Search Results for 'woolrich'


REVIEWED BY JIM McCAHERY:

   

CORNELL WOOLRICH – Manhattan Love Song. Gregg Press, hardcover, October 1980. Pegasus Books, paperback, 2006. First published by William Godwin, Inc., hardcover, 1932. Film: Monogram, 1934.

   The first-person narrator, Wade, has been married to Maxine for eight years and suddenly becomes enamored of one Bernice Pascal. He destroys everything, including himself, in his quest to make her his own. Wade is what was once popularly known an a cad as far as his doting wife is concerned, planning to take all their savings and leave her behind for another woman.

   What he is unable to discover is why Bernice is being kept in her sumptuous apartment, and by whom. What is her secret, and why does she suddenly become so frightened and fear for her life? The inevitable murder leaves Wade the perfect patsy.

   Woolrich’s sixth novel contains the element of suspense which was to characterize his later novels, starting in 1940 with The Bride Wore Black. There are also many other Woolrichian hallmarks present in this early work, such as the use of the small apartment atmosphere, the important play of light, and the pervasive background music of the period (“Why Was I Born?” is an example here). And no one — but no one — can evoke the early New York subways like Woolrich.

   This beautiful photographic Gregg reprint of the original novel contains a valuable introduction by Woolrich admirer and authority, Francis M. Nevins, Jr., who is no stranger to readers of The Poisoned Pen.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 4, Number 3 (June 1981).

   

CORNELL WOOLRICH “Finger of Doom.” First published in Detective Fiction Weekly June 22, 1940. Included in Great American Detective Stories, edited by Anthony Boucher (Tower, hardcover, as “I Won’t Take a Minute.” Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1957, as “Wait for Me Downstairs.” Collected in The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich (Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1965) as “I Won’t Take a Minute.” Radio plays: Suspense (CBS), December 6, 1945,    as” I Won’t Take A Minute” and Escape (CBS), March 19, 1949.

   It probably wasn’t the first novel or story to fit the theme, but it came early, and the movie made of it was a big hit at the time. I’m speaking of Ethel Lina White and her book The Wheel Spins (1936), and the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Lady Vanishes (1938) that was based on it.

   Nor do I believe that “Finger of Doom” was the only time that Cornell Woolrich used the story line to good – no, great – advantage. A young man picks up his girl as she leaves from work. They are in love and the wedding day is less than two weeks away. He has an evening of fun planned for them, but first she must do a small errand for her employer. There is a small package she has to drop off for someone living in an apartment building which is on their way.

   She rings the bell, she is allowed in, she goes up – and she doesn’t come down. He waits outside, shifts his feet, walks up and down a little, and waits some more. The young man’s thoughts go from a vague unease, to worry, and finally to near panic.

   Although he has doubts, a policeman comes to help, but no one in the building has seen her, the room she was to deliver the package to is empty, and the final blow comes when they return to her place of work, and another woman working there says her name is the same as the young man’s girl.

   Cornell Woolrich is the out-and-out master of this kind of “everyday gone wrong” type of story, and even so, this is one of his best. The smallest details fit perfectly, especially in describing the young man’s thoughts standing outside the apartment building where his girl has vanished into. I suspect that everyone reading this has gone through situations similar to this, although perhaps never so serious as this. It must explain why his panic as it grows and grows is so very very contagious.

Rating: 5 stars.

CORNELL CLUB:
The Woolrich Adaptations of François Truffaut
by Matthew R. Bradley

   

   It is no surprise that the term film noir is French, given how avidly Gallic filmmakers and/or critics (some were both) embraced what we now know as noir fiction and its cinematic counterpart, or that they turned to the former as source material. The novels of David Goodis, for example, were adapted into not only the Bogart/Bacall vehicle Dark Passage (1947) but also the likes of François Truffaut’s Tirez sur la Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), based on Down There (1956); Henri Verneuil’s Le Casse (aka The Burglars, 1971), based on The Burglar (1953), filmed Stateside in 1957; and La Lune dans le Caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter, 1983), directed by Diva (1981) phenom Jean-Jacques Beineix.

