Black Pudding, by David Goodis
I’m a Hard Case Crime fan. Not a very good fan since I’ve only read one book published by them so far and only own two, but a fan all the same. It’s the covers. They’re just gorgeous.
One of the Hard Case Crime titles I’ve been looking at is by David Goodis. He’s a writer that’s been recommended to me by at least two different people. When I saw that two of his stories were going extremely cheap on Kindle it seemed a great chance to try him out. Admittedly neither were titles that had been recommended to me, but they were immediately accessible.
So, I bought and downloaded Black Pudding. It’s a short story/novella rather than a full length work. It’s also, unfortunately, not really all that great. I forgot the cardinal rule with pulp writers – follow the recommendations you get. A lot of these guys churned out a lot of material and quality sometimes suffered. They’re remembered for the times they got it right, but that usually doesn’t mean they always got it right.
This is the original cover which I found online:
Ken’s in Philadelphia. He’s an ex-con who just finished serving nine years for a crime he did commit.
There were five of them, Ken and Oscar and Coley and Ken’s wife and the Boss. The name of the Boss was Riker and he was very kind to Ken until the possession of Ken’s wife became a need and then a craving and finally an obsession. It showed in Riker’s eyes whenever he looked at her. She was a platinum blonde dazzler, a former burlesque dancer named Hilda. She’d been married to Ken for seven months when Riker reached the point where he couldn’t stand it any longer and during a job in Bel-air he banged Ken’s skull with the butt end of a revolver. When the police arrived, Ken was unconscious on the floor and later in the hospital they asked him questions but he wouldn’t answer. In the courtroom he sat with his head bandaged and they asked him more questions and he wouldn’t answer. They gave him five-to-twenty and during his first month in San Quentin he learned from his lawyer that Hilda had obtained a Reno divorce and was married to Riker.
Nine years is a long time, but it’s not the full term. That means that Riker has a problem. What if Ken wants revenge? Ken knows Riker can’t take that risk so he hides out, but it’s not long before Oscar and Coley catch up with him.
They spotted him on Race Street between Ninth and Tenth. It was Chinatown in the tenderloin of Philadelphia and he stood gazing into the window of the Wong Ho restaurant and wishing he had the cash to buy himself some egg-foo-yung. The menu in the window priced egg-foo-yung at eighty cents an order and he had exactly thirty-one cents in his pocket. He shrugged and started to turn away from the window and just then he heard them coming. It was their footsteps that told him who they were. There was the squeaky sound of Oscar’s brand-new shoes. And the clumping noise of Coley’s heavy feet. It was nine years since he’d heard their footsteps but he remembered that Oscar had a weakness for new shoes and Coley always walked heavily. He faced them. They were smiling at him, their features somewhat greenish under the green neon glow that drifted through after-midnight blackness. He saw the weasel eyes and buzzard nose of little Oscar. He transferred his gaze to the thick lips and puffed-out cheeks of tall, obese Coley.
I’m far from persuaded by lines like “their features somewhat greenish under the green neon glow”. It seems repetitive. I like my pulp snappy. The scene that follows develops well though as Oscar and Coley decide to take Ken out right there in front of the restaurant. There’s a nice menace to the pair, and the whole scene is very easy to picture.
Ken escapes and lies low in a derelict building where he meets a once beautiful girl who has a terrible facial scar (“It was a terrible scar, really hideous”) and an opium addiction. Ken figures that the scar could be fixed with plastic surgery, and if it were she’d be a real looker. There’s a kindness in her eyes that was never in Hilda’s, but she’s bruised by life and men and wears her scar as armour against either bothering her again. She’s not planning on getting it fixed. She has nothing and nobody to care about that would make it worthwhile.
With all that the stage is set for a reasonably tight little revenge drama. Ken soon finds feelings developing for this girl he’s stumbled into. Both have been badly used and there’s a chance they could find some peace together. First though Ken needs to decide if he’s going to roll over and wait for Riker to take him out or if he’s going to take his revenge – revenge apparently having a sweet taste, like black pudding.
No, I’m not particularly sure of that analogy either. It could easily be a real phrase though. It’s certainly stupid enough to be true.
It’s all pretty clichéd. That’s not in itself a problem. It’s a short story and cliché is one way of cutting to the chase. It provides a platform upon which the fun stuff can be built. For me the weakness here was more that it was also a little obvious. Nothing really surprised me.
The best pulp crime writer I know is Mickey Spillane. Spillane makes heavy use of cliché too. Mike Hammer is as hard as nails, the women he encounters are beautiful and either innocents or deadly femme fatales. Mike swings with both fists and though he may take the occasional kicking by the end he always comes out on top.
What’s good about a Spillane Mike Hammer story isn’t then the destination. Someone’s going to get wronged. Mike’s going to take an interest and decide to avenge them. There’ll be setbacks but someone’s going to end up with a bullet in their stomach and it won’t be Mike. That’s the way it goes in Hammerland (no relation to MC).
It’s the journey that makes it fun. Spillane writes punchy and immediate prose. He throws in twists and turns so that while the eventual destination is never in doubt how you get there is (and who Mike will end up shooting is too).
The problem here is how much doubt can there be in this setup? Ken is clearly going to get his black pudding. Riker and the rest are headed for a fall. The only interest that’s left is how it’s written and how you get there. It’s not that well written on this occasion and the journey is in a fairly straight line.
Black Pudding was originally published in Manhunt magazine in 1953. In that context I suspect it would have worked far better. If I’d bought it on the newstand and read it on the way into work I’d have read it as Goodis probably meant me to. As it was it came under a scrutiny it was never really intended for.
In the end Black Pudding isn’t terrible. If it were a film noir I’d probably give it three stars in a review. It has some nice moments, particularly in the interplay with Oscar and Coley and the final standoff with Riker is well handled. I don’t read that much pulp though so when I do I like to read the really good stuff, and everything I’ve heard says Goodis just did much better stories than this one.
While writing this I came across another review which is much more positive. It’s well written and makes a good case for the story. If you’re into pulp crime at all the whole blog looks pretty interesting so it might be worth a root around there generally. Here’s the link. I also found an e-zine with a guide to Manhunt Magazine and pictures of its wonderful covers. That can be found Here.