Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich: A Photo Album from the Twenties to the Sixties

The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich was a 1965 collection of short stories, one of two Cornell Woolrich short story collections published that year (the other being The Dark Side of Love).  It was distinguished with an introduction by Fred Dannay of Ellery Queen, who wrote rather arbitrarily that Woolrich's

ninth really a mask.  For what do we know of the man inside?....Woolrich is retiring almost to the point of being a recluse.  When we add up all we know, we know very little, and Woolrich is reluctant to reveal his inner self....

The Ten Faces title was really metaphorical (and the conceit rather forced), causing Dannay to struggle in his introduction, although his observation above was perceptive.  Here I take the opportunity to show you ten actual faces of Cornell Woolrich, arranged as chronologically as I can get them from fresh youth in the Twenties to worn age in the Sixties.  As Barry Malzberg has written, in the last year of his life Woolrich was sixty-four but looked eighty-four.

1925 photo of Woolrich, when he was
21 years old and still in college at
Columbia University.
Contemporaries continually
described him as boyish, pale,
hollow-cheeked, shy and sickly.

Cornell in college?
The blurry image is
symbolic of an elusive man

Cornell Woolrich at the time he went 
Hollywood, 1927-30, when he was 
employed as a screenwriter

Photo of Woolrich and his wife of
three weeks, Gloria "Bill" Blackton
which ran in newspapers in 1930
after the couple's elopement. 
According to Bill's 1933 annulment 
suit, the marriage failed because
Cornell would not have sex with her.
Papers mockingly referred to her as
Cornell's unkissed or kissless bride.
The only photo of Cornell
I have seen where he smiles and
shows his teeth, which appear 
to be in poor condition.  Could he 
have suffered from anemia?

This banner story ran in newspapers across the country in 1933
after Bill filed her annulment suit in Manhattan in 1933.
See my recent Crimereads article.
The picture of Woolrich used appears to have been a rendering
of his earlier 1925 photo, making him look younger
than he did in 1933.

Woolrich with his other best girl, his mother,
Claire Attalie Tarler Woolrich, with whom
he lived from 1933 to her death in 1957.
He actually used this as his author's picture on 
the back cover of a short story collection,
published in 1958, the year after Claire's death. 
Does it date from the Thirties?

Woolrich in the late 1950s, another book jacket photo,
I believe, an iconic mid-century image

1958 book jacket photo
Woolrich made the effort to spruce himself 
up here, but compare to the 1925 photo
and you see a huge change, although the
paleness and sunken cheeks are the same.

you can see
his decline

near the end
False Face
This artist rendering of Face 10
for the back of the jacket
of The Ten Faces of Cornell
is like The Picture of 
Dorian Gray
in reverse.
Woolrich's biographer
Francis Nevins generously calls this
"an excellent if idealized sketch of Woolrich."
Perhaps it's Woolrich as he would
have liked him to look: a heroic he-man.
It certainly is nowhere close to 
what the real Woolrich looked like.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Cornell Woolrich, George Tarler and the Ballad of Blink Kelly

Cornell Woolrich appears to have lived a retiring and isolated existence on the whole, being more an observer of life than an experiencer of it.  "I have lived in hotels most of my life," he recalled at the age of forty, explaining why he knew so little about the real world.  "Fortunately," he added, "I am a writer of imagination."  

Blink and you'll miss him
one-eyed Victorian-era
professional safecracker
Thomas "Blink" Kelly in 1886,
when he was 33 years old

Of course Cornell Woolrich's Edgar-award winning biographer has been telling us for for decades now that when he briefly lived out in Hollywood in the late Twenties and early Thirties, Woolrich led a "homosexual life of the most furtive and sordid variety."  Despite the fact that his contemporaries over and over again described him as pale, fragile, nervous and timid, the proverbial 98-pound weakling at the beach (except that he weighed about 122), we are to believe that at midnight Woolrich, like some sort of Sin-derella, donned a "sailor suit" he kept in a locked suitcase and tripped down to the docks in LA, where he went " search of partners.

If this is actually true I would expect that Woolrich would have gotten beaten up more than a few times, if not arrested at some point. Still, I remain dubious of the veracity of this claim.  (See my forthcoming article on the subject; I'll keep you posted.)

Even if this story is bunkum, however, Woolrich did at least know people who lived life, as it were.  There was his Mexican father Genaro Woolrich, a handsome ladies man who apparently had sole custody of Cornell for several years around the time of World War I and took the boy with him on engineering jobs in several countries--although "Con" seems mostly to have gotten dumped in hotel rooms.  

Eventually young Woolrich after about a decade in Mexico returned to the United States for good in 1917 to live with his mother Claire at her father George Tarler's opulent turn-of-the-century house in Manhattan.  In 1920 the other denizens of the house besides Woolrich were, besides his mother and grandfather

his distinguished uncle George Cornell Tarler, a lawyer and diplomat

his aunts Estelle, Lillian and Olga

Estelle's Cuban husband Emilio Manuel Garcia, an electrical engineer

the widowed Lillian's young son Archie Cornell MacBain.  

There was also a live-in Irish maid.  Another uncle, Irving Cornell Tarler, a salesman with The Texas Company, aka Texaco, had just married and moved out of the house, settling with his wife at the affluent Westchester County city of Scarsdale.  

For some reason--wishful thinking, perhaps--Woolrich in his fragmentary memoir Blues of a Lifetime portrayed himself as living at his grandfather's house with just his grandfather, his mother and one unmarried aunt; and this story has been accepted for decades, no one until now ever having checked the census records, evidently.  In truth there were a bunch of people, mostly family members, milling around that house when he lived there.  Indeed, it's rather like the cast of characters in an S. S. Van Dine mystery.

The Park Avenue apartment building where 
George Cornell Woolrich moved in the late 1920s
looks like the setting for S. S. Van Dine's
The Garden Murder Case (1935)

After patriarch George Tarler's death in 1925, however, the family began finally to scatter.  Woolrich himself, having precociously published two novels, in 1927 moved out to LA, like many another writer before and after him, to try his luck at screenwriting. 

