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.