Dark Passage


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David Goodis is one of the most admired American noir writers of the last century. In this book, first published in 1946, Vince Parry, sentenced to life imprisonment in San Quentin for the murder of his wife, escapes. He tries to find out who framed him in an attempt to prove his innocence. He is harboured by a woman he doesn't trust, he is a fugitive from justice in the depths of despair. Parry's last throw is a desperate gamble to hide his identity from the law. Filmed in 1947 by Delmer Daves at Warner Brothers and ...

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Aug 17, 2018

An Early Goodis Novel

In 2012, the Library of America published a volume of five noir novels of David Goodis (1917 -- 1967) which has brought a wider readership to Goodis' work. The LOA collection opens with "Dark Passage", Goodis' second novel, serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and then published in book form in 1946. When Goodis wrote "Dark Passage" he was working in Hollywood. In 1947, "Dark Passage" became a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Loren Bacall. The book was reissued in paperback, but the LOA volume may make this paperback obsolete. The book is worth discussing on its own.

The book is set in San Francisco during the years of WW II. The primary character is Vincent Parry, a young man who was ineligible for military service due to a medical condition. He works at a low-paid, dead-end job as a clerk in an investment firm. Parry has made an unhappy marriage. When his wife Gert dies, Parry is tried and convicted for her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at San Quentin. The hapless Parry had claimed the death was an accident. Goodis sets the stage for what follows in the opening paragraph of his story:

"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."

As the book develops, Parry escapes from San Quentin. He receives assistance from a mysterious woman, Irene Janney, and for a time from his only friend, a man named Fellsinger, who is himself murdered. Parry is accused of this murder and faces the threat of execution if caught. Parry undergoes a painful underground treatment to change his face. He also works to discover the killers of his wife and of Fellsinger.

The intricate plot and the details of Parry's sleuthing tend to slow down the book. The appeal of the book does not lie in its elements of a mystery. Rather, "Dark Passages" offers a portrayal of failed, lonely, and sad people who have not lost a sense of determination. The book portrays city life in crowds, lost individuals, lonely deserted dark streets, and boxed-in apartments.

Goodis writes in the short, clipped sentences of noir. As the novel progresses, the writing takes on a poetic character, with its repetitious, rhythmic incantations of phrases and long passages of description. Although the book includes a substantial amount of violence and external action, the focus is on the characters and their tormented inner lives. In many introspective scenes, through dialogue, Goodis offers insight into Irene, Fellsinger, several other characters, and primarily Parry himself. In a passage late in the book, Parry describes his life and his dreams, as he thinks he has discovered the murderers:

"And the pattern kept expanding, showing him the simple and ordinary happiness he had expected to find with Gert, the clean and decent happiness of the little guy who wasn't important and had no special urge to be important and wanted nothing more than a daily job to do and someone to open a door for him at night and give him a smile."

"Dark Passages" is a sad lyrical novel about lonely people. Goodis' subsequent works would be even darker.

Goodis' novel also had an interesting legal history. Late in his life, Goodis sued a television series, claiming that it appropriated themes and scenes from "Dark Passages." The initial court rulings were adverse, but an appeals court allowed Goodis to pursue his case. The case settled for a relatively small amount after the author's death.

"Dark Passages" is a poignant, introspective example of noir from a writer that I am enjoying getting to know and who is receiving deserved critical attention.

Robin Friedman


Apr 3, 2008

A treat for fans of the classic film

It's often a mistake to read the book for a film you like (and vice versa) because the media are so different that it seldom makes sense for the film to match the book closely. Often good movies are made from bad books, and bad movies from good books.
Not this time. The well known Bogart-Bacall film is one of the classics of film noir, a film that improves with each viewing and has almost all the classic elements of noir. It's not a great movie, but a very good one. Viewers will find the book, by one of the top names in noir literature, just as good. This is NOT a pulp novel, and is better written than most pulp. Though the style is dated, it reads fast and well. Unlike many of the famous noir books, which were written for pulp mags, this was first published in the Saturday Evening Post, a fairly big deal then (1946). Goodis has some bravura passages in which he tries to create a feeling, such as a sense of doom or fear, through stylistic extravagance. I found those sometimes fascinating, sometimes over-done. Otherwise, the story is just a good read, plenty of suspense, a bit farfetched in coincidence at times, like the movie. Several Goodis books were filmed. Goodis (who had a hard-luck life himself) specialized in beaten-down, loser protagonists, though in this early success, Vincent Parry has amazing good luck at times. More surprisingly, the movie stuck very closely to the book in plot and character, though Bogart's portrayal of Parry is not quite as downbeat. Not quite. If you like reading noir, or just love the movie, you should enjoy this. The 1999 Prion trade paperback edition is nicely packaged, good quality cover and binding, with an informative introduction.


Sep 13, 2007

they can't write 'em like they used to

i want david goodis. if he were still alive today, i probably would daydream about meeting him. it's fun to read the book, then watch the movie an hour later. i guess it's hard for actors to react to a camera's eye, because the acting gets a liitle better when Bogart is unveiled.
anyway, this book is one of the classics that defines classic noir.

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