 His uncle George married a well-off widow and moved into a ritzy Park Avenue apartment valued at $100,000 in 1930, or about 1.7 million dollars today (see left). Estelle and Emilio moved out, perhaps to exotic New Jersey, while Lillian and her son Archie stayed on, along with Claire.  

Around 1932 the Tarler house was sold and Claire with Cornell, who had returned to New York in 1931 after the quick collapse of his LA marriage, moved into an apartment at the Hotel Marseilles, where the pair lived for a quarter-century until Claire's death in 1957.  Here Woolrich wrote the vast bulk of his crime fiction.  

Hotel Marseilles, where Cornell and Claire lived for a 
quarter century.  Here Cornell made the
magical mystery tour happen--on paper

During the Thirties Woolrich maintained enough contact with his family members that he served as one of the two witnesses at the 1938 marriage of his cousin Archie, who was twelve years younger than he, to a waitress named Dorothy Lynch.  Archie, who was rather heftier than Cornell (5'10" and 175 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes to 5'9" and 122 pounds with blue eyes and brown hair), married a second time in 1943 and then served in the navy for the duration of World War Two.  

During this time Archie's mother Lillian and her sister Olga shared a rather more modest apartment than their rich brother's at Morningside Heights.  Archie, who unlike Cornell did not go to college, managed a movie theater, leading me to wonder whether the frugal (aka miserly) Cornell ever cadged tickets from him.  In 1940 Archie and Dorothy lived at an apartment on Cathedral Parkway in Morningside Heights.

apartment building where Woolrich's 
aunts Lillian and Olga lived

The photos give you some idea of Cornell's New York, at least as lived in by himself and his Tarler relations, looked like.  I like to think Archie and Dorothy might have inspired some of the young couples in Cornell's crime fiction as well, but who knows?  Presumably neither was compelled by capricious fortune to turn to crime, as so many of the characters in his fiction are.

However, Woolrich's grandfather George Tarler did encounter a well-known New York crook in earlier, Victorian days, way back in 1883.  Said crook's name was Thomas "Tommy" Kelly, who also went by the alias Thomas Jordan and was nicknamed "Blink" and "Blinky" Kelley, on account of, as you will have guessed, his having lost his right eye.  

A member of Patsey Carroll's gang, Blink Kelly was a burglar and safecracker by occupation; and when in 1883 he was accused, at the age of twenty-eight, of participating in a burglary of George Tarler's import/export business at 7 Burling Slip in Manhattan, which did a great deal of trade in gold and silver jewelry, watches, etc., he already had a criminal record, having been convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to prison terms most recently  in 1879 and 1880.

apartment building where Archie
Cornell MacBain lived with his
waitress wife Dorothy in 1942

When he was processed at Sing Sing Prison on the day before Christmas in 1880, Blink was recorded as being age 25 and employed as a waiter, with a dark complexion, hazel eye and brown hair.  He was Catholic, of moderate habits and a user of tobacco.  On his slim but "regular-featured" head he had scars and a prominent dimpled chin.  He had a dot inked on his left hand near the thumb as well as yet more scars.

Blink was arrested for the Tarler job when he was socializing Martin Reeve's saloon at 38 Forsyth Street, a notorious thieves den, in the company of gang leader Patsey Carroll, John Talbot, alias the Hatter, Clarkey Carpenter and William Landendorf (Dutch Harmon's brother).  Quite a crew!

While Carroll and Talbot were convicted of the theft of about $35,000 worth of goods (in modern value) and sentenced to prison terms of four years apiece, however, Blink went free. 

Was he innocent or just cleverer at evading justice?  The night watchman at Burling Slip reported having noticed, on the night of the burglary, a man under a lamppost reading a newspaper, whom he later identified to the police as Blink.  Sounds like he was scouting the joint for accomplices!

When he wasn't cracking safes, Blink busied himself intimidating voters and committing election fraud on behalf of various political factions in the city; for this work, he was dubbed by the press the "Terror of the Fourteenth Ward."  Pretty impressive for someone who stood 5'8" and 130 pounds!  I'm guessing he got those scars for good reasons.

152 Rivington street where Blink Kelly
resided when he was arrested

So did Blink reform after his escape from the law in 1883?  

Well, apparently so, at least for a while, for he started cracking safes on stage.  When the hit melodrama The Stowaway premiered on Broadway in 1888, the play's canny producer decided to hire two real criminals to perform the safecracking scene, one of whom was our boy Blink, who was born to have been played on screen at some point by Daniel Day Lewis.

The professional cracksmen entered the stage in masks and quickly got down to business, boring holes in the safe and drawing powder down about the door with the blower,  And then:

[A] big carpet was rolled in front of the safe, the fuse was lighted and puff, bang, the door of the safe was blown clean out on the carpet.

Cornell Woolrich's
Russian Jewish grandfather,
George Tarler a couple of years
before his death in 1925. 
He migrated to the US in 1869
at the age of 20.
"Good, that's good!" exclaimed the New York police detectives invited to watch the play.  One of them explained: 

"They are professionals and no mistake.  The best thing of all, though, is the neat businesslike way in which they get off the stage when discovery comes.  That is a point the audience overlooks, but the crooks make tracks as natural as life, leaving their tools and their inexperienced pals behind them."

It's like The Asphalt Jungle, only six decades earlier!  I hope Cornell Woolrich got to hear the tale of the theft many years afterward from his grandfather, who was only seven years older than Blink, whose own final fate remains unknown.  George Tarler died in 1925 at the age of 76, just as his grandson Cornell was on the cusp of a very unusual career, albeit one where, I believe, all the crime was imaginary.

For more on Blink Kelly, see this page at the fascinating Professional Criminals of America--Revised blog.

Burling Slip in lower Manhattan, where George Tarler's import/export business was located
in the nineteenth century

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Le Belle Dame sans Merci: The Bride Wore Black (1940), by Cornell Woolrich (The Mysteries You Have to Read 2)

1940 Simon & Schuster first ed.
I saw pale kings, and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

Who cry'd "La Belle Dame sans Merci

Hath thee in thrall!"

