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David Goodis’s THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN

Hard Crime Case, May 2007$6.99, 252 pages

Hard Case Crime, May 2007
252 pages, $6.99
Classic noir and hardboiled crime fiction is a literature of disillusionment, populated by men wracked with guilt and women scarred and abused. These stories are of the down-and-outs, the has-beens, the also-rans. Often, crime fiction measures time in intervals of violence and deception, with alcoholic oblivion the only shelter from the storms of existence.

Hard Case Crime, a publishing house created by Charles Aradi and Max Phillips, reissues lost classics of this genre as well as new works by contemporary authors upholding this literary legacy. This month, HCC reprints David Goodis's The Wounded and the Slain, from 1955. Some may recall that the 1947 film Dark Passage (starring Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall) was based on the novel by this prolific Philadelphia-based writer. The French cinema has had a liaison amoureuse with Goodis, too. There's Francois Truffault's classic adaptation of Shoot the Piano Player, and the 1980s film of Wounded-renamed Descent Into Hell. Just from these titles, one senses that Goodis's tales are not for the faint of heart.

If alcoholism is a low-level spiritual quest, then The Wounded and the Slain charts a painful awakening for its central protagonist, the perpetually drunk James Bevan. He and his wife, Cora, escape to Jamaica intending to rekindle an intimacy recently lost. Success in this enterprise is feeble, and the two skulk like a pair of wounded animals trapped in a cage. Cora disappears into the company Atkinson, a successful (and sober) American on holiday. Bevan crawls deeper into the bottle.

Goodis's prose shifts perspective frequently. By detailing the distortions in each character's point of view, their misery becomes all the more tragic. Bevan and Cora inspire both pity and repulsion with their misinterpreted actions and unfinished thoughts; they are flawed heroes at best. In Goodis's universe, Fate is far from benevolent or merciful.

Eventually, Bevan attempts to drink his sorrows away at a seedy bar deep in the mean streets of Kingston. A bar fight ends with Bevan standing over the corpse of a thief, his shirt bloodied. Unlike a classic 'police procedural,' Goodis concludes his tale more in the tradition of Dostoevsky. Blackmail, his struggle with the price of his freedom, his quest for justice-the world inside and outside of Bevan's head become increasingly blurry. Some of the most arresting writing in the novel lies within these near-hallucinatory chapters.

Noir tales see the world through a glass darkly, and The Wounded and the Slain is no exception. In this universe, justice can only be wrought outside the law, and sometimes vengeance is the best course of action. For Goodis, character is a metal minted in the fires of agony and depression, written with a velocity of action and dialogue that draws you deeper into the darkness. Like a bottle in the hands of Bevan, readers entering The Wounded and the Slain will not escape until the whole is sucked dry.

David Goodis was born in Philadelphia in 1917 and published his first novel in 1939. He rose to national attention with the publication of Dark Passage, later made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in 1947. He wrote eighteen novels before he died in 1967.

Brendan McCall is a director and choreographer based in New York City, currently writing two screenplays based on the novels of Lawrence Block and Peter Straub.