   While Henry Farrell may be best known as the original author of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1960), and thus the “Godfather of Grande Dame Guignol,” Truffaut’s 1972 adaptation of his 1967 novel Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me (aka Une Belle Fille comme Moi [A Gorgeous Girl Like Me]) is surely noir, and Truffaut also filmed two books by the arguably definitive noir writer, Cornell Woolrich: The Bride Wore Black (1940), part of his celebrated series of “Black” Novels, and Waltz into Darkness (1947), published under his pen name of William Irish.

   Made in England, Truffaut’s controversial 1966 version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) had been a considerable departure, his first film in English and in color and his only SF effort, shot by future director Nicolas Roeg rather than usual cinematographer Raoul Coutard. But he was back on his literal and metaphorical home turf with La Mariée Etait en Noir (The Bride Wore Black, 1967), shooting in France and adapting another noir novel with familiar faces both behind the camera (Coutard and co-scenarist Jean-Louis Richard) and in front (Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy).

   The legendary book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966) had recently been published, and the fact that the Master of Suspense’s Rear Window (1954) was also based on Woolrich story is one aspect that makes this perhaps Truffaut’s most Hitchcockian work, as is carrying over composer and Hitch mainstay Bernard Herrmann from Fahrenheit in their second and final collaboration.

   The film is basically a quintet of set pieces in each of which the title character, Julie Kohler (Moreau), kills a man, making sure he knows her identity, e.g., she pushes Bliss (Claude Rich) from his balcony during a party when he tries to retrieve her windblown scarf; lures Coral (Michel Bouquet) to a rendezvous where she poisons him; and leaves Rene Morane (Michel Lonsdale) to suffocate in a sealed closet while his son, Cookie (Christophe Bruno), slumbers upstairs.

   Flashbacks gradually reveal that she is avenging the death of her childhood sweetheart, David (Serge Rousseau), shot dead on the church steps after their wedding as the five fooled around with a loaded rifle across the street. The film addresses neither how Julie tracks down the men — strangers drawn together on a single occasion, sharing only a predilection for guns and women (the latter ultimately their undoing), who fled, never to meet again — nor whether David’s accidental killing justifies theirs.

   Julie clearly has her own idea of justice, leading her to call the police and clear Cookie’s teacher, Miss Becker (the striking Alexandra Stewart), as whom she posed, by providing details only the killer could know.

   I don’t know how, or even if, the novel tackles any of these questions, yet in a sense, it doesn’t matter; we don’t turn to Cornell Woolrich for rigorous logic but for his fever-dream imagination and style, and Truffaut himself, obviously interested more in the effect than in explanations, begins to play with our expectations as Julie’s next target, Delvaux (Daniel Boulanger), is suddenly arrested for unrelated crimes, so she turns to the last on her list, artist Fergus (Charles Denner).

   When she begins posing for him as the bow-wielding huntress (how apt!) Diana, we suspect how he will meet his end, yet for the first time, she seems hesitant after Fergus, anticipating Denner’s role as Truffaut’s L’Homme Qui Aimait les Femmes (The Man Who Loved Women, 1977), avows his amour.

   It is around this point that Truffaut uses maximum cinematic sleight of hand, misdirecting us with a subplot about how Fergus’s friend Corey (Brialy) remembers seeing Julie at Bliss’s party and tries to identify her.

   Having watched in step-by-step detail as she dispatched each of her previous victims, we are genuinely surprised when Truffaut abruptly cuts back to Fergus lying dead with an arrow protruding from his body, and even more so when the seemingly relentless avenger leaves an incriminating mural of herself on the wall, which along with her attending the artist’s funeral leads to her arrest and confession, albeit without explanation.

   But — as my first-time-viewer wife quickly deduced — it is all a means to an end, and as Julie, with knife concealed, delivers meals to inmates of the same prison where Delvaux is confined, we await the inevitable off-screen shriek as she finishes her mission.

   Asked by Le Monde in 1968 if Hitchcock had influenced the film, the director said, as quoted in Truffaut by Truffaut (*), “Certainly for the construction of the story because, unlike the novel, we give the solution of the enigma well before the end [as in Hitch’s Vertigo (1958)]…. Contrariwise, the desire to make the characters speak of everything else but the intrigue itself is decidedly not very Hitchcockian and more characteristic of a European turn of mind.”