--La Belle Dame sans Merci (1819/20), John Keats

Just over four score and a single year ago, in December 1940, Simon & Schuster published Cornell Woolrich's debut crime novel, The Bride Wore Black

After publishing, with decreasing success, six mainstream novels in the six years from 1926 to 1932, before he was even thirty years old, Woolrich, seemingly a washed up mainstream author who had been nationally humiliated by his soon-to-be ex-wife (see my upcoming article on Woolrich), turned to writing fiction for the crime pulps in 1934.  Only 14 Woolrich crime stories appeared in 1934-35, but then the creative  explosion occurred.  

In 1936 there were 26 stories, in 1937 there were 36, in 1938 there were 20 and in 1939 there were 21 (including the four part The Eye of Doom, which two decades later Woolrich revised as a paperback original called The Doom Stone).  With the earlier ones, this made nearly 120 crime stories published in six years--an impressive output indeed.

By 1940, however, Woolrich was ready to break out of the box of pulp fiction and get back into publishing novels again.  These were crime novels, to be sure, but crime novels with a difference.  Shifting the emphasis from the solving of the mystery to that of the horrific travails undergone by people impacted by crime, Woolrich became one of the instrumental figures in creating mid-century suspense and (and its darkest) noir fiction.  The eleven novels he published in the Forties--six under his own name, four as William Irish and one as George Hopley--all are generally considered classics of suspense./noir, although naturally people have their own particular favorites among them.

It's an unoriginal choice, but mt favorite remains Woolrich's first-born crime novel, The Bride Wore Black.  It's one of the finest crime novels I've ever read.

I think Woolrich himself knew he really had something with this one.  On June 5, 1940 he sent a letter to Hollywood literary agent Harold Norling Swanson, who as editor of the magazine College Humor had accepted Woolrich's first published short story back in 1926.  The letter read as follows:

Dear Swanie:

I've completed a book, 50,000-word length, think there's a picture in it, and wonder if you'd care to look at it.  

I'll give you a word about it.  It's a crime type of thing, but definitely not the conventional mystery or detective-story, anything but.  It's not pulp and not for pulp.  I'm going to start it around the book market here next week.  You are the only person out there I'd care to have handle it for me.  

The title is "The Bride Wore Black."

I'll wait until I hear from you.  

Kindest regards,

Cornell Woolrich

"Swanie" was good at getting film studios to buy rights to books; he sold the rights, during a career spanning sixty years, to The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep, Old Yeller, Butterfield 8 and The Mosquito Coast.  That last novel was published nearly fifty years after the first one!

However, Swanson didn't sell the rights to The Bride Wore Black.  Five months later on September 11, Woolrich wrote the agent  again on the subject:

Dear Swanie:

I'm afraid it looks like there's no chance for The Bride Wore Black or I would have heard from you by now.  

Could you get the copy you have back to me?  I think I'll be able to serialize it.

Thanks for trying, and maybe we'll have better luck next time.

Best regards,


At the top of the letter Swanson wrote to his secretary, "Tell me where it's been," to which she responded on the letter that the novel had been rejected by Paramount, Fox, Columbia and RKO and was now at Warner Brothers (who turned it down as well).  

Perhaps Bride was too problematic for Hollywood filmmakers of the Forties, with its deadly, young, beautiful female serious killer.  Films were made during that decade, beginning in 1942, from Woolrich's novels The Black Curtain, Black Alibi, The Black Angel, The Black Path of Fear, Phantom Lady, Deadline at Dawn and Night Has a Thousand Eyes, while I Married a Dead Man was filmed in 1950.  

Not until 1968 was a film made of The Bride Wore Black, however, this the famous version by French film director Francois Truffaut.  Woolrich was invited to the New York premiere (which is more than Alfred Hitchcock bothered to do when he made his film Rear Window from a Woolrich story), but, sadly, the author, in poor health and generally deflated and demoralized, declined the invitation and never saw the film.  He died from a massive stroke a few months later.

How much more hopeful things must have seemed for Woolrich in 1940!  When Simon & Schuster editor Lee Wright got a glimpse at his manuscript she was immediately wowed by it.  As she explained in a 1979 interview:

I read it very quickly--I always read books very quickly--and called him at once and said it was magnificent....

[Woolrich] was just in a state of euphoria. I never could convince him that anybody who read that book would have taken it. You know, these books come along occasionally that anybody would buy who was an editor, or that person shouldn't be an editor.  It was like Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying.  You know, I was the first person who saw that [Kiss Before Dying].  It [Bride Wore Black]was a great good book.

Wright explained that Woolrich was a decidedly neurotic client, on the one hand declaiming that his work was no good, on the other hand, resenting any criticism of it.  (I don't believe this paradoxical stance is an unknown phenomenon in authors, but apparently, if you believe Wright, it was more advanced in Cornell.)  

"I think he had an absolutely unmixed double reaction to his work," Wright recalled.  "One was that every word he wrote was marvelous, magnificent, and shouldn't be changed.  And the other was that everything he wrote was terrible, awful, and nobody should read it."

Simon & Schuster would publish Woolrich's first three crime novels, but, according to Wright, after she suggested that he make changes to a single paragraph in his manuscript of Phantom Lady, he balked.  "Well, that was the last I saw of him and the last I saw of the book," Wright recalled.  "He took it right around the corner to somebody else."  Woolrich, incidentally, tells another story, entirely different, about his departure from Lee Wright and S&S, so perhaps not everything Wright says concerning Woolrich should be taken as gospel.

Phantom Lady was published under Woolrich's "William Irish" pen name, by Lippincott, while the next novel which appeared under his own name, The Black Angel, was taken by Doubleday, Doran's Crime Club imprint.  Whatever the reason Woolrich left Simon & Schuster, maybe on the whole it was a relief to Wright, because she did not like working with Woolrich and she did not like him; but certainly she and the crime writer had put out a great book with The Bride Wore Black.  

The published version of the novel is about 60,000 words, rather than the 50,000 Woolrich named in his letter, but it's still a short book at that length too.  

