Saturday, January 17, 2015

Gravetapping: "The Plunge" by David Goodis

I recently read Dark Passage by David Goodis and really enjoyed it.  It is a novel where everything works.  It is plot controlled, but the characters are given just enough room to be interesting, and the atmosphere vibrates between something close to despair and almost, but not quite, hope.  When I finished I had the sharp desire to flip back to page one and start again.  Instead I dug out a David Goodis’ short story I read a few years ago titled “The Plunge” and reread it.  It was better this time than the last, and rather than satisfy my urge to reread Dark Passage, it made the itch more demanding.   

The following review originally appeared in 2009, and be warned it is a spoiler.

David Goodis is a writer that every hardboiled reader should know.  His work is dark—about as dark as you will ever read—heavy and literate.  It is often difficult to differentiate between the good and the bad, and the tales are drenched with a self-loathing that gives the stories a deep and sinister glimpse into the darkness of the human condition.

His short story “The Plunge” is one of his best, and a perfect example of what Goodis did well—create men who are, for the most part, good and then twist their world just enough to push them out of bounds into waiting darkness. 

Roy Childers is a clean cop in a corrupt department. He has risen through the ranks quickly; he is a homicide lieutenant with a bright future.  He has four children and another on the way.  His wife loves him and he seemingly loves his wife, but that isn’t enough for Roy.  He doesn’t consciously understand that he wants more, but he does. 

His world begins its slow descent when a warehouse is taken down for $15,000.  The robber killed one security guard and blinded the other. It is a trademark Dice Nolan score.  Dice is a man whom Childers has a special connection; they grew up on the same street and Roy has put him behind bars more than once. Now Childers wants to take Nolan down one last time, but he isn’t ready for what happens.  Nolan has something Roy wants and it will be his undoing. 

“The Plunge” is a brutal story.  It chronicles the unwinding of a man.  A man who seemingly has everything.  A man who is better than his end.  And a man who should know better. It is literate and the prose is pitch-perfect:
“Seven out of ten are slobs; he was thinking.  There was no malice or disdain in the thought.  It was more a mixture of pity and regret.  And that made it somewhat sickening, for he was referring specifically to the other men who wore badges, he fellow-policemen.  More specifically he was thinking of the nine plainclothesmen attached to the Vice Squad.  Only yesterday they’d been caught with their palms out, hauled in before the Commissioner, and called all sorts of names before they were suspended.”

The story opens in normal enough fashion.  The protagonist is a cop who wants to find a murderer.  There is even something special and personal about this particular criminal, but Mr Goodis takes the premise and smudges it with his own recipe.  He marks it with weakness and greed.  He takes a good and strong man and chops him down with life, fear, and hunger. 

The best part is, he does it all without ever losing his grip on the story or its impact on the reader.  He makes it interesting and entertaining from beginning to end.  He builds a path into darkness and then shows the reader the way out—a cleansing, but a rather messy and permanent one. 

“The Plunge” originally appeared in Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine October 1958. I read it in A Century of Noir edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins.

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