The Mystery of Cornell Woolrich.
Mar 8, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 25 • By JON L. BREEN
Night and Fear
WHEN I WAS TWELVE YEARS OLD, I discovered Cornell Woolrich's "After-Dinner Story" in an old issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and Woolrich immediately joined the group of writers--Fredric Brown, Ray Bradbury, and Charles Beaumont were others--who so delighted my pre-adolescent heart that I have stockpiled and retained their books through all the years since. Approaching "After-Dinner Story" decades later, for the centennial last month of Woolrich's birth, I wondered if the story, originally in a 1938 issue of the classic pulp magazine Black Mask, would retain its initial impact.
It did, and it didn't. The elements that most gripped me at twelve were undoubtedly the action, the suspense, and the intriguing plot. An elevator in a Manhattan high-rise malfunctions and plunges to the ground, killing the operator and leaving the passengers in darkness. Some are injured, others not; some panic, while others keep their heads. After the rescue, it is discovered that one passenger was shot to death in the blackout, and the police conclude it had to be suicide. The father of the victim, certain it was murder, invites the survivors to a bizarre dinner party, telling them he knows who the murderer is; that he has poisoned that person's dinner; and that the covered dish brought last to the table contains the antidote, reaching for which (the father reasons) would constitute a confession.
The suspense and narrative drive of this story held up fine in my long-delayed rereading, with harrowing descriptions of the accident, the rescue, and the heightening anxiety of the dinner guests. The plot, however, now seems wildly implausible, the surprise twist as predictable as it is contrived. Some of the prose suggested authorial haste: Woolrich, after all, was a pulp writer who was paid by the word and wrote fast. (With the single notable exception of Raymond Chandler, the great pulp writers seldom revised--it wasn't cost effective.)
On the other hand, "After-Dinner Story" includes character touches, social observations, and details of Depression-era New York that didn't mean much to me at twelve. Though Woolrich himself was a sad and maladjusted man who lived most of his life with his mother in residential hotels, he had an acute understanding of everyday people with ordinary jobs and aspirations. His stories rarely featured either the privileged or the lowest of the low, but rather those in the middle, generally decent and struggling to survive in a misanthropic world. MacKenzie, the protagonist of "After-Dinner Story," is a water-filter salesman, and one of his fellow passengers is more concerned with the breakage of the flashlight fountain pen he is trying to market than with his own safety. Although a homosexual (he once married, but it was a short-lived sham), Woolrich believably suggests the easy relationship of MacKenzie and his wife in a few passing references. The father-and-son bond is also economically evoked, and some of the other passengers come to life in minimal strokes. When MacKenzie exits the elevator unharmed, personal-injury lawyers are waiting to try to convince him of the value in being hurt.
WOOLRICH IS PROBABLY at his best in the short story form. "Dime a Dance," a 1938 Black Mask tale about a taxi dancer used as a decoy to trap a serial killer, also holds up well on rereading. Woolrich successfully writes from a first-person female viewpoint in this jazz-drenched, wickedly suspenseful tale that is one of the most frequently anthologized in crime fiction (sometimes under the inferior title "The Dancing Detective"). The decoy theme was recurrent in his work, and he also favored the vanishing-woman situation, developed in early short stories and used most notably in the novel "Phantom Lady" (1942), written under the pseudonym William Irish.
Born in New York in 1903, Woolrich was a child of divorce, spending some of his youth with his father in Mexico (an occasional locale of his fiction) and the rest with his mother in Manhattan. He quit Columbia University after launching his writing career as an ersatz F. Scott Fitzgerald in novels like "Cover Charge" (1926) and "Children of the Ritz" (1927). Woolrich wrote several effective novel-length works after discovering his crime-fiction métier in the mid-1930s. But the most famous of them, "The Bride Wore Black" (1940), points up his short story roots. It is episodic and schematic in structure: a chapter on the killer, a chapter on the victim, a chapter on the investigation, and then the cycle begins again. It was somewhat ahead of its time as a thriller about a determined cop's hunt for a female serial killer, whose motive gradually becomes known to the reader. Along the way, the novel offers inventive plotting, effective scenes, and well-realized characters--right up until an utterly preposterous, rabbit-out-of-a-hat windup.
Woolrich was so in tune with the film-noir school of the 1940s, that he became one of the most frequently adapted writers of crime fiction. His stories also were a perfect fit for the classic radio series "Suspense," which began as a project of motion picture director Alfred Hitchcock, several years before his television stardom.
Woolrich and Hitchcock, whose names are often bracketed although they never worked together directly, had similar approaches and creative sensibilities. Hitchcock's great film "The Lady Vanishes" (1938) was based on a novel by Ethel Lina White, but it incorporated one of Woolrich's favorite nightmare situations. One of the director's greatest films, "Rear Window" (1954), was based on Woolrich's 1942 short story "It Had to Be Murder," to which Hitchcock added characters and incidents while keeping the basic situation and voyeuristic theme. What some believe to be Hitchcock's very best television mystery, "Four O'Clock" (1957), was based on Woolrich's "Three O'Clock" (1938). And when François Truffaut made a 1968 film in homage to his idol Hitchcock, he not only hired frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann to compose the musical score, but chose Woolrich's "The Bride Wore Black" for adaptation.
