David Goodis’ 1947 novel, Nightfall, is a surprisingly psychological noir thriller. It follows James (Jimmy) Vanning, who’s laying low in NYC, all paranoid and edgy, trying to pass as a freelance artist. It turns out people are after him – a bunch of crooks think he’s got their $300,000 dollars from a bank job across the country.
Meanwhile Detective Fraser, a detective who has recently become interested in psychology, is observing Vanning from a distance, watching his every move, following him about the city, knowing full well who the man is, but isn’t utterly convinced he’s a guilty man. He doesn’t seem the sort to kill a guy and steal hundreds of thousands of dollars.
There’s not much more to it than that. We basically have a short novel that consists entirely of chase scenes, conversations in the shadows, and flashbacks. There’s a blonde involved and a seemingly innocent/guilty guy – it could be anyone at the centre of this novel – trying to cling on to his life and his own inner reality.
But! It’s good. The dialogue is superb. The descriptions are deeply poetic without straying from the the convention of minimalist noir prose. Here we’ve got everything that seems typical of genre, yet there’s fascinating, complex psychology at the heart of it – those shadows and backstreets heighten the sense of alienation – and it is all very well orchestrated. Goodis also has a habit of making his characters have profound conversations in bars or apartments.
What makes something so rich in suspense, I think, is not the immediate situation and what might happen on the other side of the page, but what’s at stake for every character involved, and that’s what strikes me as important about Nightfall. From Fraser to Vanning, to the crooks and the blonde, we’re constantly informed of what they’re doing what they’re doing, what could transpire should all the events in the book work out in their favour: prison, life on a yacht spending money, or simply settling down with a family. They’re big life-changing events and they have significance.
And that’s why Nightfall is a great novel: everything means something.