That’s how it ended, boy. That’s what finally happened to your father, the good one, the clean one, the honest policeman. The rats got to him and he was meat for their bellies. You understand now why I gotta have the wine?
Of all the pulp poets, I would rank David Goodis as one of the best. He populates skid rows and slums with destitute underdogs driven by their hope for atonement or redemption; his characters are full-time losers, the unjustly accused, criminals and burnouts, walking the misty streets and moonlit alleys of Philadelphia’s shadow world. The intense, jazzy flair of his writing and desperation of his doomed characters made Goodis the quintessential roman noir author to the French, and his novels became a frequent source for French filmmakers: Shoot the Piano Player (1960), The Burglars (1971), The Moon in the Gutter (1983), Savage Street (1984), Descent into Hell (1986), … For years, the only biography of Goodis was in French.
Meanwhile, he lived as a virtual unknown in America; his big break came when his 1946 novel Dark Passage became a Warner Brothers vehicle that launched the careers of Bogart and Bacall. Goodis signed a six-year contract with Warner working on screenplays and treatments, but the career was less than successful and he moved back to Philadelphia, writing paperback originals for Gold Medal. The last novel to be published in his lifetime was Night Squad in 1961; he suffered a stroke and passed away in 1967. At the time of his death, none of his books were still in print, and his one posthumous novel (Somebody’s Done For, 1967) received no reviews upon release. Twenty years later, his books were re-issued by Black Lizard, and in the meantime he’d become the darling of the French crime filmmakers; since then, Hard Case Crime, Millipede Press, and the Library of America have republished novels by this forgotten master. A shame he was not around to see a justifiable interest in his work.
The newest publisher of Goodis is Chalk Line Books, a brand-new publisher hoping to follow in the footsteps of legendary Black Lizard in reprinting classic crime/mystery fiction. I received a .mobi copy of the renamed Secret Squad as a reader review copy; it’s on sale on Amazon or on iBooks for $5.99.
Corey Bradford used to be a cop. A crooked cop, at that, which is why he lost his badge and his wife and has now come to rest at the bottom of a gutter, a drunken nobody not worth a second glance. But tonight, Corey changes all that by jumping two gunsels taking aim at local big-shot Walter Grogan in his own gambling den. In return for saving his life, Grogan offers Bradford $15,000 to track down whoever’s out to get him. Shortly thereafter, Bradford is picked up by members of the Night Squad—an entire police squad of loose cannons and psychotics—who want Bradford to put Walter Grogan behind bars. His desire split between the money and redeeming his tarnished honor, Corey walks a thin line as he tries to handle both jobs at once…
In most of Goodis’ novels, his downtrodden protagonists don’t want to be, often don’t deserve to be, in the situation they’re in. It’s their desperate flailing that causes their inevitable doom, like watching someone floundering in quicksand. In Night Squad, Corey knows full well that it was his choices that made him who he is today—and rather than wallow in its misery, he basks in it. He shows a sadistic pleasure in his fall to the bottom of the Swamp, losing his badge and his wife and his worth as a man; he still has vestiges of civilized society in him, but he’s become a part of the grimy shadow world and doesn’t seem to care how far he’s fallen. Which makes him an ideal candidate for the Night Squad, a group of psychotic detectives who root out the worst the Swamps bring forth.
Goodis’ prose is a thing of wonder: pure pulp poetry at its finest, with sharp dialogue and a jazzy but bleak style. The atmosphere of this setting—the Swamps, a fetid slumland somewhere on Philadelphia’s underbelly—is rich and vibrant. You can picture walking down its twisting alleys, between the crumbling tenements and the disease-infested mire from whence it’s named, through mist and cigarette smoke on some chilly night. And the characters are as lively as ever, the type of vagrants and underdogs Goodis shone at depicting: drunkards and bar bouncers and cunning gun-wielding hoods a little too smart for their own good.
On the other hand, some elements are downright awkward. The novel is very introspective, and there’s several points where the prose switches to italics as Bradford has an introspective moment, or has arguments with his badge. His internal struggle and mental woes are a great idea, but the technique was a bit overdramatic. And overused, to the point where it becomes repetitive, and detracts from the moral struggle Goodis was trying to capture. It’s probably what critic Anthony Boucher was talking about when he wrote “the writing is more ponderous than Goodis’ best, and the moral thinking confusingly muzzy.”
Thus, it’s interesting to read Night Squad since it’s so similar yet divergent from Goodis’ earlier novels. Corey Bradford willingly accepts his crime and takes his downfall in stride, and while his story is dark and has no contrived happy ending, it hints that Corey’s life may finally start heading upward towards redemption. Compare his deliberate choices to Goodis’ other protagonists, wrongfully condemned or accused misfits, whose panicked flailing in vain attempts to free themselves only furthers their eventual demise. David Goodis is still not an author you read because you want to see good things happen to good people—even though it’s more of a detective novel, it is still a Goodis novel—but compared to the last Goodis I read—The Wounded and The Slain—Corey Bradford’s life was peachy.
I wouldn’t say Night Squad is the best thing David Goodis ever wrote, but I found it a capable detective story and a very likable novel. The evocative setting and twisty-turny plot are standouts, and make up for those more repetitive and internalized “have a chat with my badge” sections. It’s a great entry drug into David Goodis for fans of detective/crime fiction, dipping into the dark and misanthropic waters of Corey Bradford rather than diving into the crushing depths of, say, Down There. Night Squad is not Goodis at his best—that would probably be Dark Passage or The Burglar—but if this excellent read is Goodis at his worst, it showcases just how damn good he was. His jazzy prose and rich atmosphere are hard to beat.
Ebook Comments: Normally when I’m reading an ebook, I end up having to make some comment about the quality of the OCR scan, like “there were a few errors but they didn’t really distract me,” or “the errors were kind of annoying.” Chalk Line has done a remarkable job, and I did not find a single grammatical inconsistency while reading. I may have missed one, but trust me, it’s like a needle in a haystack—the best editing job for a vintage reprint ebook I’ve seen in a while. And despite the new title, it’s uncut as far as I can tell. It also had some illustrations by Martha Kelly, which are simple and evocative little line drawings; it’s was nice knowing the artist got to choose which scenes to draw.