Goodis, David (pulp fiction writer)



A young writer of promise who came close to the big time, David Goodis landed in Hollywood, par-tied with Bogart and Bacall, and saw his work become a big screen hit. But the glamor years were over quickly. Goodis drifted back to his home town and spent the last third of his short life holed up in his parents’ house in Philadelphia, writing sleazy drugstore paperbacks. None of them were still in print in the United States when he slipped even deeper underground, dead of a heart attack at the age of 49.

David Goodis was the softcover bard of Skid Row, the ’50s paperback laureate of losers. His most typical protagonists were talented, wealthy, or otherwise gifted fellows whose various addictions and encounters with bad karma would send them straight to the gutter if not to hell. Paperback original writers were by all rights supposed to be pros who wrote very nearly to order, but Goodis’s morose thrillers came right from his soul, emotional autobiography disguised as lurid melodrama.

Born in Philadelphia, Goodis graduated from Temple University. He published his first novel, Retreat from Oblivion, when he was 21. It was an ambitious work, a complex blend of history and psychology, but did not sell, and Goodis quickly abandoned academic literature for something that paid the rent—the pulps. He began selling stories to a variety of pulp titles and found that he had a facility for the work; he could produce story after story without a pause. He peddled hundreds of stories and novelettes in the early ’40s. World War II was on and, apparently arbitrarily, he became a specialist in air war stories for such aviation pulps as Dare-Devil Aces, Battle Birds, and Sky Raiders.

When Goodis returned to the novel, it was with a smarter feel for the market and a more readable prose style.

It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.

Thus begins Dark Passage, a gripping, noir crime thriller about a man, wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, who breaks out of prison and tries to prove his innocence. Warner Bros. bought the film rights, and the writer-director Delmer Daves turned it into a classic film noir with Humphrey Bogart as Parry. Warner Bros. offered Goodis a screenwriting gig with the deal and he moved to Hollywood to write movies. In a town full of eccentric and colorful characters, Goodis more than held his own. He wore wrinkled and stained suits, preferred to sleep on friends’ couches rather than find his own place, and pursued prostitutes in derelict neighborhoods. He wrote a couple of novels while in Hollywood, added bits and pieces to scripts on the Warner assembly line, and then, in 1950, unemployed and homesick, returned to Philadelphia—for good.

Needing to make a steady living from his typewriter again, he turned to what had replaced the pulps as the major market for journeymen storytellers, the paperbacks. Fawcett Gold Medal had just started publishing original fiction paperbacks, instead of the hardcover reprints that had previously been the norm for paperback houses. Goodis sold them Cassidy’s Girl, a grim erotic melodrama. He followed it with Street of the Lost and Of Tender Sin, and became, along with John D. macdon-ald, Bruno fischer, and others, one of the prolific “Gold Medal boys,” the new masters of tough, unsentimental crime fiction and gutter melodrama. Goodis would also write for Jim thompson’s regular developer, Lion topics (which published Black Friday, The Burglar, and The Blonde on the Street Corner). Goodis’s downbeat, neurotic, sleazy stories were perfect for Lion. Goodis’s novels became instantly recognizable for their squalid settings and loser heroes hunted by past mistakes and tragedies.

Goodis’s work continued to sell to the movies. The Burglar (one of the Lion titles) was brilliantly transferred to film by Paul Wendkos, from a screenplay by Goodis, on authentic Philadelphia and Atlantic City locations, with a cast that included Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield. Nearly as good was Nightfall, directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Aldo Ray. The most famous and acclaimed film of a Goodis novel was produced not in Hollywood or Philadelphia but in France. Down There, a Gold Medal original, was about Eddie, a concert pianist turned alienated barroom piano player. A man who just wants to be left alone, Eddie is reluctantly drawn into other people’s lives, with consequences he dreads and predicts. In the end, shattered by the murder of his lover, Eddie returns to the bar, where he seats himself at his cheap piano and stares into the void:

His eyes were closed. A whisper came from somewhere, saying, you can try. The least you can do is try.

Then he heard the sound. It was warm and sweet and it came from a piano. That’s fine piano, he thought. Who’s playing that?

He opened his eyes. He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard.

The topic became Frangois Truffaut’s second feature film, called Shoot the Piano Player for its American release.

While readers tend to think of ’50s paperback fiction as brisk and sensationalistic, Goodis’s topics were different: they had relatively little violent action, and scenes of violence and sexuality had a depressing rather than exhilarating or arousing tone. Throughout the cycle of ’50s paperbacks, Goodis continually returned to the same settings and characters and told variations on the same story. Reading several Goodis titles in a row reveals the compulsiveness and repetition in the work, the recurring character types, the relentless cycle of failure, regeneration, and failure. The repetitions, however, were not the result of Goodis’s lack of narrative imagination but of a painfully personal set of obsessions being worked out in the most anonymous of forums.


  • Behold This Woman (1947);
  • Black Friday (1954);
  • Blonde on the Street Corner, The (1954);
  • Burglar, The (1953);
  • Cassidy’s Girl (1951);
  • Convicted (1954);
  • Dark Passage (1946);
  • Down There (1956), also published as Shoot the Piano Player;
  • Fire in the Flesh (1957);
  • Moon in the Gutter, The (1953);
  • Nightfall (1947);
  • Night Squad (1961);
  • Of Missing Persons (1950);
  • Of Tender Sin (1952);
  • Retreat from Oblivion (1939);
  • Somebody’s Done For (1967);
  • Street of No Return (1954);
  • Street of the Lost (1952);
  • Wounded and the Slain, The (1955)

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