With the exception of the last one, Rendezvous in Black, all of the "Black" novels which Woolrich published under his own name are much tighter than his William Irish and George Hopley books, which I feel works to their advantage.  Not everyone agrees with me, however. (See below.)

Compared to works like Waltz into Darkness or Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Bride has the spareness and elegant construction of a play (which leads me to wonder why Woolrich never wrote one).  It's divided into five relatively equal parts (though part 3 is about twice as long as parts 1 and 2 respectively), with each of these parts opening with a short chapter entitled "The Woman."  

Who is the woman?  We just learn that she's young and lovely and that her name is Julie.  when the book opens, a girlfriend is seeing her off at Grand Central Station, where she buys a one-way ticket ticket to Chicago.  However, once her friend has left the station, Julie takes a taxi and gets a room in town at a boarding house.  She takes certain odd actions in her room, burning a photograph of a young man and five strips of paper, then she moves over to the window and looks out at the vista: 

She seemed to lean toward the city visible outside, like something imminent, about to happen to it.

And indeed something is about to happen to city, or, rather, to five men in the city, the men whom Julie embarks upon slaughtering one by one.

neon noir 1984 Ballantine edition

The Bride Wore Black is surely one of the epochal suspense novels of the twentieth century.  There is a mystery in what is motivating Julie, but the impetus of the narrative is sheer suspense: Will Julie accomplish her plan, and how will she go about it?  

Each section of the book is focused on Julie's attempt to kill one of the men on her list, as the police ineffectively investigate.  Only the last section breaks the pattern, with a flashback and the final revelation of Julie's own fate.  Only then do we realize--or most of us anyway--just how intricately constructed the book is.  That cleverness in construction is something that should appeal strongly to fans of classic mystery, where plot is elevated in importance.

In that sense we can see Bride's origin in the Golden Age of detective fiction, when plotting was supreme, but the novel is also very forward looking in its suspense narrative.  Writers like Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart had heightened suspense in their mysteries, taking emphasis away from pure detection and placing it on the depiction and inducement of emotional anxiety, yet there was always a murder to be solved and a killer to be revealed, often somewhat cumbrously.  

Among his Thirties/early Forties contemporaries Woolrich actually reminds me of underappreciated women crime writers Ethel Lina White, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Marie Belloc Lowndes and Joseph Shearing (aka Marjorie Bowen) more than any other crime writers I can think of at the moment.  (One might mention Francis Iles as well, although his tone is predominantly sardonic, as well as Agatha Christie's wicked short suspense tales like "The Red Signal" and "Accident.")  

There is also a lot of similarity with American "domestic suspense" crime writing of the 1950s, except that Bride is a very much darker book than most of the ones produced by that school.  In Bride it really does seem like we are witnessing the birth of existentially gloomy "noir" crime fiction.  After all, noir is French for "black."  Woolrich definitely resembles both French crime writer Georges Simenon in his non-series works and late Forties/Fifties American crime writers Patricia Highsmith, David Goodis and Jim Thompson, all of whom are strongly associated with noir.  

Bride immediately made a strong impression on American reviewers.  (On the other hand, Woolrich seems to have left little mark in Britain.)  They sensed that here was something different indeed from both the traditional body-in-the-library school and the newer hard-boiled school of hard knocks.  A reviewer for the Pittsburgh Press likened Bride, with its "breathless suspense," unto film impresario Alfred Hitchcock, if one could imagine Hitchcock "writing a novel the same way he directs a movie."  

The reviewer for the Hartford Courant asserted that Bride "departs from all the usual formulae of detective fiction," introducing its beautiful killer on the first page, before similarly concluding that the novel holds you "well-nigh breathless with suspense."

The suspense really is terrific.  Each section has superb sequences, though my top choice here would be for the middle one, section three, where Julie is determining how she will murder her latest would-be victim, Moran, who you really don't want to see killed.  The last section is almost like one of those British drawing room murder plays, it's that tricky and darkly droll.

Cornell Woolrich's biographer, Francis Nevins, believes that Bride, despite its having long been deemed by many Woolrich's best novel, is actually nothing of the sort.  Nevins believes it is underwritten and emotionally unaffecting in terms of its characters, accusations often leveled against traditional detective fiction.  

Of course I love traditional detective fiction, so what Nevins sees as weaknesses I see as strengths.  I think there are plenty of well-depicted characters and good writing in the story, as well as clarity and celerity.  At this time Woolrich still wrote with superb economy, something he had to learn to do in the pulps.  

In his later William Irish and George Hopley novels (and in the Woolrich Rendezvous in Black), when Lee Wright was gone and the author seemingly could do entirely as he pleased, there's a verbal sprawl that attenuates my interest.  The Irish novel Waltz into Darkness is twice as long as Bride, about 120,000 words (really long for a crime novel back then), with about half the plot as Bride.  Twice the novel and half the plot!  By the time you are halfway through it, hardly anything has happened.  Sure, there's some very good writing (Woolrich gets panned a lot for bad writing, but there's a lot of good writing too), but I feel like Bride offers a better investment of reading time.

2021 Mysterious Press ed.

There's not nearly as much descriptive writing in Bride, to be sure, but there is, as I've said good writing, like these lines, with their neat turns of phrase:

They nodded slightly to Bliss in passing, and he nodded slightly back to them, with all the awful frigidity of metropolitan neighbors.

They talked it over a few minutes longer, man to man, with the typical freemasonry of two-thirty in the morning.

As I've said, I felt for the characters, with the possible exception of the arty types in part four, this Bohemian milieu being the most synthetic one in the book.  (Bohemians gets it in the neck--and elsewhere--yet again in GA mystery!)  

Woolrich writes a lot more about Louis Durand, say, in Waltz into Darkness, but for all the extra verbiage, is he really a deeper character than Bliss or Mitchell or Moran or the Bride herself in Bride?  I don't see it,  I don't feel it.  And rarely did Woolrich achieve a more poignant ending in his novels than he did in Bride, with its chilling final line.

So hats and veils off to to the elegantly devastating The Bride Wore Black, one of mystery novels that you have to read.

