Thursday, September 14, 2023

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime Detective? Cornell Woolrich's Great Depression and the Pulps

Note from The Passing Tramp: This is an introduction that will appear with a new Cornell Woolrich short story collection by high end publisher Centipede.  It's 5500 words, so pull up your chair and set a spell.


            The Great Depression, which commenced in the United States with the calamitous stock market crash in the autumn of 1929, spread rapidly over the wasting country like a plague of locusts, devouring both American livelihoods and lives.  Yet adversity--sometimes with a little help from friendly Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA, or Works Product Administration--also fostered creative art.  Adversity even gave us the crime fiction of Cornell Woolrich. 

            In 1929 Cornell Woolrich was still a Jazz Age wonder boy in his twenties living it up—to the extent that he ever truly lived anything up—in sunny southern California, where he had been lured by Hollywood to write screenplays on the strength of the success of his popular novels Cover Charge and Children of the Ritz and his slick magazine boy-girl romances.  In his own personal romance, this press-dubbed “California boy” eloped on December 6, 1930 with Gloria “Bill” Blackton, the younger daughter of a pioneering Hollywood filmmaker, but the marriage collapsed like a house of stock certificates, barely making it past Christmas.  “Bill” soon took up with another, evidently more virile, man: a colorful carnival hypnotist who used her as a shill for his stage act.  Woolrich for his part returned to New York City, where his mother, Claire Tarler Woolrich, who had been long estranged from Cornell’s half-Mexican father Genaro Woolrich, resided at the old Tarler home with her widowed sister Lillian.             

            Evidently not suffering overmuch from the first wave of the Depression (though the six Tarler siblings would soon sell their late father’s house, dispossessing Claire and Lillian), Woolrich and his mother in 1931 set out on a several months long recuperative tour of Europe, returning to New York in November.  Upon their return Woolrich tried independently to live apart from Claire on his own money, just as he had when, at the age of twenty-three, he had moved out to California in 1927.  Back the young man had won a prize of $10,000 (about $150,000 today) and a film contract for his second novel, Children of the Ritz, but now, according to his recollection in Silent as the Grave’s first selection, “Even God Felt the Depression,” a chapter from his fragmentary memoir Blues of a Lifetime, the prize money was running out on him, like grains of sand shifting to the bottom of an hourglass. 

            The market for those winsome romances which Woolrich had once spun in magazines like College Humor and Live Girl Stories had gone decidedly stale, like a year-old box of chocolates, and in all of 1932 he scored only two sales, both of them to Illustrated Love, for “Orchids and Overalls” and “Women Are Funny.”  “No one cared who got the girl in the story anymore,” Woolrich ruefully reflects in “Depression.”  “They knew he couldn’t keep her very long, nowadays.”  By February 1933 the once-celebrated author had only sixty-one dollars left to his name. 

            When his attempt, drawing on his recent European tour, to publish, with an aim to selling the film rights to Hollywood, a frothy novel called I Love You, Paris ignominiously failed, Woolrich decisively dropped the manuscript in an ashcan.  During the crisis then sweeping across America, he noted in “Even God Felt the Depression,” women, whom he deemed “less fit for a nomadic life,” had been moving “back under their parents’ roofs, if they were lucky enough to have parents who still had roofs.”  Fortunately for Woolrich, he had, like those lucky women, one parent to fall back upon in his moment of desperate economic and emotional need.  He took the womanish part, as it were, and joined his mother when she moved into a suite at the Hotel Marseilles. There he would remain with Claire until her death twenty-four years later in 1957. 

            Meanwhile, in 1932 the woman to whom Woolrich had remained married, Bill, had boldly traversed the continent from Los Angeles to New York City in order to pursue a career on the stage, having awakened from her passionate but ill-advised fling with the carnival hypnotist.  In July 1933 Bill, like a vengeful bride in black, to great newspaper fanfare sued Cornell in a New York court to annul her marriage on grounds of nonconsummation, subjecting her unsatisfactory husband to a summer of national humiliation as a pallid aesthete who had “loved his wife too well to kiss her.”  Not altogether helpfully divulging, during an ostensibly confidential chat with newspaper reporters, that Cornell was so distraught over the whole wretched affair she feared he might leap to his death from one of the hotel windows, Claire for her part vowed to nurse her sensitive boy through this, the latest of the Tarler family crises. 

