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Archive for the ‘Cornell Woolrich’ Category

Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler may be the architects and set the unbeaten standards of the tough but caring detective, it is clearly Cornell Woolrich who has set the standard for the psychological thriller. He was a mainstay of the Mystery/Thriller pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s.

According to Wikipedia (which I hate to quote), “His biographer, Francis Nevins Jr. [a respected pulp writer in his own right], rated Woolrich the fourth best crime writer of his day, behind Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler. A check of film titles reveals that more film noir screenplays were adapted from works by Woolrich than any other crime novelist, and many of his stories were adapted during the 1940s for Suspense and other dramatic radio programs.” And while I’d consider him a ‘crime writer’, his writing was in a class by itself…Hammett and Chandler on one branch of a Mystery Tree and Woolrich on another branch.

The Cornell Woolrich Omnibus contains Rear Window (which lacks the romantic aspect of the movie version) and other short stories as well as two novels, I Married a Dead Man and Waltz into Darkness and it is in these novels where his talent shines.

He is a master at allowing his protagonists to get what they desire but, the question is, at what cost? Woolrich is an artist who paints a scene, then another and then another, all the while moving the story forward, inch by sometimes excruciating inch. In Waltz into Darkness, particularly, I didn’t know whether to root for the main characters, Lou and Julie/Bonny Durant, love them or hate them or feel sorry for them. My feelings changed by the page and at one point I was tempted to read the last page to see how the story ended. But I”m glad I didn’t, because it would have ruined the suspense.

The two novels take place in two different times, I Married a Dead Man in the 1940s when the story was written, and Waltz into Darkness in 1880s New Orleans and he does each time period justice. In the latter, readers feel like they are in New Orleans, he sets the stage so well.

I’ve read various Cornell Woolrich stories and novels (Rendezvous in Black) and I haven’t cracked the surface of his works. There are definitely going to be more in my future.

If you are into reading the best of a genre, then Cornell Woolrich is a must read for every mystery fan. His works are well written and suspenseful.

P.S. A biography of Woolrich might be in order as well, as his life would have made a great Woolrich story.

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In Richard Dooling’s introduction to Cornell Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black, he mentions that Woolrich is one of the lesser known pulp mystery writers but is deserving of more notoriety. His titles themselves evoke ‘noir’, such as Rendezvous in Black, The Bride Wore Black, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, and Waltz Into Darkness. Many of his books have been made into movies. And his writing won’t disappoint.

Rendezvous

(I usually like to show the cover of the edition I read, but this is so much more evocative of pulp fiction.)

Johnny Marr and his girlfriend Dorothy had a date every night at 8 PM in front of the drug store. Without fail. She was the love of his life. They were destined for marriage. But one night she doesn’t show up. There’s a crowd standing by the curb and a body lying in the street. It was a freak accident that killed Dorothy and Johnny vows to get revenge. He wants the perpetrators to know how it feels to lose the most important person in their lives.

I will be the first to admit that you have to suspend belief in order to enjoy the book. How Marr tracks down the perpetrators, how he exacts revenge, requires a leap of faith by the reader. But, the suspense level is high and one is apt to take that leap unquestioningly.

As I said, the writing won’t disappoint. In describing Detective Cameron, the poor soul who latched onto the fact that murder was taking place, Woolrich writes, “He was too thin, and his face wore a chronically haggard look…His cheekbones stood out and his cheeks stood in…There must have been times when his clothing had been at least passable, if nothing more than that. But he must have been entirely alone when that happened, because no one else could ever remember having seen him at such a time.”

The chapter titles tell you exactly what the action will be. Parting. The First Rendezvous. The Reunion. Simple but all telling. The fifth rendezvous is reminiscent of Wait Until Dark with Audrey Hepburn. You can figure out why.

While Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler may be masters as describing the seamy sides of Los Angeles and San Francisco, Woolrich is a master at describing the seamy side of people, the anger, the raw emotion, of people.

After reading one Woolrich story, most notably Rear Window (originally called It Had to be Murder), you will become a devout fan.

 

 

 

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