This "Mysteries You Have to Read" was supposed to be a series here at The Passing Tramp, but I did the first one a year-and-a-half ago!  Hope to do better this year.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Book Intros Year in Review: Nobody Works Harder Than a Passing Tramp!

good murders are never out of style

I thought, now that the year is ending, I would *finally* list all the intro work, etc., I have done this year.  It's actually been quite quite a lot and I have been remiss in nor discussing it sooner.  But better late than never!  Here we go:

For Dean Street Press things slowed down a bit this year for me, what with all that Flynntlesmania, but at the beginning of the year we had the Anne Morice reissues, which were a lot of fun, with all their Seventies/Eighties style and brittle repartee between murders.  Some people disliked the covers, evidently, but I think they capture that these books represent the Golden Age updated to another era, now itself long past.  Morice herself was a great Agatha Christie fan and relished murder performed in the grand manner, in grand manors.

At the end of the year there was the great Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning revival, as The Invisible Host entertained again.  Next year the other three Bristow Manning mysteries will be brought back into print, as well as the last batch by GA great Christopher Bush (I've already written the introductory piece for that one) and the second tranche of ten by Moray Dalton, which I've been eager to get back to doing, as Dalton is one of my favorite "forgotten" authors.

And yet another "new" vintage author will be reprinted as well, a member of the Detection Club who has been out-of-print for seven decades now.

Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, and their Host
reissued by DSP with its original creepy art deco design

For Coachwhip there was a Sally Wood twofer, combining Death in Lord Byron's Room, a fun post-WW2 espionage story, with the author's prewar mystery, Murder of a Novelist.  

People had been asking for years now when these would be reprinted, but it took a bit of effort to track down the heir and secure the rights to Novelist.  These are most excellent stories with a really appealing pair of series characters in the amateur middle-aged "spinster" sleuth (who will change your notion of such characters in those days) and her niece.  If they ever leave off remaking Agatha Christies for the nth time, these two books would be very filmable.  Sally herself was a great Christie fan.

With Coachwhip early next year I'll be working another reissue of a vintage American woman mystery writer, one from my native state!

I also did an intro for Coachwhip to the two Baron von Kaz mystery twofers, containing The Ticking Terror Murders, The Feather Cloak Murders, The Crimson Hair Murders and The Broken Face Murders.  This quartet of mysteries, by Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet, have enjoyed a following of connoisseurs ever since their publication back in the Thirties, Anthony Boucher, Bill Pronzini and Douglas Greene being among their prominent fans, but they have been oop for eight decades.  (IPL reprinted the non-series The Talking Sparrow Murders, with an introduction by Doug, in the Eighties.)

Then with Moonstone there were the reissues of D. Erskine Muir's three mysteries In Muffled Night, Five to Five and In Memory of Charles.  "D." aka Dorothy (the other Dorothy) was an an Oxford educated historian whose three detective novels all were based on true crimes, the first two of which are classics of Scottish murder, the Jesse McLachlan and Oscar Slater cases.  (I never discovered the third one.)  These were fun to do because, at least with the first two, I got to write about the true crimes as well.  I have a major project with Moonstone next year, where we are reprinting another long oop Detection Club member from the Golden Age.

Then there were the reprints with Stark House, who has very definitely branched out from American hard-boiled and noir into "domestic suspense" now.  I've been thrilled to be a part of this domestic suspense revival and recognition of mid-century American women mystery writers.  

For this series I did intros this year to twofers by Bernice Carey, Dolores Hichens, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Helen Nielsen, Jean Potts and Ruth Sawtell Wallis.  

Several of these intros contain significant new biographical information.  These were a lot of fun and there will be more of them next year.

Also coming next year are two pieces I did for Otto Penzler's long-esteemed Mysterious Press

(1) an introduction, including lots of new biographical information, to Roger Scarlett's Catspaw, which has been included in paperback in Otto's superb American Mystery Classics series I'm thrilled to say (I was instrumental in reviving Roger Scarlett, actually two women, a few years back with Coachwhip)

(2) an introduction to, finally, a preliminary batch of John Rhode reissues

These all will be out early next year, the Rhodes imminently.  So there are many more vintage mysteries in your futures, I hope.

See the Stark House book covers below.  I'm posting separately on MP's coming John Rhode reissues in the next next year, which of course is in a few days now!

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Have Yourselves a Very Cornell Christmas! (or Maybe Not)

I thought this Sixties Christmas card from Cornell Woolrich to his friend Don Yates (pictured below) was very characteristic of the moody author in its calculated sense of ambiguity.  On the plus side, from most of the sad accounts of Woolrich's life, you'd be surprised to learn that he even owned Christmas cards and actually took the time to send them to people.

But let me assure all readers of The Passing Tramp that I always miss you when you're not here!  Unless you only ever comment about typos. ;)

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays to you all.  And may there be many mysteries in your futures.

Just a Gigolo: Blind Date with Death (1985 short story collection), Cornell Woolrich

"Buddy, you don't know it, but you've just sent out your last gigolo in this lousy racket!"

--"Blind Date with Death" (1937), Cornell Woolrich

A product of the "first wave" Cornell Woolrich revival (we're currently amidst the second, courtesy of Mysterious Press and Centipede Press and some others), Woolrich's Blind Date with Death is a 1985 Carroll & Graf paperback collection of eight Woolrich novelettes, these being, besides the 1937 title story

"The Living Lie down with the Dead" (1936)

Flowers from the Dead (1940)

The Riddle of the Redeemed Dips (1940)

The Case of the Maladroit Manicurist (1941)

Crazy House (1941)

If the Shoe Fits (1943) 

Leg Man (1943)

As usual with these Woolrich collections it's a somewhat mixed bag,   I'd recommend four or perhaps five of them, which means the glass is a bit more than half full.  One of these days maybe a publisher will ask me to choose my own selection!  

