by Francis M. Nevins

   Previously on this blog:  PART I. THE NOVELS.



   The first collection of Woolrich’s shorter work was I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1943, as by William Irish), which includes at least three supreme classics: the title story (1938) plus “Three O’Clock” (1938) and “Nightmare” (1941, as “And So to Death”).

   Boucher inexplicably didn’t review the book but late in December he listed it as the year’s best volume of crime fiction at less than novel length. It was also the only such collection published that year, but clearly Boucher didn’t include it among 1943’s best by default, since a few months later (28 May 1944) he called it one of the 13 finest books of short crime fiction published since 1920.


   The follow-up volume After-Dinner Story (1944, as by William Irish) brought together six tales of which at least four — the title story (1938), “The Night Reveals” (1936), “Marihuana” (1941) and “Rear Window” (1942, as “It Had To Be Murder”) — are among Woolrich’s most powerful. Boucher found one or two of the half dozen (apparently the ones I didn’t name) “a bit too patly ironic” but called the others “first-rate specimens of that master of the suspense and terror of the commonplace.” (26 November 1944)

   If I Should Die Before I Wake (1945, as by William Irish) was a digest-sized original paperback collection of six tales of which three are pure gems: the title story (1937), “A Death Is Caused” (1943, as “Mind Over Murder”), and “Two Murders, One Crime” (1942, as “Three Kills for One”).

   Boucher, perhaps the only critic broad-minded enough to notice softcover originals, described the 25-cent volume as “various in quality but containing at least two of the finest Woolrich-Irish opuses — which is about as fine as terror-suspense comes currently.” (1 July 1945) When the collection was reissued as a paperback of conventional dimensions a year and a half later, Boucher said that “to watch the Old Master of suspense technique at work is worth anybody’s two bits.” (19 January 1947).


   Next came The Dancing Detective (1946, as by William Irish), which contained eight stories, four of them top-drawer noir: the title story (1938, as “Dime a Dance”), “Two Fellows in a Furnished Room” (1941, as “He Looked Like Murder”), “The Light in the Window” (1946) and “Silent As the Grave” (1945). Boucher praised the book to the skies: “Nightmares of a…masochistically pleasant nature await the reader who recognizes in [Woolrich] the great living master of what the psalmist calls “the noonday devil” — the infinite terror of prosaic everyday detail.” (14 July 1946)

   The last Woolrich collection Boucher reviewed for the Chronicle was Borrowed Crime (1946, as by William Irish), another digest-sized paperback original costing a quarter then and worth a mint today. This one brought together four short novels, two of them dispensable, the other pair — “Detective William Brown” (1938) and “Chance” (1942, as “Dormant Account”) — displaying Woolrich at his most powerful. Boucher’s review was terse but just: “The excellence of the Woolrich-Irish pulp novelettes is now so widely recognized that the mere announcement of this latest collected volume should send you scurrying to a newsstand.” (9 March 1947).


   Six more Woolrich collections, all as by William Irish, were published over the next six years. The first two came out when Boucher was off the Chronicle and not yet on the Times, but he praised both in his “Speaking of Crime” column for EQMM:

   Dead Man Blues (1947) brought together seven tales including the classics “Guillotine” (1939, as “Men Must Die”) and “Fire Escape” (1947, as “The Boy Cried Murder”). Boucher called the collected stories “a compelling group….” (February 1949)

   The Blue Ribbon (1949) gathered eight more tales of which by far the finest was the nonstop action thriller “Subway” (1936, as “You Pays Your Nickel”). Boucher described the octad as “a mixed lot ranging from the supernatural to pure sentimental emotionalism. But the five crime stories included bear the authentic Woolrich/Irish stamp so unmistakably that no seeker of suspense can afford to overlook the volume.” (August 1949)


   He was no longer reviewing for EQMM when the next Woolrich collection was published. Somebody on the Phone (1950) was reviewed in the Times but not by Boucher. The subsequent paperback-original collections Six Nights of Mystery (1950) and Bluebeard’s Seventh Wife (1952) were reviewed by no one.