            Meanwhile the urge to write—and the need actually to make some money as the Depression dragged on and on—still burned within the author, who had reached his thirtieth year.  While love may have soured in fiction during the early Thirties, crime seemed more relevant than ever, with the fearsome likes of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker and the Lindbergh Baby kidnapper (revealed as Bruno Hauptman in 1935) running murderously amok.  Perhaps with thoughts of death still uppermost in his mind, Cornell in May 1934 typed out his first crime story for the pulps, “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair.”  The story appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly three months later and netted its author the sum of $105 (about $2100 today).  It proved a popular piece, and Cornell took to crime like he was Public Enemy Number One.  “Chair” would be the first of some two hundred pieces of short fiction which he would publish in the crime pulps, making Woolrich one of the most prolific pulp crime writers of the period, not to mention one of the very best. 

            Throughout the Thirties and into the Forties, when his career as a crime novelist began to overtake his shorter work in the crime pulps, Woolrich published frequently not only in Detective Fiction Weekly (fifty-one works, not counting the serialization of his novel Phantom Lady), but Dime Detective (thirty-one), Argosy (twenty-three), and, last but not least, Black Mask (twenty-two), fabled home of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and other hard-boiled writers.  The pulps offered the now publicity-averse author a mouse hole in which to hide while he furiously typed a succession of tales of detection, thrills and--most notably of all--anxiety.  Doubtless there were tougher pulp writers than Cornell Woolrich, but not one of them was as anxious as he and the harried characters that he created.  The pale, auburn-haired, anemic-looking man holed-up, like a bantamweight Dillinger, in his room at the Hotel Marseilles seemingly was harried by a thousand fears; and he gave those fears free reign to roam amid the looming shadows of his unforgettable crime fiction. 

 

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            “Dime a Dance,” the first of the sixteen entirely fictional pieces included in Silent as the Grave, originally appeared in Black Mask in February 1938 and was published in book form as the title and lead story in the Woolrich short fiction collection The Dancing Detective in1946.  One of the author’s finest and eeriest crime novelettes, “Dime a Dance” has been reprinted numerous times; and it was grippingly adapted for both productions both on radio (a 1944 Suspense episode starring Lucille Ball) and television (a 1995 episode of the series Fallen Angels, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Jennifer Grey).  

            The narrator-protagonist and “dancing detective” of the story is Ginger Allen (so named on account of her red hair, of course): a hard-bitten, pugnacious taxi dancer in the city who daringly goes on the trail of a mad serial killer when her best friend, another taxi dancer, is murdered.  The pathos inherent in the scuzzy, soul-enervating milieu of Depression-era dance halls clearly inspired Woolrich’s melancholy muse, resulting in his classic novel Deadline at Dawn (1944) as well as the novelette “Taxi Dance Murder,” published in the obscure pulp magazine Ten Detective Aces in 1937, and this terrific Black Mask novelette from the following year.  “Dime a Dance” also draws on Woolrich’s own youth, when, according to the first chapter of Blues of a Lifetime, his cosmopolitan Grandfather Tarler took him in 1912, when he was just eight years old, to see Giacomo Puccini’s great tragic opera Madame Butterfly (then itself just eight years old) at Mexico City’s Palace of the Fine Arts.  It seems that our dance hall killer in “Dime a Dance” is obsessed with a popular standard tune, inspired by the opera, called “Poor Butterfly.”  Today’s readers may also be reminded of the morbid award-winning video to Tom Petty’s hit song “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993), with Kim Basinger playing the title role.

            There is one caveat to the story, however: one has to wonder whether Woolrich’s account of seeing the opera in Mexico City is imaginary, for the Palace of Fine Arts, started in 1904, was barely even a shell in 1912, when Woolrich was eight years old.  Authorities suspended construction the next year and it was not resumed for two decades.  The magnificent building was finally completed and the inaugural performance held in 1934, the same year Woolrich published his first crime fiction.  Perhaps Woolrich and his father really saw the opera at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House, built in 1883 and demolished in 1967, a year before Woolrich’s death.