Of course since Woolrich wrote over 200 pieces of short fiction, almost entirely for publication in the pulps, you are going to find repetitions of devices, even plots themselves.  (Incredibly, Woolrich published about a-third of his short fiction output in 1936-37 alone.)  Here, for example, "The Riddle of the Redeemed Dips" (catchy title, that) is a reworking of the title story.  I preferred Woolrich's original take, but make your own choice by all means.

In "Blind Date with Death" the protagonist is a young cop named Bill Armstrong, "six-one, weight one-eighty, chest forty-two, weight thirty-four, batting average, 100, I. Q., medium....with a corn-fed look that wouldn't come off."  When the story opens he strides "into the squad room with a noise like the heavy cavalry coming up at Balaklava.  His gondolas preceded him by a good twelve inches or so, after which their owner showed up."  (As an aside, this is one of the things I like about this sort of fiction, I learn new words, or usages for words.  I had no idea gondolas was slang for feet.)

Ingenuous Bill gets duped into volunteering for an undercover job concerning jewelry robberies committed against three wealthy women (the last of whom was murdered during the job).  Suspiciously, all of these ladies had recently been clients of the P. E. S.--aka, the Personal Escort Society.  As gruff Captain of Detectives Moran explains it to Bill, the P. E. S. "farm out guys that take these old, broken-down hens around town, at so much per hour.  Gigolos on a business basis."

Of course when he finally realizes what is going on, corn-fed Bill is aghast over the prospect of taking on a job as an undercover gigolo: "Those guys with vaseline hair who do tangoes all the time?  Aw, Cap!"  As any vintage mystery reader knows, gigolos had rather a bad reputation in the era of Golden Age detective fiction, when they were commonly portrayed as suspiciously smooth, objectionably handsome "oily dagos" of Mediterranean vintage, or occasionally as √©migr√© White Russians, typically claiming ersatz aristocratic lineage.  (Dorothy L. Sayers has a great portrayal of the latter type in her 1932 detective novel Have His Carcase.)  

too pretty for words--
the Thirties notion of the "proper" gigolo

Of course the truth is gigolos could come in any male form, as long as that form was sufficiently charming and could trip the light fantastic.  Gigolos could even be--gasp!--All-American (and all-British) boys.  (See Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library.)

All-American boys like Bill Armstrong, to get back to Woolrich.  You see, Bill wants to succeed as a cop, so, appalling as he deems the prospect, off he goes to the P. E. S. to start escorting and, hopefully, crack the case of those old hens' pilfered sparklers.  Of course in the P. E. S. Bill finds more than he bargained for, but then so do the crooks in Bill!  Soon, like many another Woolrich pulp hero and heroine, Bill is putting his very life in jeopardy to get the goods on the goons behind this gigolo racket.

This is a very enjoyable Woolrich novelette, which has also been praised by Mike Grost.  Though it relies on a Detection Club no-no--the organized criminal gang--nevertheless there is detection; and Woolrich, whose biographer says he had no sense of humor whatsoever, manages to inject considerable mirth into the story, of the fish-out-of-water type.  People expect a gigolo to be a sleek and sophisticated continental type, don't you know, not some hulking Midwest dude with size twelve gondolas (though you know what they say about shoe size).

Happily for Bill his first client desires the services of a "cave-man type" and Bill fits that, um, bill, to a "T"--or "C," as the case may be.  This good lady is named Miss Agatha Van Dine, by the way, and if you think her having the first name of the Queen of Crime and the surname of the Pasha of Pretentiousness (aka Agatha Christie and S. S. Van Dine), I would advise you to think again. 

"The Living Lie Down with the Dead" is, in my view, one of Woolrich's very best (it was adapted for the American anthology series Thriller in the Sixties), but I have already reviewed that one elsewhere.

"Flowers from the Dead" tells about a Hollywood actress who has is desperately reluctant to go on a tour back East to promote her new film.  Why is she so deathly afraid to go back, particularly to her home town?  This one is pretty good, though rather silly in its central premise (that she has nothing to fear in California). 

Most striking me about "Flowers," however, to was how it resembles the plot to Ngaio Marsh's Photo-Finish (1980) and P. D. James The Skull beneath the Skin (1982).  I always assumed James read Marsh's novel, but somehow I doubt Marsh read Woolrich--though ya never know!  Woolrich stories pop up in anthologies all the time.

As mentioned above, "The Riddle of the Redeemed Dips" is a reworking of "Blind Date with Death" with a police woman instead of a policeman and kleptomaniacs rather than gigolos. ("Dips," you see is slang for pickpockets or thieves generally.)  But it lacks the humor of the original.

"The Case of the Maladroit Manicurist," now, is a lot of fun and a genuine detective story.  Sure, it could have been a little more fairly clued in places, but the murder method is cute indeed, just like our imperiled manicurist, Joan Blaine.  With that title, by the by, it sounds like a Perry Mason detective novel that Erle Stanley Gardner should have written!

in "The Case of the Maladroit Manicurist"
all of Joan Blaine's most loyal customers are men
for some reason--though she's not very good at the job

Of the last three, "Crazy House" and "If the Shoe Fits" have echoes of Woolrich's mystery novel The Black Curtain (the former takes place in San Francisco, where Woolrich's father once lived), but "Leg Man" to me seems more original, for the most part.  Here the protagonist, Clint Burgess, works for a newspaper as a lowly "leg man" (he gather information for stories but doesn't get his own byline), who dreams, like American icon Benjamin Franklin, of making his way to the top of the print racket--um business, I mean.  

When the owner of Mike's Tavern is shot to death soon after opening the bar, it's Clint, once on the scene, who spots a telltale piece of evidence and put his life in jeopardy to catch the correct culprit.  Does this lead to his career advancement?  You'll have to read it and see!

This story was included in the 1946 Woolrich collection The Dancing Detective and it didn't make an impression on me when I reviewed this collection here, but I found I quite liked it this go round.  It's very much a genuine detective story with some clever cluing.  Sure you could substitute policemen for the press witha little tinkering, but the press bits are nicely done.