BOTH WOOLRICH AND HITCHCOCK were sharp and sympathetic observers of human frailties. In the stories they developed, both often threw credibility to the winds in the pursuit of the suspense that was their major goal. Hitchcock, who had exhaustive story conferences on all of his films, knew very well that the plot of "North by Northwest" (1959) made no sense. But he didn't care, deciding the audience wouldn't think about the inconsistencies while they were watching. Similarly, many of Woolrich's stories so grip the reader in the telling that giant holes in the plot go unnoticed until the story is laid aside. Of course, Woolrich felt the need to provide, or believed his markets required, a logical explanation. But it wasn't logic that inspired him. So while he made more effort to explain things than Hitchcock ever did--compare "It Had to Be Murder" with "Rear Window," for example--his explanations were often perfunctory and seldom watertight, his surprise endings more tacked on than organic.
The writer and the director both had more than their share of personal demons and kinks, although Woolrich's were so bad they made Hitchcock's look wholesomely normal. Seeing a performance of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" at age eight precipitated a lifelong obsession with death and the dark pessimism embodied in the subtitle of Francis M. Nevins's 1988 biography, "Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die." He apparently never achieved a satisfactory romantic relationship, and during his sham marriage he would don a sailor suit in the small hours and look for partners on the Los Angeles waterfront. After his mother's death in 1957, he spent his last years in alcoholic self-hatred, writing little and finishing less, attending publishing-world parties but deflecting personal contact, doing his best to antagonize his few friends, and ignoring his diabetic condition to the extent that a gangrenous leg had to be amputated. Though he didn't need the money, in years of low output he sometimes dusted off old stories and presented them as new work. When he died in 1968, his funeral was sparsely attended, and his considerable estate went to Columbia University to fund a creative writing scholarship.
IN HONOR of the Woolrich centenary, Francis Nevins has edited "Night and Fear," a new gathering of previously uncollected stories. Most of the fourteen stories are from pulp magazines, dates ranging from 1936 to 1943, with a single late entry published in 1970, two years after Woolrich's death and long after his period of peak productivity. All are highly readable, typically inventive, with the usual flaws overshadowed by the emotional impact and mastery of reader manipulation. Nevins's introduction provides a concise summary of Woolrich's life and career.
Woolrich's technique is often characterized as a normal-day-gone-wrong. A Woolrich story is a fantasy played out by recognizable humans in a solidly realistic background (usually Manhattan) with specific details (the costs of things, popular song lyrics, advertising slogans, fashion observations) that define the time and place and enhance the reader's willingness to accept incredible events. The people are ordinary, and they think they can control their destinies, but even happy outcomes are determined by tricks of arbitrary fate. Most of the stories in "Night and Fear" have nominally upbeat endings, but the overall message is the random unfairness of life. In Woolrich's fiction, the reader can never be sure if things will work out well for the protagonist, a different person in every story. Apart from such romantic suspense writers as Phyllis A. Whitney and Daphne du Maurier, Woolrich may be the only major figure in mystery fiction never to employ a continuing character.
Consider the nightmare situations Woolrich concocts for his protagonists. In "Cigarette," a mobster's errand runner must retrieve a poisoned cigarette before it kills the wrong person. In "Double Feature," a cop at the movies with his girlfriend spots a notorious fugitive (clearly inspired by Dillinger) two seats down. In "The Heavy Sugar," a down-and-outer finds a stolen diamond necklace in a diner's sugar bowl and has reason to fear both sides of the law. In "Death in the Yoshiwara," a sailor in pre-World War II Japan tries to save a young American woman accused of murdering her fiancé.
Woolrich is not usually thought of as a writer of police procedurals--indeed, his name doesn't even appear in the index of Leroy Lad Panek's recent history, "The American Police Novel"--but he frequently wrote about cops and usually viewed them with respect and sympathy (unlike Hitchcock, who feared them). His stories may feature good cops or bad cops--the fine story "Detective William Brown" offers both--but they exist in a society that tacitly accepts the third degree and other police practices that today would be considered dubious. In "Endicott's Girl," Woolrich's favorite of all his short stories, a cop who comes to suspect his eighteen-year-old daughter of murder goes far beyond ethical borders to cover up her involvement--and is allowed to get away with it. By the way he stacks the cards, Woolrich is able to make readers sympathize with brutal police methods that in real life would appall them.
At least twenty-five Woolrich collections have preceded "Night and Fear,"so it would be unrealistic to expect the new book to show the author at his very best, but the selections are certainly representative of his unique talent and are a suitable introduction to his work.
THE UPS AND DOWNS of Woolrich's reputation have been even greater than the literary norm. After peaking in the 1940s with a steady flow of novels, story collections, and movie and radio adaptations, both his production and his stature gradually declined in the 1950s. Between 1955 and 1968, the Mystery Writers of America gave their first nine Grand Master awards, but none to Woolrich, though he was a natural candidate. The early 1980s saw a resurgence of interest, with a spate of new collections and a paperback reprint series. Through the 1990s, his stock waned somewhat, but the inclusion of his last major novel, "I Married a Dead Man" (1948), in the Library of America's 1997 "Crime Novels: American Noir" volumes, alongside the work of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Chester Himes, restored him yet again.
Woolrich's place as a significant American writer of crime fiction now seems secure, if not on the Hammett or Chandler level, certainly in the top dozen.
A regular writer on mystery fiction for The Weekly Standard, Jon L. Breen is the winner of two Edgar awards.