Mike Dennis, who did a remarkable job of voicing the audiobook of my own early novel, Borderline, discovered this great noir classic in the public domain. He decided to narrate an audio version, and while he was at it, made plans to publish ebook and POD paperback editions as well. (While other e-versions exist, he found them to be typographical disasters, and felt the book deserved a proper and respectful presentation.) He asked me if I’d write an introduction, and I thought some of you might enjoy a look at what I turned in.
You might also welcome a look at the book itself. And, if you’re an audiobook fan, you’ll want to hear Mike’s rendition when it becomes available.
DETOUR by Martin M. Goldsmith
Foreword by Lawrence Block
Most people who know Detour at all know the film—specifically, the 1945 film directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. (It was remade in 1992, with the male lead played by Tom Neal Jr. No, I’m not making this up.) No end of myth has grown up around the movie: Ulmer said he shot it in six days, Savage said it took four six-day weeks plus retakes; Ulmer said it cost under $20,000, a researcher found it was more like $100,000. But in 1998 it fell to Roger Ebert to say everything you need to know about it:
“Detour is a movie so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school. This movie from Hollywood’s poverty row, shot in six days, filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released in 1945. And yet it lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it.”
And he finished his lengthy essay like so:
“Do these limitations and stylistic transgressions hurt the film? No. They are the film. Detour is an example of material finding the appropriate form. Two bottom-feeders from the swamps of pulp swim through the murk of low-budget noir and are caught gasping in Ulmer’s net. They deserve one another. At the end, Al is still complaining: ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.’ Oh, it has a reason.”
That’s the film—and, as it’s in the public domain, you can readily get hold of a copy and see it yourself. Full disclosure: if and when you do, you’ll be ahead of me. I haven’t seen Detour, but then I’m not here to write about the movie. I’ve read the book, the novel of the same name, published in 1939 when its author, Martin M. Goldsmith, was 25 years old. And it’s the book which I’m pleased to bring to your attention.
If Detour got in on the ground floor of film noir in 1945, the novel was even more of a novelty six years earlier, with its fast-paced narrative, hard-edged characters, and uncompromisingly dark world view. It’s an easy read, albeit an unsettling one, from the first page to the last, and much of what Ebert has to say about the film fits the book it came from.
It’s all over the place. It hinges on no end of coincidence, one element of which—Alexander’s happening to pick up a hitchhiker who happens to be Vera, the very woman who cat-scratched the poor mope who picked him up earlier—would be a dealbreaker for most publishers. It’s told by two first-person narrators, Alex and Sue, who were lovers before the book opens and who never—never!—encounter each other again.
It speaks well of Goldsmith’s narrative gifts that his story’s pace and drive can blind one to the wild irrationality of its plot. The actions of Alex and Vera, after they team up, never make a particle of sense. They’re afraid to sell their car, as if it’ll be traced to a dead man in another state, and yet they take other genuinely risky steps with astonishing sangfroid.
“People are afraid of all the wrong things.” That’s the promotional tag line for A Walk Among the Tombstones, the film based on a book of mine, so it’s much on my mind lately. And it applies well enough to Alex and Vera—and, for that matter, to Sue and Raoul.
Goldsmith, I should add, wrote and published another novel, Double Jeopardy, a couple of years before Detour. He went on to write two more novels, and received story and/or screenplay credits for a host of films and television programs. He was eighty when he died in 1994, and seems to have left behind an unpublished autobiography—which might make very interesting reading indeed, should somebody manage to hunt it down.
Meanwhile, here’s Detour. It’s a fast read, and I think you’ll find it worth your time.