Black Curtain Press 1947
$8.49 paperback Kindle $ .99
James Vanning is lonely, depressed, afraid and plagued by insomnia. In other words he’s a classic protagonist in a noir novel.
The commercial artist and World War II vet is on the run from the police and a gang of bank robbers. He’s holed up in a small New York City apartment selling his work to ad agencies to get by and feeling sorry for himself. As an average guy entangled in a seemingly unexplainable criminal morass, he could be a character in a Cornell Woolrich novel. Instead he’s the creation of another respected noir author, David Goodis, noted for his mystery, Dark Passage, that became a Bogart and Bacall movie.
In Nightfall, published in 1947, Goodis imperils Vanning without letting the reader know too many details. Except for one thing: he’s killed someone, or is convinced he did. And, he’s scared.
“He wanted to go out. He was afraid to go out. And he realized that. The realization brought on more fright.”
A few sentences later a Woolrich-style premonition: “…something was going to happen tonight.”
Vanning knows that the story of the killing, as he remembers it, is so preposterous no cop or DA would believe him. We learn bits and pieces: A Seattle bank was robbed of $300,000. One of the gang responsible for the robbery was murdered. The money disappeared.
The story unfolds through chapters of alternating points of view, that of Vanning and of Fraser, the NYC police detective following him. Married with three children, Fraser (we never learn his first name) has been shadowing Vanning for months and thinks he knows nearly all aspects of the artist’s solitary life. But he worries the case may be his undoing. His superiors are calling for an arrest and return of the money. And Fraser has doubts.
Despite overwhelming evidence against Vanning, Fraser thinks he might be innocent. “With what they have on him already,” Fraser tells his wife, “they can put him on trial and it’s a hundred to one he’d get a death sentence.
“They’ve got witnesses, they’ve got fingerprints,” Fraser says, “they’ve got a ton of logical deduction that puts him dead center. And what I’ve got is a mental block.”
Vanning’s faring no better. His memory is full of holes. He knows he shot someone but beyond that, his recollection of his unintended involvement in the robbery is a riddle. We see tantalizing details through flashbacks, but learn little more than Vanning’s spotty memory can produce.
He’s constantly looking over his shoulder but permits himself occasional time to go out because he craves company. In a bar, he looks in the mirror. “He saw in his own eyes, the expression of a man without a friend. He felt just a bit sorry for himself. At thirty-three a man ought to have a wife and two or three children.”
He meets a stranger named Martha at the bar. “Her figure was on the buxom side. Voluptuous, but in a quiet, wholesome way.”
Vanning is attracted to her. They go out. He tells her his life story—minus the bank robbery. But is he looking for love in all the wrong places? Events soon make him suspect Martha may be working with the robbers who are desperate to find him and the loot.
Goodis keeps the story moving at a swift pace with a stacco style, descriptive language and a good dose of noir/crime lingo.
“No sense doing it [a murder] in the hotel. Harrison wanted a dark street. A fast powder.”
In the bar scene, Goodis, in language reminiscent of Chandler says, “The fat fellow shrugged and put some beer down his throat.”
Reflecting the book’s theme, one character says, “Did you ever stop to think how cities crowd you? They move in on you, like stone walls moving in. You get the feeling you’ll be crushed.”
Nightfall begins: “It was one of those hot sticky nights that makes Manhattan show its age.”
Ever since Edward Bulwer-Lytton penned the immortal words, “It was a dark and stormy night,” writers and critics have warned against starting a book with weather. But Goodis uses the city heat effectively to harry Vanning.
“The heat came in waves, big rollers of heat walling in from all parts of Manhattan and down from a sky of melted asphalt.”
After a few plot twists the story evolves into a protracted, three-way cat and mouse game among Vanning, Fraser and the crooks. You won’t know what’s going to happen until the last page. Nightfall is fast-moving, engrossing and a valuable contribution to the noir genre, and a low Kindle price makes it accessible to everyone.
The Kindle version of this book includes a forward by Larry Withers. Do not read this before you read the book. Like so many forward writers, Withers gives you a good idea of what happens at the end of the story. Did he assume everyone had already read the book and simply bought this copy as a keepsake. On a Kindle?
A film version of the book, produced in 1956, directed by Jacques Tourneur, starred Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith and Aldo Ray. The movie significantly simplifies the plot and scenes take place in Los Angeles and Wyoming, not New York.
David Goodis (1917–1967) earned a degree in journalism from Temple University and began writing for an advertising agency while working on novels. A native of Philadelphia, he became a script writer in Hollywood following the success of Dark Passage. Later he moved back to Philadelphia where he wrote most of his books, many of which are as dark or darker than Nightfall. He wrote an untold number of stories for pulp magazines such as Dime Mysteries and Horror Stories and nearly 20 books, most published in the 1950s.