicing it on my friends and family. I was confident everything would go smoothly. Yeah, right!

The banquet was held at a Vietnamese restaurant called Saigon Maxim. The first sign that things might not go as smoothly as I anticipated came the moment I walked through the door with my wife and Judy Bobalik. Not ten feet ahead of us and to our left, at the entrance to a large catering room, was a squad of Philadelphia Police in black flak jackets. I’m not talking Kevlar here. I’m talking ceramic/steel insert flak jackets. I’m talking Glocks, cuffs, etc. They looked more like special forces than security. The strange thing is that they didn’t bother any of the mystery writers while they practically strip-searched every Asian who dared come close to entering the catering room. I guess we all found that a bit strange, but so are all mystery writers.

After dinner, Ken Bruen, Dennis McMillan—the other guest of honor—writer Bob Truluck and I were called to the small stage at the head of the dining room for the ceremonies. The stage featured a green curtain backdrop decorated with a large painted cardboard snake with gold glitter and a small, white Buddah-like figure on a platform which seemed to hover above the stage. Bob Truluck, a truly nice man whom I had only just met, was to lead things off with a speech in praise of Dennis’ work as a publisher. Bob, like Dennis, is a natty dresser. He wore a straw pork pie hat, a white and turquoise silk shirt over a t-shirt and jeans, with matching turquoise and white shoes. Now far be it from me to make fun of a man’s hair, given my bald pate, but Truluck’s gray do sort of resembled a cross between the mother’s wig from Psycho and Pippi Longstocking’s.

The second Bob began his speech—eight, single-spaced, handwritten pages—an explosion of music and singing came from the big catering hall next door. With all due respect and apologies, to the uninitiated and untrained Western ear it sounded like cats being strangled while someone played Emerson, Lake and Palmer records backwards at the wrong speed. Almost immediately, Bob lost his place. The music got louder and louder. Then, two waiters just walked up on stage, opened a side door and, without a word, began tossing cases of beer—bang, bang, bang, bang…—onto the stage as if they were alone in the room. If to be is to be perceived, we weren’t. Now Bob was frantic and hopelessly lost, so he reverted to trying to tell stories about him and Dennis. The music got louder. Bob totally gave up on the prepared text and the word fuck became prominently featured. Poor Bob, I thought. Thank God it wasn’t me. Heroically, Bob persevered and finished up. Deen Kogan and Lou gave Dennis is award. Dennis said a few words and then it was my turn.

The music stopped a minute or two before I took my place in front of the mic. I was simply being lulled into a false sense of security because thirty seconds after beginning my speech, the music came back up—louder. Several people complained to management, but management’s solution was not to lower the music. It was to turn my mic up full bore. My voice became totally distorted and the loudspeakers screeched. I was producing more feedback than Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock and I didn’t even have a guitar or Wawa pedal. Jim Nisbet went apeshit and stormed into the other room. The music quieted for about ten seconds and came back louder. Ken’s agent Lukas stormed into the other room and actually pulled the plug. The music came back louder still. And in the midst of this madness, a screaming fight and shoving match between the cops and patrons breaks out at the front of the restaurant. Not only do I hear it, I’m watching it. My ears are nearly bleeding. I can’t hear my own distorted voice. The mic is feeding back worse than ever. Finally, I cut the speech by two-thirds. Bruen steps up to the mic and the music dies. Go figure.

Afterwards, Dennis, who reluctantly agreed, began to play Spanish guitar for us. Guess what happened. That’s right, the music started up again and drowned him out, but Bob Truluck would not be deterred. He and his lovely wife joined Dennis and began a rough approximation of Flamenco dancing. Only later did we learn that Friday night at Saigon Maxim is Cambodian Karaoke Night. Not only that, but that this had been a very special Cambodian Karaoke Night because the Cambodian Britney Spears, as she was described to us, had made an appearance that night. Hence the cops in riot gear. As Gary Phillips, Christa Faust and several other people pointed out, if the speech had gone as planned, it would have been forgotten by the next morning. With a high level of confidence I can assure you that no one who was there that night will ever forget my speech or Bob Truluck’s. I know I won’t forget it.