Goodis: A Life in Black and White

by Philippe Garnier
Black Pool Productions, 2013, $25

When published in France in 1984, the author notes, this biography was not well received because it diverged from the conventional Gallic wisdom about David Goodis the writer (as a literary genius) and the man (as a pauper unrecognized in his own country), exemplifying a French tendency to build legends and ignore inconvenient details. Now translated and revised for an American audience, Goodis: A Life in Black and White makes the biographer a character, describing how he traced and met with his subject’s friends and associates.

A history of the famous Série Noire imprint and the phenomenon of the French embracing undervalued American literature, including some disquieting notes on the very loose French translations of Raymond Chandler and others, is followed by considerable attention to Goodis’ screenwriting career, including quotations from studio memos and descriptions of Hollywood politics, all interesting but some of scant relevance to the subject. For example, a visit to the Motion Picture Country House is described in detail before getting around to resident Finlay McDermid, a sometime mystery writer who had been Goodis’ story editor at Warner.

Though interested in Goodis for his personal oddness (likable, family oriented, but very strange), and his cultural impact, Garnier doesn’t oversell him as a writer. Enthralling as the book is to anyone interested in the American or French paperback industry or in 1940s Hollywood, it may not attract many readers to the subject’s fiction. The illustrations, book covers, and candid photographs, are a decided plus.

No American crime-fiction expert would agree with the description of Gold Medal as a “lowly paperback-only outfit” or “the Skid Row of the paperback industry.” And Baynard Kendrick’s blind detective Duncan Maclane was not, as Garnier believes, subject to sudden blindness at awkward moments. That was John Kobler’s Peter Quest, the “glaucoma detective,” who first appeared in the pulps late in 1938.

Jon L. Breen
Teri Duerr
Black Pool Productions