   But Boucher made it a point to discuss what turned out to be the final collection under the Irish byline. Eyes That Watch You (1952) included seven stories. Its three longer tales — the title story (1939, as “The Case of the Talking Eyes”) plus “Charlie Won’t Be Home Tonight” (1939) and “All at Once, No Alice” (1940) — Boucher praised as “richly representing [Woolrich’s] best work.” The other four, which were much shorter, he dismissed as “minor gimmick stories which any hack could have written” but he advised readers to “overlook them, settle down to the longer stories and revel in the skill of the foremost master of the breathtaking this-could-happen-to-me impact.” (24 August 1952)

   All subsequent Woolrich collections were published under his own name. Nightmare (1956), a volume of six tales including two classics previously collected in I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes, gave the critic a chance to sum up his ambivalence about the author:

    “By sober critical standards there is just about everything wrong with much of Woolrich’s work. This collection of six stories illustrates most of the flaws: the ‘explanation’ that is harder to believe than the original ‘impossibility,’ the banal and over-obvious twist of ‘irony,’ the casual disregard of fact or probability –the Los Angeles Police Department so understaffed that only a single investigator of low rank can be spared to handle the murder of a film star! However, critical sobriety is out of the question so long as this master of terror-in-the-commonplace exerts his spell. It is an oddly chosen collection, representing neither the best nor the least familiar of Woolrich … but it is characteristic, and I do not envy the hard-headed reader who can resist its compulsive black magic.” (2 September 1956).


   Of the six tales printed in the sequel collection Violence (1958), I would rank three with Woolrich’s best: “Don’t Wait Up for Me Tonight” (1937, as “Goodbye, New York”), “Guillotine” (1939; previously collected in Dead Man Blues, 1947), and “Murder, Obliquely” (a heavily revised version of “Death Escapes the Eye,” 1947). “Guillotine” was the only one of the six that in Boucher’s view “ranks with the best of Woolrich’s unforgettable pulp classics.” But all six, he said, “display, if to a lesser extent, [Woolrich’s] mastery of detail in creating tension and terror out of the commonplace.” (10 August 1958).

   About a month later Woolrich’s Hotel Room came out. The setting is Room 923 of New York’s Hotel St. Anselm and the story of the building’s birth, adolescence, maturity, old age and death is told through the stories of the people who checked into that room at various points in time between 1896 and the late Fifties. The book wasn’t reviewed in the Times at all but Boucher devoted a few lines to it in his monthly column for EQMM, calling it “less a novel than a collection of episodes, many with the impact of [Woolrich’s] crime shorts.” (November 1958) A most generous comment considering that only one episode in the book was even remotely criminous!


   The next Woolrich collection was the paperback original Beyond the Night (1959), which Boucher covered in the Times at much greater length:

    “Recent Woolrich collections have, I suspect, been selected by the author himself; they seem to consist largely of those stories best loved by their creator because no one else appreciates them. Beyond the Night contains six stories, mostly supernatural, including [in “My Lips Destroy” (1939, as “Vampire’s Honeymoon”] the most tedious arrangement of cliches on the vampire theme ever assembled. There are glints of the old Woolrich magic, especially in a 1935 tale of voodoo [“Music from the Dark,” better known as “Papa Benjamin”] and a 1959 picture of gang callousness [“The Number’s Up”], but there are so many much better Woolrich stories which have yet to appear in book form.” (4 October 1959)

   The following year saw the publication of Woolrich’s last paperback original, The Doom Stone (1960). Boucher described it superbly as “heaven help us, about the diamond stolen from the eye of a Hindu idol in 1757 and the curse it brings on successive owners in Paris during the Terror, in New Orleans under the carpetbag regime and in Tokyo just before Pearl Harbor. Few authors would dare make a straight-faced offer of such triple-distilled corn, but devout Woolrichians (like me) may find it surprisingly potable if hardly intoxicating.” (8 May 1960)

   By then Woolrich was dying by inches and writing very little. Boucher had no occasion to discuss him again until five years later when the final collections of Woolrich’s lifetime appeared roughly three months apart.


   Of The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich he said: “Much though I admire the work of [Woolrich], I can see little excuse for [this collection]. Eight of the ten stories have appeared in book form before, six of them in earlier gatherings of Mr. Woolrich’s tales. (One indeed is making its third appearance in a Woolrich collection.) The stories, to be sure, range from good to excellent, but this can hardly claim to be a new $3.95 book.” (2 May 1965).

   The Dark Side of Love Boucher described as bringing together “several of [Woolrich’s] lesser recent short stories along with others which seem, for good reasons, not to have appeared in magazines. It’s a collection that stresses this veteran’s weaknesses rather than his virtues, but at least only one of its eight stories has been published in an earlier Woolrich volume. Only the previously unpublished “Too Nice a Day to Die” seems to me to rank with Woolrich’s best.” (25 July 1965)

   Coming soon: