The Magazine

Dark Deeds

The Mystery of Cornell Woolrich.

Mar 8, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 25 • By JON L. BREEN
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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.