   In 1978, he called it “the only one I regret having made… I wanted to offer…Moreau something like none of her other films, but it was badly thought out. That was a film to which color did an enormous lot of harm. [A permanent rift with Coutard reportedly left Moreau sometimes directing the actors.] The theme is lacking in interest: to make excuses for an idealistic vengeance, that really shocks me…. One should not avenge oneself, vengeance is not noble. One betrays something in oneself when one glorifies that,” as he opined to L’Express.

   Truffaut’s Woolrich adaptations were made with only one film (my personal favorite of his), Baisers Volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968), in between; the fatalistic nature of the second, Mississippi Mermaid (1969) — whose title seems more appropriate in French, La Sirène du Mississippi, given the sinister connotations of “siren” — makes it not too surprising that, per New York Magazine critic David Edelstein’s TCM introduction, it was his biggest financial failure, but I think it deserved better.

   The first of his features on which Truffaut had sole screenwriting credit, it updates Woolrich’s 1880 New Orleans setting to the contemporary French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, to which the ship Mississippi brings a woman (Catherine Deneuve) claiming to be Julie Roussel, the mail-order bride of Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo, whom I have loathed since seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal French New Wave debut, À Bout de Souffle [Breathless, 1960]). She doesn’t match the photo that Julie had sent him, but Louis clearly falls for her at first sight and marries her anyway.

   She says she sent a photo of a neighbor to ensure that Louis did not marry her for her looks, while he wrote that he was the foreman and not the owner of a cigarette factory, because he did not want to be married for his money. After “Julie” cleans out his bank accounts and disappears, Berthe Roussel (Nelly Borgeaud) arrives, and we learn that her sister was murdered aboard the ship by Richard (Roland Thénot), who later abandoned accomplice Marion Vergano, so they hire private detective Comolli (Bride alumnus Bouquet) to find the impostor.

   In France, Louis spots Marion in some news footage — precisely paralleling D’Entre les Morts (From Among the Dead, 1954) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the source novel for Vertigo — then locates and confronts her, but is unable to kill her; Louis shoots Comolli when he gets too close and refuses to take a bribe, and the couple’s peripatetic future as fugitives seems bleak, despite Louis forgiving Marion for trying to poison him and her declaration of love.

   When I saw this for the second time (c. 2014), the first being in the 1999 “Tout Truffaut” retrospective at the hallowed ground of New York’s Film Forum, it seemed surprisingly familiar. It’s true that at various times I have also read Waltz into Darkness (I was honored to be asked to weigh in on whether Viking Penguin, where I was then employed, should reissue it, which they did) and seen the 2001 remake, Michael Cristofer’s Original Sin, notorious for its steamy scenes between Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie — talk about something for everyone — but I think there’s more to it than that, perhaps something distinctively Woolrichian.

   His future biographer, Francis M. Nevins, Jr., wrote in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers that “love dies while the lovers go on living, and [he] excels at showing the corrosion of a relationship between two people,” plus the theme of imposture recurs in I Married a Dead Man (1948), also filmed in France as J’ai Éspousé une Ombre (I Married a Shadow, 1983), starring Nathalie Baye.

   “I read [the novel] when I was doing the adaptation of The Bride Wore Black,” Truffaut told Le Monde in 1969. “At that time, I actually read everything [he] wrote in order to steep myself in his work and to keep as close as possible to the novel, despite the unfaithfulness necessary in films. I like to know thoroughly any writer whose book I transpose to the screen [as he had with Goodis and Bradbury]…. My final screenplay was less an adaptation in the traditional sense than a choice of scenes. With this film, I was finally able to realize every director’s dream: to shoot in chronological order a chronological story that represents an itinerary…. [The] shooting began on Réunion Island, continued in Nice, Antibes, Aix-en-Provence, Lyons, to finish in the snow near Grenoble. The fact of respecting the chronology permitted me to ‘build’ the couple with precision….The Mermaid is above all else the tale of a degradation through love, of a passion.”

(*) Text and documents compiled by Dominique Rabourdin; translated from the French by Robert Erich Wolf (New York: Abrams, 1987).