            “Two Fellows in a Furnished Room,” originally published in Detective Fiction Weekly in 1941 under the title “He Looked Like Murder,” is another of Woolrich’s classic crime novelettes, although surprisingly it was little anthologized, aside from its appearance in 1946 as the second tale in the Woolrich collection The Dancing Detective.  However, the novelette was adapted to film in 1947 as The Guilty, starring Don Castle, one of the better flicks based on a Woolrich crime tale; and more recently, in 2019, Otto Penzler included it in his Big Book of Reel Murders.  “Fellows” is a prime example of what Woolrich biographer Francis Nevins has classified as one of the author’s “oscillation” thrillers: a story in which one character fretfully fluctuates between belief and disbelief as to another’s guilt of a crime (usually murder).  Here the doubter and the doubted are roommates and besties Stewart “Red” Carr--another redhead like Ginger Allen, Lucille Ball and the author himself--and John Dixon.  Put the names together, incidentally, and you get John Dixon Carr.  Surely the resemblance to the name of the great locked room detective novelist John Dickson Carr, an American contemporary of Woolrich’s, is not coincidental. 

            Over the course of the story narrator Red agonizes over whether John Dixon guilty of the horribly brutal murder of his pretty young girlfriend Estelle Mitchell (who shares the name of Woolrich’s own aunt, Estelle Tarler Garcia)?  The author skillfully manipulates his tale to make Red’s convictions--and the reader’s--oscillate wildly over the matter of John’s guilt.  The anxiety that is resultantly induced is terrific, while the Depression-era milieu of the modest rooming house and the neighborhood bar is memorably conveyed and there is admirable detection concerning fingernails on the part of our amateur sleuth, Red.  (This is something for which Woolrich tends to get little credit, but it would surely have pleased none other than John Dickson Carr, who himself was no slouch either at tension and atmospherics). 

            Indeed, Red Carr and Ginger Allen would have made a good sleuthing couple.  Both “Dime” and “Fellows” are moving tales of same-sex friendship, although when “Dime” opens, Ginger’s best friend, Julie Bennett, is already dead.  (We learn she was off men, however.)  The ultimate fate of Red’s and John’s friendship is one of the points of interest of “Fellows” and it is handled with characteristic poignancy by the lonely author.  In the film version of the novelette, male friendship contrastingly is much downplayed in favor of more traditional boy-girl love interest, with an added twist in culpritude.

            The memorably titled “You’ll Never See Me Again” is the third and last of Woolrich’s major “annihilation” tales (as Francis Nevins terms them) published by Centipede, in which the male protagonist’s wife/girlfriend seemingly vanishes without a trace.  (The other two are “I Won’t Take a Minute” and “All At Once, No Alice.”)  All three of the trio draw upon the teasing urban legend known as the Paris Exposition story, about a young Englishwoman whose mother disappears from a Parisian hotel during the 1900 Exposition Universelle, with all the hotel staff claiming never even for a second to have glimpsed her parent.  Other notable fictional tales inspired by the Paris Exposition story are Marie Belloc Lowndes’ early novel The End of Her Honeymoon (1913), her rather more famous opus The Wheel Spins (1936; filmed two years later by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes), John Dickson Carr’s radio play Cabin B-13 (1943; filmed a decade later as Dangerous Crossing), Anthony Thorne's So Long at the Fair (1947; filmed three years later by Terence Fisher) and Evelyn Piper’s novel Bunny Lake Is Missing (1957, filmed in 1965 by Otto Preminger), not to mention the 2005 film Flightplan, starring Jodie Foster. 

              "You'll Never See Me Again" originally appeared in Street & Smith’s Detective Story in 1939 and, like Woolrich’s crime classic “Marihuana,” it was published singly a dozen years later in Dell’s dime novelette series.  It also was performed twice on the nail-biting radio series Suspense, in 1944 and 1946, and later adapted for television three times, in 1959,1973 and 1986.  Arguably it is the best of Woolrich’s three great annihilation novelettes.  Certainly it is the most plausibly explained!