Woolrich's biographer, Francis Nevins--who, in addition to his having heaped derision for decades on the author as a "self-hating homosexual," frequently has mocked his plotting capacity--calls "Leg Man" "one of Woolrich's silliest stories" with "a dumb plot unrelieved by noir overtones."   In doing so Nevins pits himself against no less an authority (and practitioner) than Fredric Dannay of Ellery Queen renown, who praised "Leg Man" as an adroit half-and-half mixture of "pure action and pure deduction" that would satisfy thrill-seekers as well as "those who insist on a pure deductive thread plus scrupulous fairness to the reader."  

But, hey, what would Dannay know, right?  I mean, didn't Nevins write some detective fiction or something at some point?  There you go!  Of course Nevins has also written the standard Ellery Queen reference book and obviously considers himself quite the expert on plotting.  In his Queen book he never hesitates to take Queen to task for "dumb plotting" as well, when he feels the occasion demands it.  (And it seems that Nevins feels the occasion often does.)  However, I though "Leg Man" had some cute clueing and I was pleased to find that Dannay thought so before me.  

Nevins scoffs at Dannay's declaration that Woolrich excelled at "point-counter-point ingenuity," dismissing what he terms the author's "often preposterous plot gimmicks"; yet Nevins reveals here his own preference (and bias) for a certain type of crime fiction, at least in Woolrich's case, which is noir.  When Woolrich doesn't write noir (which in his pulp fiction actually was quite frequently), Nevins tends not to like him.  

Again revealing his bias, Nevins takes issue with Dannay's praise of Woolrich's handling of what Dannay called the "straightforward police tale," sniffing disdainfully that straightforward is "not the proper adjective for his tales of warped psychotics with badges in their pockets.

Yet in truth Dannay had it right again: Woolrich did often write straightforward police tales where the police characters are not "warped psychotics" but recognizably normal people (to most of us anyway).  Like "Blind Date with Death," for example.  

If police run roughshod over rules in these tales, well, welcome to the world of vintage crime fiction.  Woolrich, "self-hating homosexual" that he may (or may not) have been, was hardly alone in such depictions. 

Nevins began writing about crime fiction in the late Sixties/early Seventies, a time when disdain for the police, contrary to what may be claimed about our present day, was at an all time high in the U. S.  The word "pigs," for example, came into parlance among leftist radicals when referring to police back then--and I think there is a carry-over of this attitude in Nevins' criticism of both Woolrich and Queen.  (Certainly there was plenty of criticism to go around.)

"Wouldn't it be useful if there were a word for the kind of fiction Woolrich almost singlehandedly created?" asks Woolrich rhetorically, before declaring: "In time such a word surfaced, and it is noir."  Well, sure, but Woolrich did other things too and his fiction wasn't always as dark as people seem to think.  

Following Nevins, people love to stress Woolrich's affinity with noir, justifiably, but the truth is his pulp tales (as opposed to his novels) often are more hard-boiled than noir and are even known to include detection and happy endings, with what one might called a restoration of order, as in classic British mystery--though the order being restored is American order, so let's put an bloody red asterisk by that!  

What did Nevins have to say about "Blind Date with Death" you might be wondering?  About the story itself, nothing at all (oddly enough, given its gigolo subject matter and Nevins' firm conviction that Woolrich was a closeted gay).  About the collection he states that it represents "Woolrich at his pulpiest if not always his best."  Yes, "Leg Man" gets kicked again!  But some of us like pulp--if not in orange juice (though I do), then in mystery fiction.

pulp does a body good

Friday, December 17, 2021

Noiry Not Noiry: Walls That Hear You (2021), by Cornell Woolrich

Centipede Press is still going full bore with its remarkably attractive, high-end reissues of Cornell Woolrich volumes.  They have reprinted the great American crime writer's six "Black" novels as well as his William Irish novels Phantom Lady, Deadline at Dawn, Waltz into Darkness and I Married a Dead Man and four volumes of short fiction: Dark Melody of Madness (a collection of supernatural tales), Speak to Me of Death (reviewed by me seven years ago here), Stories to be Whispered and, most recently from this year, Walls That Hear You.  (Woolrich's two George Hopley novels, Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Fright, and his last Irish novel, Strangler's Serenade, have not yet been reissued by CP.)

Cornell Woolrich has the reputation for being the bleakest of crime writers, both in terms of what he wrote and how he actually lived, and there's certainly a lot to that.  Certainly too that's the view stressed in the introduction to this new Centipede volume, where Francis Nevins hits all the usual black notes which he has stressed (and stressed) for decades now about how miserable Woolrich was, primarily because he was, Nevins believes, a "self-hating homosexual" filled with, yes, "homosexual self-contempt."  Or as he bluntly put it again, Sam, over at Mystery*File in 2010: "Woolrich was perhaps the most deeply closeted, self-hating homosexual male author that ever lived."

Indeed, it seems that Woolrich was so deeply closeted that he left no actual evidence that we know of that he was gay, self-hating or not!  (No one today can say whether the infamous purported Woolrich sex diary ever really existed.)  The truth is that it is Nevins who has interpreted Woolrich this way, the gay part coming from hearsay evidence from two elderly women he interviewed back in the 1970s and the self-hating part from his own inferences.  He also has written about Milton Propper and Patricia Highsmith as self-hating homosexuals, so it seems to be the theme with him when looking at queer crime writers.   

However, we don't actually know whether Woolrich really was gay and while he well may have had contempt for himself, we don't know whether or not this feeling was motivated by homosexuality (if he was really gay).  Woolrich, to be honest, had a lot of issues, as they say, stemming in my view both from inheritance and a dysfunctional childhood upbringing which produced in him extreme social anxiety.  He had trouble dealing with with people generally, putting aside the matter of his own sexuality.  

I've written an 11,000 word essay on the writer based on my own original research, which is shortly to be published elsewhere, and in it I take considerable issue with how the episode of Woolrich's short-lived, unhappy marriage has been portrayed in the vintage mystery media.  I hope the piece may prompt us to take a more nuanced and sympathetic look at the author than what has usually been the case, regrettably.  That Woolrich's story for decades has been held firmly in the hands of someone who so evidently holds him in contempt as a person (though he loves his writing) is an irony which the mordant author himself likely would have keenly felt.

