Saturday, December 25, 2021

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

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