      ___

Portions of this article originally appeared on Bradley on Film.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

CORNELL WOOLRICH – Black Alibi. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1942. Paperback reprints include: HandiBook #14, 194?; Jonathan Press, 194?; Collier, 1965; Ballantine, 1982.

THE LEOPARD MAN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1943. Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell. Based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich. Producer: Val Lewton. Director: Jacques Tourneur .

   So it was time to get back to the Classics, and in my book, that’s Cornell Woolrich. Black Alibi isn’t terribly well-structured — it consists mainly of a growingly repetitious series of rather lengthy vignettes of young girls going to meet untimely and violent ends at the hands of…. well, it’s a Mystery, isn’t it? — but it contains some of Woolrich’s richest prose, and that’s saying quite a lot.

   Alibi offers scene after scene of startling imagery, deft metaphor, and everything else that makes the words a pleasure to read, even when the book itself gets a bit tiresome.

   Black Alibi was filmed by the Val Lewton unit at RKO just a year after the book came out, and Woolrich never found an auteur more attuned to his peculiar sensibilities than Val Lewton. Lewton made “B” movies and Woolrich wrote pulp, but both men were compulsive poets, and The Leopard Man is one of the more meticulous Woolrich-to-film adaptations: bits of dialogue, trifling incidents, and minor characters from the book all show up on the screen under Lewton’s careful supervision and the classy direction of Jacques Tourneur, which seems to capture even the metaphors from Woolrich’s novel.

   Given the faithfulness of this film, I’ve sometimes wondered about the exact contributions of the screenwriters, Ardel Wray and Edward Dein. It takes a certain amount of talent not to mess  up a good story when putting it across the screen, so I can understand Wray’s contribution: she worked on a couple other Lewton films and a better-than average series entry, The Falcon and the Coeds. But I wonder what “additional dialogue” may have been contributed by Edward Dein, a writer whose dubious credits include Jungle Woman, Calypso Joe, and Shack Out on  101. Just one of those unexplained mysteries of The Cinemah, I guess.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #37, March 2005.

   

CORNELL WOOLRICH. “Dipped in Blood.” Novelette. First published in Detective Story Magazine, April 1945. Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1964, as “Adventures of a Fountain Pen.” Collected in The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich (Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1965) also as “Adventures of a Fountain Pen.” Film: US title, Oh, Bomb! (Japan, 1964, directed by Kihachi Okamoto).

   There is a small but significant subgenre of both fiction and the movies in which the story follows an object of some importance is followed through its lifetime as it’s passed from hand to hand in small vignettes. It may be a gun, an automobile, almost anything, including a similar chain connecting people in all walks of lives. (If there’s a name to such a subgenre, I don’t know what it is. Maybe someone reading this can help.)

   The object in this richly ironic story by Woolrich is a fountain pen, manufactured to order as a means of assassination by one gangster meant for another. Things go awry, however, as they always do in a Woolrich story, with one final twist at the end, about which I will tell you only that it’s there but nothing more. There are things best to be discovered on one’s own.

   I don’t believe this is one of Woolrich’s better known stories, but what it has is both an ending worth waiting for and people in it who are described to perfection in just a few words or lines. This is why, when back in the 1970s when I first started to seriously read mysteries, if I was asked who my favorite mystery writer was, it was always a tossup between Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, or Cornell Woolrich, in alphabetical order. That still holds true today.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

CORNELL WOOLRICH “I Wouldn’t be in Your Shoes.” Novelette. First published in Detective Fiction Weekly, 12 March 1938. Collected in I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (Lippincott, hardcover, 1943), as by William Irish. Reprinted many times.

I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES. Monogram, 1948. Don Castle, Elyse Knox, Regis Toomey, and Robert Lowell. Screenplay by Steve Fisher. Produced by Walter Mirisch. Directed by William Nigh.

   At his worst, Woolrich could be wordy, verbose, prolix, repetitive, redundant, tiring and tedious. He could take a metaphor, strap it to the rack, and stretch it till the reader screamed for mercy. But at his best, he could wring poetry out of plot twists and make the pages sing with strange, melancholy music.

   This is Woolrich at his best.