But enough about that, how are the stories (really mostly pulp novelettes, a form of which Woolrich was a master) which have been collected in Walls That Hear You?  Well, there are seventeen of them here and I really liked about eight of them so I suppose you can say we are batting fifty-fifty.  It's not as good a collection as Speak to Me of Death in my view, but still pretty good.  

It opens up with Woolrich's first published piece of short crime fiction, "Death Sits in the Dentist's Chair," published when Woolrich was thirty years old, way back in 1934 in Detective Fiction Weekly.  It's been collected several times before, but it's a fun story, well worth reading again.

Fun I say?  Cornell Woolrich fun?  Well, in a grisly sort of way, yes.  It's about a devilish murder conducted by a diabolical dentist and there's genuine detection in it, of the Wills Crofts/Austin Freeman sort, and a good suspense passage at the end.  Yes, there is some Thirties social consciousness in it, an awareness of the problems of poor ethnic minorities (although it's also a necessary plot device).  But really it's a clever gadgety murder tale of the sort that John Rhode might have constructed.  It also uses the suspense devices of the wrong accused man and the friend trying to help him, which you often see in later Woolrich stories.

The title story, "Walls That Hear You," is another one, very pulpy and lurid, which I have to admit was a bit much for me.  (It involves a man who has his fingers and tongue removed but still lives--no thanks!)  Equally wild is "Kiss of the Cobra."  We are a long way off from noir here and more in purple pulps land, where the words may turn your stomach but they certainly won't break the heart.

"Hot Water," published in Argosy in 1935, is more in the hard-boiled vein, about the kidnapping of an actress at a gambling den in a Mexican town across the border from California.  Despite being about crime and violence there's a rather humorous edge to it and it's cleverly plotted and quite entertaining indeed.

nightmarish nights and daze

We're in more noirish territory with "Johnny on the Spot," about a girl who will do anything to rescue her man from gangsters.  It's both tender and tough, with true love and some really nasty scenes of violence, which I suppose Nevins would attribute to Woolrich's "homosexuals' self-contempt" even though it's the sort of thing you get in hard-boiled tales.

"Double Feature" is one of Woolrich's better-known tales, about what happens when a cop out on a date with his girl at the movie theater realizes they are sitting next to a "most wanted" criminal.  It's a great suspenser, crying out to be televised, but rather less noirish that "Johnny on the Spot."

"One and a Half Murders" is about a superannuated private detective who investigates on his own dime when his nephew is arrested for a murder he didn't commit.  The prevailing tone here is a bit humorous (the retired detective wanting to prove he's still got it), but when he finally resorts to terrorizing the guilty party to get his confession from the real murderer it's not very funny to me.  

Nevins thinks this reflects Woolrich's bleak world view, but again it's the sort of thing you see in a lot of crime fiction from that era, when crime writers tended to look sympathetically on private individuals taking the law into their own hands.  Many of us still feel this way today.  (Look at the reaction to "hero" Kyle Rittenhouse, for example.)

Woolrich's famous tale "Momentum" appears here as well and this is authentic bleak Woolrich, about how murder, Macbeth-like, dreadfully accumulates.  The protagonist has sympathetic qualities, but makes a series of disastrous choices, and it's all very dark, much more so that most of the stories in this collection.  The story was televised as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode that somehow utterly failed to capture its power.

"Mind Over Murder," about a woman living in the tropics who comes up with a plot to frighten her hated husband to death, is really nasty and a corrosive portrait indeed of a marriage. Perhaps Woolrich was looking back on his own!  This feels more like a Roald Dahl or John Collier piece.

Then there are my favorites in this collection, "The Book That Squealed" and "The Penny-a-Worder."  

A librarian throws the book at criminals and finds love too
in one of Cornell Woolrich's most heartwarming tales,
"The Book That Squealed" (1939)
Yes, I said heartwarming.

I first read the former in the anthology Women Sleuths, which Bill Pronzini and Martin Greenberg co-edited.  "Squealed" features an intrepid librarian (naturally!) as amateur detective who ends up investigating crime by herself when the police don't take her concerns seriously.  How she cottons on to the crime is really ingenious.  It recalls Agatha Christie's Postern of Fate, oddly enough, except that it is much cleverer and, well, coherent.  Let's face it, Postern was not Agatha's greatest moment.

There are some very nasty criminals indeed in "Squealed," but really the whole thing is not far removed from the world of the British crime story from that era.  It makes one realize that Woolrich really could have written what we think of as British-style manners mysteries, and probably would have had he grown up in England.

There are a couple of stories here which are very similar indeed to "Squealed."  "Murder at Mother's Knee" features a schoolteacher as amateur detective and is an obvious reworking of "Squealed."  (The former was published two years after the latter.)  Authors often repeat devices in their work but here Woolrich essentially published the same story twice under different titles, though "Squealed" is the cleverer and more charming of the two.  "The Body in Grant's Tomb" features as narrator and detective a spinster aunt of the sort associated with Mary Roberts Rinehart's Had-I-But-Known school.  She's portrayed well but the plot itself kind of just peters out uninterestingly.  When you wrote as much as Woolrich did, you're going to have some comparative duds.

For me the best story in the collection, "The Penny-a-Worder," is not even a genuine crime story, but it is a brilliant little tale about a pulp crime writer.  Francis Nevins, who is convinced that Woolrich had no sense of humor, appreciates the fine quality of this story, but somehow himself apparently doesn't see the humor in it.  (You would have to have a sense of humor, I think, to see it.)  I've written about this story before here, but I think I will write about it again in a successor blog post.  It's such a brilliant little story that shows a lot of witty self-awareness on the part of an author whom a lot of people seem to think had capacity only for myopic misery.

Indeed the misery level in Woolrich's pulp fiction  generally has been somewhat overrated.  Many of the stories in this collection even have-gasp!--happy endings, if not without some considerable bruising for our protagonists along the way.  Perhaps this simply reflects the popular medium for which Woolrich was writing here (Thirties and Forties pulps, primarily)--or perhaps the author wasn't quite as relentlessly gloomy as people think.