FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Shall we go over my homework assignment for last month? The 1949 live TV version of “Goodbye, New York” was interesting to watch and certainly captured the Woolrich mood of desperation. But the scenes that are the heart and soul of the story, the ones that take place on the street, on the subway platform, on the IRT train, in Penn Station — how could they possibly have been done live? Even with the help of silent film clips that gave the actors time to run from one set to the next, there’s no way this pioneering live teledrama could do justice to Woolrich. What a shame that the story was never adapted for a 30-minute filmed series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents!

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   “Goodbye, New York” appeared in print at least four times while Woolrich was alive: first in Story Magazine (October 1937), then in The Story Pocket Book, ed. Whit Burnett (Pocket Book #276, paperback, 1944), later in EQMM for March 1953, finally, as “Don’t Wait Up for Me Tonight,” in the Woolrich collection Violence (Dodd Mead, 1958).

   I happen to have all but the first of these, and for some unaccountable reason I decided a few weeks ago to compare the texts of the three versions on my shelves and see what I could see. What I found was what I’ve discovered many times before: all sorts of interesting attempts to update the story as time went by.

   The first of these relates to home entertainment. In the Pocket Book version the female narrator says that figuring out precisely how deeply she and her husband were in debt “had given us something to do in the evening, in place of a radio.” Fred Dannay left this sentence untouched when he reprinted the story in EQMM, but in Violence the last phrase morphs into “in place of TV.”

   The next has to do with the price of a daily newspaper. In the Pocket Books version we read that “the morning paper only came to two cents a day….” In 1953 Fred changed this to “a few cents” a day, and Violence follows his change. Then comes the cost of a man’s suit. The narrator purchases one for her husband, paying for it with a $50 bill he stole from the man he killed, and the salesman in the Pocket Books version “returned with fifteen dollars change….”

   In the era of post-WWII inflation Fred knew that a suit couldn’t be bought in Manhattan for $35 and substituted “with the change…,” which is how the phrase appears in Violence five years later. (Could a suit be bought in 1953 for less than fifty bucks? Dunno.)

   Finally come a couple of alterations connected with the New York subway system. The fare in 1937 was five cents — as we know from the Woolrich classic “Subway,” which first appeared in 1936 as “You Pays Your Nickel” — and the woman puts two such coins in the slot, telling her husband “I’ll leave a nickel in for you….” In EQMM the nickel grows to a dime, and in Violence it becomes a token. Having just returned from New York, I can report that today you can’t enter the system without an electronic fare card, from which a staggering $2.75 is deducted for each ride.

   A bit later in the Pocket Books version we are told that a subway clerk “wasn’t obliged to make change for anything greater than two dollars.” Two-buck bills were still common back then. Fred changed “greater” to “bigger” but kept the dollar amount as it was. In Violence it’s cut to one buck.

   I also discovered two sentences in the Pocket Books version that didn’t survive into later printings. Penn Station is described as “The one place where they [the police] could count on anyone who wanted an out in a hurry showing up to get it.” Why Fred cut this is unclear. Perhaps because Grand Central Station was unaccountably ruled out? The second expurgated line comes after the woman watches her husband carefully deposit some trash in a station wastebasket. “God, neatness at such a time!” she thinks.

   Such are the joys of comparing different versions of the same story. With or without changes, I still think “Goodbye, New York” is one of Woolrich’s finest even though Suspense didn’t do justice to it.

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   This column began with a TV drama from 1949 so shouldn’t it end with a novel from the same year? Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985) wrote something like 110 mysteries, under his own name and as George Bagby and Hampton Stone.

   Recently I pulled down Coffin Corner (1949), as by Bagby, which I’m sure I read decades ago but had forgotten almost completely. The body of a legendary athlete who in his diabetic declining years has been working as scout for a pro football team is found at the base of the team’s uptown home stadium, and medical evidence soon convinces Bagby’s series character Inspector Schmidt that he neither jumped nor accidentally fell off the stadium’s parapet but was murdered by a massive overdose of insulin.

   The rest of the book takes place in less than 24 hours and in one setting, a huge apartment atop the stadium which is surrounded by an even larger terrace complete with outdoor swimming pool and other athletic niceties, and the small cast of suspects includes the team owner, his wife, and various players and wannabees.

   The backstory which led to the central murder takes a bit of believing but I found the book highly readable, packed with insights into diabetes and pro football (which more than one character calls a racket) and with those unique sentences, long but not convoluted like Faulkner’s, which are a Stein trademark.

   Aaron wrote for half a century but never really hit it big. Many of his 110 novels were reprinted in paperback or as book club selections but none became movies or radio dramas and, to the best of my knowledge, only one made it to live TV. “Cop Killer,” based on the 1956 Bagby novel of the same name, was seen July 9, 1958 on Kraft Mystery Theatre, a 60-minute version starring the long-forgotten Fred J. Scollay as Schmitty and featuring Paul Hartman and Edward Binns. I remember watching this summer replacement series regularly but can’t recall whether I caught this episode.

   Beginning in 1946 after returning from service as an Army cryptographer, Aaron wrote four or five books a year, usually in a few weeks apiece, and spent much of the rest of his time traveling in odd corners of South America and other parts of the world, many of which show up in the novels published under his own name. In the early 1950s Anthony Boucher described him as the most reliable professional detective novelist in the country.

   I’ve been partial to his books since my teens and continue to revisit them now and then in geezerhood. I came to know him well in the Seventies, when both of us served on a University of California library board and he autographed many of his books for me. After his death I was invited, whenever I visited New York, to stay in the co-op on Park Avenue and 88th Street which he’d shared with his sister and her husband, and thanks to that invitation I enjoyed the unique experience of reading some of his late novels in the room where he wrote them. I still remember him fondly.