            “Murder at the Automat,” another of Woolrich’s finest novelettes, was originally published in Dime Detective in 1937 and has been reprinted multiple times, including in Francis Nevins’ seminal 1971 Woolrich collection Nightwebs and the excellent 1982 anthology Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries.  (“Automat” is often classified as an “impossible crime” story.)  A tale of the police investigation into the death of a man who expires after consuming a poisoned bologna sandwich at an “automat”--a type of fast food restaurant serving simple foods and beverages via vending machines that became very popular in New York in the Twenties and Thirties and was evocatively depicted in Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting Automat--Murder at the Automat scores decisively both as a searing picture of Depression-era life in New York and as an intriguing murder mystery problem.  There is as well some of Woolrich’s (and the genre’s, and real life’s) police brutality on the part of a blustering, vicious police precinct captain, who is determined to pin the crime—through force if necessary--on an innocent man.  Happily heroic Officer Nelson isn’t “the kind of a dick that would have rather had a wrong guy than no guy at all, like some of them.”  For “Murder at the Automat” Woolrich earned $140, or about $2640 today—an upgrade from the $105/$2120 which Woolrich made for “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair” three years earlier.

            “Bequest,” originally published in Detective Tales in 1942 under the title “Implacable Bequest,” and “Collared,” originally published in Black Mask in 1939, are more minor, although interesting, works.  “Bequest” was reprinted in the Woolrich collection Nightmare in 1956, while “Collared” was reprinted in 1950, coincidentally, in both the hardcover edition of Somebody on the Phone and the paperback Six Nights of Mystery (under the title “One Night in Chicago”).  “Bequest” is a grim little number which opens with a husband and wife on the run, in an automobile somewhere along the Texas Gulf Coast, from the consequences of a crime which the husband committed back in Pennsylvania. The scrupulous wife parts permanently from her husband, leaving him to face the wicked devices of a couple of exceptionally nasty hoodlums similarly fleeing from ill deeds done.  A couple of ironic twists of fate follow.  In “Collared” a gangster’s moll tells of the creative revenge she connives upon her physically abusive boyfriend—but does the dish she serves to him instead choke her?  “Collared” is a good story, constructed around its clever punning title, though it is a bit robbed of dramatic force, perhaps, by the moll’s relentlessly flippant patter in “gangsterese.” 

            “Fountain Pen,” originally published under the title “Dipped in Blood” in Street & Smith’s Detective Story in 1945, is a clever exercise in deadly irony about a booby-trapped fountain pen that is reminiscent of the earlier Woolrich story “Cigarette,” published nine years earlier, although to my mind it is better written in Woolrich’s more mature style (i.e., less gangsterese).  “I.O.U.,” originally published under the title “I.O.U.—One Life” in Double Detective, was reprinted in 1956 in Nightmare and in 1965 in The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich, under the title “Debt of Honor.”  It tells of a gangster who saves the life of a cop’s daughter—and what he expects to extract from the cop in return.  Does he collect?

            The title story, “Silent as the Grave,” was originally published in Mystery Book Magazine in 1945 and the next year was adapted as an episode of radio’s Molle Mystery Theatre and reprinted, in abridged form, in The Dancing Detective.  Moreover a 1954 French film, Jean Delannoy’s Obsession, was adapted from “Silent as the Grave,” along with Woolrich’s story “If the Dead Could Talk” (see below).  This “oscillation” tale is one of Woolrich’s cruelest exercises in wringing mental anguish out of one of his tortured characters.  It recalls “Bequest” and “The Red Tide” (see below) in evaluating what it means to love another person.  Do you really surrender yourself entirely and forgive anything if you are with your beloved “all the way”—or are there some transgressions which go too far for even love to follow?

            In “Grave,” which is back set during the early years of the Depression, Frances Mitchell, a classic na├»ve, young, almost masochistically self-effacing Woolrich heroine (“She wanted everything to belong to him, even her first name”), learns from her newlywed spouse Kenneth that he once murdered another man: “[He] had it coming, he deserved it.  He’d done me an injury.  And I never forgive an injury.”  Moonily telling herself that this revelation is something from “that other plane, the man’s world,” and that it “had nothing to do with her” and could never “affect their love,” Frances vows to Kenneth: “You’ll never hear me speak of it again….It’ll never pass my lips.  I’ll be as silent as the grave, dear heart.  As silent as the grave, forever.”  This lover’s resolution is put to a test years later when Kenneth loses his job during the Depression due to the caprice, as he tells Frances, of a malicious boss; and the boss turns up dead in a street, murdered.  Another man is arrested for the crime, tried, convicted and sentenced to die in the chair, even though, Frances fearfully suspects, her husband may have been the actual culprit.  Does her secret knowledge of her husband’s prior vengeful murder matter now?  Should she still remain, as she romantically promised, silent as the grave, forever?

