Monday, September 01, 2003

THE BURGLAR by David Goodis

At three in the morning it was dead around here and the windows of the mansion were black, the mansion dark purple and solemn against the moonlit velvet green of gently sloping lawn. The dark purple was a target and the missile was Nathaniel Harbin who sat behind the wheel of a car parked on the wide clean street going north from the mansion. He had an unlit cigarette in his mouth and in his lap there was a sheet of paper containing a diagram of burglary. The plan gave the route aiming at the mansion, moving inside and across the wide library to the wall sage where there were emeralds.

So begins this twisted tale of obsessive love and crime. David Goodis, along with fellow noir writer Cornell Woolrich, was the leading purveyor of hardboiled angst and paranoia. His novels have an uncanny power to them, as they brutally dissect the malaise festering beneath the surface of our lives. Goodis worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter during the 1940s, but he’s best remembered for his novels, most notably Dark Passage (which was adapted for the screen in 1947 starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall), Nightfall (also adapted to the screen by director Jacques Tourneur), Shoot the Piano Player a.k.a. Down There (which famed French director Francois Truffaut made into a classic film), and Black Friday among many others. In The Burglar, Goodis introduces us to career criminal Nat Harbin. Harbin is a mastermind at putting together big pay-off burglaries. Unfortunately, Harbin is also a major-league softy when it comes to women. And in true noir style, women are the one thing that always get him into deep trouble.

The Burglar is a black cocktail served ice cold. The twisted relationships between Harbin and his gang of thieves (the dumb-witted Dohmer, the weaselly Baylock, and the dumbly innocent yet alluring Gladden) are all expertly sketched out, as is Harbin’s deliriously sex-driven dalliance with the mysterious Della, a woman oozing with toxic love. This poisonous slice of unease is sadly out of print, but it’s well worth tracking down among the used bookstores.

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