Thursday, September 25, 2008

Get Your Motor Running


Night & Fear: A Centenary Collection of Stories, by Cornell Woolrich, Edited by Francis M. Nevins, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004

Ever since I read his novel I Married a Dead Man in the Library of America collection Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, I’ve been in love with Cornell Woolrich. Often called the “father of noir” (which is a bit strange as he didn’t originate the genre), Woolrich was quite possibly its best little-known-anymore writer of atmospherics. His plots aren’t always 100% credible, though this is a feature of noir and not a bug. (Even Chandler once remarked he wasn’t sure who killed a character in his first novel The Big Sleep).

Anyway… what atmospherics. Woolrich has an undeniable gift for the race against the clock mechanisms, and some of his strongest writings are stories that focus on just this aspect of the plot. “Three O’Clock” from another collection may be just about the most suspenseful story written. It should rank up there among the best short stories. His most famous story, “Rear Window,” the basis for the Hitchcock film is partly that kind of story. We get the set up and the patient stalking of the murderer, but the narrative really kicks into high gear once the killer is on to our hero’s detective work.

The collection under consideration doesn’t contain any familiar Woolrich stories, the book made up of previously uncollected work drawn from the author’s long association with the pulps. Rather remarkably we end with “New York Blues,” quite possibly the last story ever finished by Woolrich, previously published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1970. It’s classic Woolrich. A taut thriller about a man holed up in a hotel room, waiting for someone to come and get him for a murder. We don’t realize until quite late in the story that it’s the police, so palpable and threatening are these pursuers made out to be. One suspects a mob hit, only to be thrown by the later developments and the twist near the end.

Ah, the twist. While some authors overuse such a device (see O. Henry for the embodiment of this trait), Woolrich sometimes delivers on this and sometimes doesn’t. His irregular track record here keeps us on our toes. Then when he does deliver the twist, it’s hard to predict what it’ll be or how it will shake things out. The final twist in “New York Blues” is so unreal that I almost suspected it was a hallucination.

Because so many of these stories do delve into a panicky, fear-induced almost visionary quality. Characters read bad news on plate glass window fronts and in whistles out in the street. Eyes are everywhere watching them, ears pressed to cheap hotel walls. The paranoiac style is dialed up to eleven but the truism “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” is never more true than in a Woolrich special.

A few of the stories are ambitious clunkers. I actually balked on recommending the book to a friend after about four or five stories in due to these. Let me formally revoke the dis-recommnendation. While the opening story, “Cigarette” is a breathless race against time to track down a poisoned smoke, and its follow up, “Double Feature” wrings the tension out of a cold-blooded killer sitting next to a detective’s girlfriend at the theater, the book moves on to “Blue is for Bravery” and “Death in the Yoshiwara.”

These two disappointing numbers star upstanding heroes and suffer for it. It was on the weakness of these two stories specifically that made me worry for my reputation after I’d recommended the collection. Not just weak stories, the plots are ridiculous confections of sock-o action antics driven by superhuman protagonists who ultimately save the day and get the girl. It’s all so rote and commonplace that I worried for the rest of the collection. More clunkers like this and I’d start to wonder if my Woolrich love was misplaced.

Redemption came in a nasty little piece called “You Bet Your Life.” A compulsive gambler named Fredericks taunts the narrator’s friend Trainor into taking an odd bet. The gambler insists that any man can be goaded into murder given the right opportunity. He and Trainor then lay out a thousand bucks a piece on this philosophical speculation. Taking another thousand dollar bill, Fredericks cuts it in half, slips one half to one man (chosen by Trainor from among a crowd) and one half to another. A letter is then sent to each man telling him where he can get the other half of his bill. It’s a neat trick and one week is given to see it to its fruition. Showcasing both Woolrich’s bleak side (one suspects he would have sided with Fredericks in this bet) and his flair for the countdown tale, “You Bet Your Life” is a life saver for the collection.

A couple less than perfect stories mixed in with some real humdingers like “Through the Eye of a Dead Man” (with its child narrator) round out the collection. By the book’s end, I was won over completely, though I fervently pray that someday someone will put together a real collection of greatest hits. Woolrich was immensely prolific (as most good pulp authors were), though his name recognition is slight outside of noir aficionados. His contributions to the field of suspense and crime writing were immense even if they weren’t distilled down into a handy single character a la Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple. A thick volume showcasing his short story prowess with an accompanying collection of his novels (most are fairly short affairs), much in the way Library of America did for Hammett and Chandler, would go a long way to putting this situation to rights.

Recognized in his lifetime in ways that he wouldn’t be in death (and oddly enough vice versa), Cornell Woolrich is an under-appreciated genius of shadows and pulse-quickeners. Night & Fear may not be the ideal collection, but it is a decent start for anyone looking for satisfying, thrilling reads.

1 comment:

Alley Cat said...

Woolrich certainly seems worth resurrecting. I admit I've never read any of his works. The fact that he never had a "handy single character" is a plus for me, since I get bored with serial detectives pretty quickly. Somehow I think the author has to work harder when he or she has to come up a new main character every time.

What I like about short story anthologies in general is the hunt for the little diamond in the rough. Each author usually has a few short stories that are considered his or her best. They're almost not fun to read because you know they're going to be good. I always feel such a thrill when I find that completely unknown ragged little story that just blows me away.