            “I’ll Take You home, Kathleen,” presents an interesting illustration of Cornell Woolrich’s revision and recycling process with his work.  In his biography of the author, Francis Nevins often righteously flails Woolrich for dishonesty in frequently presenting, during his later years, revised republished material as “new,” yet the truth is that Woolrich in this thrifty practice was hardly unique among prolific crime writers.  Off the top of my head, British crime writers Andrew Garve, Richard Hull and Leonard Gribble, for example, each essentially published the same novel twice under different titles.  The harrowing novelette “One Last Night” originally was published in Street & Smith’s Detective Story in 1940 and, doubtlessly entirely forgotten by the vast majority of Woolrich’s readership by this time, reappeared sixteen years later in Nightmare, in slightly revised form and evocatively retitled “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”—this title recalling the title of the popular 1875 song by Thomas Paine Westendorf, recorded by such artists as Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin, Slim Whitman and Elvis Presley. 

            One of the author’s rare stories with a southern setting (though Woolrich himself, due to his half-Mexican father’s engineering jobs in Texas, must have had some familiarity with the region), “Kathleen” tells of socially ostracized “jailbird” Denny Burke, who after his release from prison returns to his home town to get one last glimpse of his beautiful former girl, Kathleen Leary, now affianced to Larry Kirby, the snooty, privileged son of the town banker.  When a fall hobbles Larry at a dance, Denny offers to take Kathleen home in his stead and, to the consternation of her friends, she assents to Denny’s desire.  When Kathleen disappears during their walk home and her violently slain body is discovered in the woods, Denny is immediately suspected of her murder and--this being the South--threatened with lynching.  Can his only friend, parole officer Bill Bailey, get to the bottom of the affair and save him from the untender mercies of a lynch mob?  A sassy southern number by the name of Mary Lou Davis also has a key role to play. Extending the musical resonance, by the by, “Bill Bailey” recalls the 1902 Dixieland standard tune “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey”—surely no coincidence on the part of Woolrich, who frequently draws upon popular music in his writing. 

            “Kathleen” is a fine “wrong man” noirish tale with several points of interest, particularly its depiction of male friendship, which Woolrich sharpened in the revised version of the novelette.  When queried by the scoffing town sheriff as to just what he expects Bill Bailey to accomplish for him when the evidence is piled so high against his favor, Denny in the original version chirpingly replies: “You don’t know Bill Bailey!”  In the later version, however, Denny soberly explains: “Nothing.  I don’t care if he does nothing.  It’s just that you got to have a friend.  Just one friend, at a time like this.  That you know is around, somewhere around.  Or else there’s nothing to go on for, anymore.”  Those familiar with Woolrich’s life will know how closely this plaintive credo hit home with the author in his later, lonely years.  In the revised version Woolrich also gives the final paragraph of the novelette a darker impact, especially with its last line.  

            Additionally, “Kathleen” is distinguished by its sympathetic portrayal of the novelette’s minor black characters.  It even manages to remind readers which race was overwhelmingly the most common target of savage southern lynch mobs, which were still active in the Thirties.  When the temper of the crowd at the dance turns ugly after it learns of Kathleen’s disappearance, Sam and Leah, the black ticket taker and hat checker, quietly draw together and converse about the deadly predilections of white people:

 

            “Ain’t going to be so good for somebody, the way it looks tonight,” Sam told Leah.

            “If they do, it will be the first white one they’ve had around here since my grampas’s time.  He told me about seeing one once.”

 

            “You Take Ballistics,” originally published in Double Detective in 1938, is a clever little detective tale pitting police up against an ingenious murderer who thinks he has committed the perfect crime.  Over the years Woolrich wrote quite a few of these sorts of stories, which are more in the vein of detection vein than noir.  Francis Nevins deems them greatly inferior to Woolrich’s noir fiction, but to my mind they have considerable entertainment value.  However, “Ballistics” offers, as Nevins approvingly notes, some particularly repellent police third degree, which certainly shifted the sympathies of this reader, like those of Nevins, over to the side of the murderer.  The thuggish, abusive precinct police captain, Leffinger, gives booming voice to a standard police plaint, once often heard today as well, that it is not the cop but the criminal whom the law unjustly favors: “If we whack a confession out of him, all he’ll have to whisper is ‘police brutality,’ and the jury will throw it out.  They always do, the soft-hearted slobs.  The way the system is run in this state, the police have two strikes against them.  All the breaks are the criminal’s.”  Ballistics was collected in the Woolrich anthology Dead Man’s Blues in 1947 and, with the odious police brutality evidently much toned down, adapted for radio the same year (Suspense) and television a decade later (Heinz Studio 57). 

