Sunday, July 29, 2018

David Goodis's OF MISSING PERSONS

One of Goodis’ lesser known novels,  Of Missing Persons has not been reprinted since the Pocket Books paperback  in 1951. Morrow published the first edition in 1950, and made arrangements with the Detective Book Club later that year. Goodis’ biographer, Philippe Garnier, scrutinized Hollywood records and found that the author wrote 11 treatments for it in 1948. The next year, a Warners story editor tried to get it produced as a strong vehicle for Bogart or Cagney. Goodis’ research on how a Missing Persons department worked (he dedicated the novel to the head of the LAPD unit)   was a strong point,  as were the “human values” reflected in the pressures of the job, and the motives for the murder. There is no sign of the amorality, sadism, vengeance, and interoffice jealousy in “City Hall’s” copland that play a role in Night SquadDown There, or The Burglar.  The back flap of the Morrow dust jacket calls the Missing Persons bureau chief Paul Ballard “a man of great personal integrity.” The  similarity of Ballard to later Goodis  police chiefs is that Ballard's frustration at the obstacles that confront him are like those that almost floor the captain of Philly's "Hellhole"  precinct in Street of No Return.
    jump to:
    "he attacked [raped] me"

    Sisyphean 
    Goodis was hanging around with good mystery writers. Carleton won a MWA award in 1945 for Cry Wolf, later a movie. Vickers wrote over 60 crime novels, some adopted for films and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Ellington published in Mike Shane Mystery Magazineand Manhunt, as did Goodis.
    The image (press on the previous word and scroll just above and to the left)  of Ballard in the Pocket Books edition is a good characterization of a strong-willed, beefy, intense man, used to dealing with distraught and desperate people. The rest of the cover drawing is typically prurient, a panicked, coltish blonde with her blouse revealing a bit of her slip.

    Goodis was given permission to publish the book, with Warners reserving all movie rights in case they wanted to dramatize it in the future.

    The best essay on this novel is by Cullen Gallagher in his Pulp Serenadewebsite. I had thought Of Missing Persons a hollow whodunit until he showed me how it had a place in the “long line” of Goodis protagonists thanklessly “dedicated to a craft.”
     
    THE PLOT: Ballard has to talk Myra Nichols, a distraught woman, out of jumping from the widow ledge of his office. She has just accused him of foolishly closing the case on her husband, whom he thought to be dead. A local tabloid is attacking him for incompetence and bullying tactics. His staff disputes this, but Ballard, whom his wife wants to quit a pressurized job that has him gobbling pills, sleepless, and constantly pissed off at City Hall, resigns. He relished the decision: “it would be a showdown and it would be thick, black pudding [revenge]. It would taste wonderful. All the guff he had taken, … thrown back in their faces.” He is tired of being a “walking Gibraltar” while dealing with insurance companies, newspapers, lawyers, and social service workers—let alone frightened loved ones of people gone missing.
    Then, Myra turns up dead, and a woman named Mrs Jean Landis tells Ballard that Mr Nichols, still alive,  is enamored of her. Ballard is rough on her—for a reason. He suspects Nichols has raped her, but (in 1952), no woman would admit that to anyone unless she feared that if she did not, she would be tried for murder (in this case, of Myra Nichols) so Jean and Mr Nichols could marry. Jean uses the phrase "he attacked me." It’s an example of how language itself imprisons a person by preventing a “decent woman” from uttering (in 1950) such an "indecent" word as “rape.” Too bad that Goodis, as Gallagher stress, did not develop other characters except the hero,  Ballard. What did Jean think of being bound by an obligation to be “decent” even if it could have put her in the electric chair? 
     
    AS Cullen G. also points out, the book had a “Hollywood ending.” It needed to “appeal to wide audiences”- those who wanted something more conventional than a noir finish. The moral: “a cop has a hard life.” It works for one of the entries in the “Morrow Mysteries” line (see image above), or  for a movie starring, maybe, Cagney in a hero role to counter that of a mommie-loving psycho (White Heat).
     
    Goodis was perfectly frank about rape in Street of the LostThe Moon in the Gutter [the image below  is from the 1982 French adaptation]Of Tender Sin, and Night Squad. Those paperbacks were meant to be frank about sex and violence, which was why they flew off newsstand racks and why, as well, they were examples of how moral crusades about “indecent” books made paperback publishers and authors fighters for freedom of expression.
    Gallagher’s most resonant point about Ballard is that his struggle is “Sisyphean.” His wife’s desire for a less angry husband, his bad health, his obligation to his profession, his resentment at the public’s negativity toward police dedication to justice—all are obstacles he is seemingly burdened with forever. Late in the novel he blows up at his wife and just about invites her to make a break with him.  Gallagher incisively says, “His self-hate [is] projected outward onto others,” even to loved ones and trusted colleagues. The momentary rejection of his wife is very similar to Eddie’s in Down There. Sisyphean burdens are shouldered by the protagonists in  Black FridayThe Wounded and the SlainThe BurglarNightfall, The Blonde on the Street Corner,  and most fiercely in Goodis’ final novel, Somebody’s Done For.
     
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