            “The Red Tide” originally appeared in Street & Smith’s Detective Story in 1940, four months after “One Last Night” was published there.  Like “One Last Night,” “The Red Tide” later popped up again, revised and retitled, this time in the debut Woolrich short fiction collection I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1943).  Titled “Last Night,” it was substantially expanded and given a much different outcome.  Francis Nevins, who published “The Red Tide” in Nightwebs, greatly prefers the original version of the story, which I personally find savors a bit too pungently of the penny dreadful at the climax.  However, both versions are superb oscillation thrillers, in which Jacqueline Blaine comes to fear that her moody and tight-lipped husband Gil has, Macbeth-like, robbed and murdered a wealthy guest at their house.  “Last Night” also appeared as a 1943 episode of Suspense, possibly scripted by Woolrich himself, which was broadcast a few months after the novelette was published in I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes.  An interesting minor character in both print versions is the Blaines’ black maid Leona. 

            “If the Dead Could Talk,” a bleak 1943 novelette that was Woolrich’s penultimate publication in Black Mask, moodily tells the tragic tale of a love triangle among circus trapeze artists that culminates in death.  “That’s the way life goes; death beckons someone out of line, but the line keeps closing up,” reflects the narrator of the story.  The original angle to this tale of the triangle is that it is narrated by none other than the dead man himself.  “If the Dead Could Talk” has been reprinted several times, including in the Woolrich collection Dead Man’s Blues. Additionally it was adapted for a 1949 Suspense episode starring Dana Andrews of Laura fame and, as mentioned above, served, along with “Silent as the Grave,” as the partial basis for the 1954 French film Obsession

            “They thought it was the Depression the first time it happened,” is the opening line—perhaps Woolrich’s finest--of The Room with Something Wrong, a long novelette which originally appeared in Detection Fiction Weekly in 1938 under the title Mystery in Room 913.  The novelette secured Woolrich one of his comparatively few covers, with a striking illustration of a pajama-clad man falling to his death from the window of his hotel room; and, indeed, it is arguably his greatest effort in the pure mystery vein.  It has been reprinted numerous times, perhaps most notably in Douglas G. Greene’s and Robert C. S. Adey’s landmark 1987 anthology Death Locked In.  For the story Woolrich earned $575, or about $11,400—an impressive sum!

            “Room” tells of a series of seeming suicide dives taken during the 1930s from unlucky room 913 at the Hotel Anselm (just a few doors down, presumably, from room 923, which serves as the setting for Woolrich’s 1958 mainstream episodic novel Hotel Room).  In the Forties Woolrich observed that he had lived out most of his life in hotel rooms and he richly evokes this setting in his novelette.  “[F]ew writers could equal Woolrich in capturing the despair of the Depression and its seedy hotels and often shabby characters,” Douglas G. Greene noted in Death Locked In.  The memorably rendered lead character and sleuth of the story is hotel detective Striker, who “didn’t look much like a hotel dick, which was why he was good for the job.”  “Strike” might well have been the spiritual father of crime writer and frequent Woolrich anthologist Bill Pronzini’s pulp-collecting Nameless detective—or so it, um, strikes me:

 

He’d had his salary cut in ’31, and then again in ’32, but then so had everyone else on the staff….He was a tall, lean, casual-moving guy….lacked the usual paunch in spite of his sedentary life….had a little radio in his top-floor cubbyhole and a stack of vintage “fantastics,” pulp magazines dealing with super-science and the supernatural, and that seemed to be all he asked of life.

 

            When in 1933 a guest goes out of the window of 913 for the first time, the police, personified by unimaginative Officer Eddie Courlander, write it off as suicide: “It’s the depresh.  They’re poppin’ off like popcorn all over the country this week.  I ain’t been able to cash my paycheck since Monday.”  So written off, as well, are the fatal falls—jumps?—from room 913 which take place in 1934 and 1935.  Striker thinks differently, however, and, his warnings having gone unheeded by others, he takes increasingly desperate measures to get to the truth behind the series of deaths in 913, which to himself he terms “that hell box, that four-walled coffin, that murder crate….”  Will Strike finally “get” the room, or will the room get him? 

            Arguably Woolrich’s finest detective story—and it is a true detective story—“Room” is also one of the author’s best works, period.  Woolrich’s take on the classic “killer room” plot—other notable examples of which include Wilkie Collins’ “A Terribly Strange Bed” (1852), Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1892) (which is explicitly referenced in “Room”), Eden Phillpotts’ The Grey Room (1921) and John Dickson Carr’s The Red Widow Murders (1935)—is clever and legitimately clued, while the hotel milieu is persuasively portrayed and there is some fine wry gallows humor in the tale, a talent which the author too seldom indulged.  At one point readers might worry that Woolrich is going to crib a solution from Agatha Christie, but, never fear, dear readers, the author stoops to no such thing.  There is also a distinctively Cornellian dose of bracing irony administered at the end of the tale.  Nevins deems the novelette “one of the indispensable Woolrich classics,” a judgment with which I fully agree, though his characterization of the heroic Striker as “psychotic” and “warped” seems to me a product of Nevins’ unalterably noiry-eyed gaze.  Not everyone in Woolrich’s fictional universe is nuts!  “Room” seems to me a missed opportunity (so far) for filmmakers.

            The characterizations in “Room” are well worth noting too.  Particularly notable, to my mind, aside from Striker himself, is Woolrich’s handling of the Chinese lawyer Young and his Chinese songstress wife, who in an era and format rife with prejudice against Chinese-Americans, are portrayed respectfully, without resort to pidgin English and other egregious stereotypes of that time, despite their being suspects in the case.  Striker himself forthrightly reflects : “It’s because they’re Chinese that I was so ready to suspect them.  They always seem sinister to the Occidental mind.”  With all the aspersions cast against Woolrich’s personal character over the years—his own biographer portrays him as nothing less than a weak, neurotic, mendacious and malicious “self-hating homosexual”--not enough has been said, in my view, about his relatively Cosmopolitan attitude toward other races than his own, despite his working in a genre admittedly filled to the rafters with negative racial tropes. 

            “Wake up with Death,” which was originally published in Detective Fiction Weekly in 1937, is one of the comparatively small number of Woolrich crime tales that has never been reprinted until now.  It features a plot device that Woolrich would use in such better known stories as “C-Jag” and “Nightmare,” of a man who wakes up from a binge believing he has killed someone.  This time around the murder evidence is right in front of the man’s, Don Stewart’s, eyes: there is a dead woman in the hotel room with him!  Nevins deems “Wake up with Death” a “fascinating tale, a sort of rough sketch for [the author’s] 1942 classic ‘Rear Window’.”  (A man in a room overlooking his own claims to have seen Stewart murdering the woman.)  However, to my mind the narrative tension is drained, as in “Collared,” by excessive flippancy in the telling. 

            Finally there is the aptly-titled “Crazy House,” which was originally published in Dime Detective in 1941 and later reprinted in 1985 in Blind Date with Death, one of Carroll & Graf’s Eighties Woolrich collections.  Set in San Francisco, where the author’s father Genaro had gone to business college back in the 1890s, “Crazy House,” as Francis Nevins has put it, packs “into less than twenty book pages enough story for a hundred.”  The story, in which by happenstance itinerant Bill Ingham pays a call one night upon wealthy Diana Miller at her family mansion and all hell breaks loose, has more resemblance to a mystery by the once hugely popular English shocker writer Edgar Wallace than to doomful American noir, but it certainly makes for a thrilling read while it lasts.  Cornell Woolrich may have been a poor haunted soul for much of his life, but the showman in him never forgot how to entertain his audience—and he continues to do so today.  Certainly that particular issue of Dime Detective was worth its cover price, even during the Depression.  Which, incidentally, was still a dime, though Black Mask had been marked up to fifteen cents.

1 comment:

  1. "Other notable fictional tales inspired by the Paris Exposition story" also include Ethel Lina White's The Lady Vanishes (and Hitchcock's film) and Anthony Thorne's novel (also filmed) So Long at the Fair. and quite a few more - one of the most influential urban legends of all time!

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