   Tom Quinn starts out on a hot August night as a working stiff, married, and living on the ragged edge of poverty. By the story’s end, it will be Christmas, and he’ll sit on Death Row, framed by circumstances that could only occur in Woolrich’s dark Universe. It begins with him throwing his shoes out the window at noisy cats, builds as the shoes disappear and are mysteriously returned, then twists when he finds money on the street — money taken in a robbery-and-murder committed by someone wearing his shoes. Even his wife begins to doubt his innocence.

   Whereupon Woolrich picks up a familiar theme: The Cop who pinched him begins to doubt his guilt and sets out to find the real killer, a feat achieved with fast-moving prose and a bit of genuine pathos. So Tom is free again. But fate and Woolrich have one last surprise for him….

   In 1948, a producer named Walter Mirisch at Monogram foresaw the end of B-Movies as second-features and began the lengthy and sporadic process of transforming the runty little studio into the less-runty Allied Artists. Mirisch went on to things like West Side Story, Allied Artists gave us Cabaret, but in the meantime, there were still a lot of B’s to churn out, and I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes was one of them.

   The thing is, Shoes shows some of the extra care and attention of a producer and studio aiming just a little bit higher. Don Castle and Elyse Knox take the leads as married dancers whose careers have stalled out — not unlike the careers of Castle and Knox themselves — and when he finds the money, they react believably. Screenwriter Steve Fisher wisely keeps in as many of the characters and as much of the Woolrich dialogue as the budget will allow, and he even rings in a familiar twist of his own to skew things a bit more.

   What impressed me most about this, though, was the acting. Everyone involved, down to Second Detective, sounds convincing. And Robert Lowell (who he?) makes a lasting impression as the unlucky guy ultimately tracked down by gumshoe Regis Toomey.

   Don’t get me wrong. This is still a B-Movie programmer, with most of the faults attendant on that art form. But it’s interesting and entertaining to see everyone giving it so much.

   

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

   

   Let’s begin with the unfinished business from last month, in other words with the final four uncollected Cornell Woolrich stories from 1936. During that year the steadiest publisher of his tales was Detective Fiction Weekly but the second steadiest was Argosy with six contributions in twelve months, three of them never reprinted in hardcover or paperback collections.

   “Gun for a Gringo” from the September 5 issue is the earliest of several Woolrich stories about various macho Americans in one or another banana republic. The local color obviously stems from his memories of growing up in Mexico, and more likely than not the adventurous protagonists are based however loosely on his father Genaro Hopley-Woolrich. In “Gun for a Gringo” the narrator-hero is Steve Willoughby, a former Chicago gangster now residing in the land of Costamala and bodyguarding the country’s dictator, one- armed Presidente Savinas.

   A band of scruffy revolutionaries approach Steve and offer mucho dinero if he’ll assassinate Savinas during an official banquet. Steve goes along in order to catch the conspirators red-handed but is caught playing double agent and railroaded into the state insane asylum. After enough time in the madhouse for Woolrich to take full advantage of the place’s noir potential, Willoughby escapes and, in a blaze of action, tears back to the capital trying to save El Presidente’s life.

   The story works well on a simple cliffhanger level except that Woolrich gives us no reason to care whether or not the one set of corrupt politicos is ousted by the other. As usual in these Gallant Yank Abroad sagas, the racism is thicker than the heat and stronger than the plot.

   “Public Toothache Number One” from the November 7 issue is a semi-hardboiled comedy about a bill collector, obviously modeled on Jimmy Cagney, who makes a dunning call on a certain dentist just in time to be mistaken for that fellow by henchmen of the country’s most wanted criminal, who’s in hiding and suffering from a ferocious ulcerated tooth.    These gangsters are so stupid they let our hero fill their hideout with carbon monoxide fumes from an auto on the pretext that it’s a form of anesthesia. Enough said.

   Woolrich closed out his sales to Argosy that year with the kind of exotic adventure yarn with which the magazine was identified. “Holocaust” from the December 12 number takes place on the island of Santo Domingo during the French Revolution and deals with a bloody slave revolt.

   The female lead is 18-year old Aurelie Blanchard, daughter of a plantation owner, a girl who admires Voltaire and opposes the whipping of slaves and says of blacks, echoing Shylock’s words in The Merchant of Venice about Jews, “Do they not laugh as we do, weep as we do, bleed when cut, draw breath as we do?”

   In this story the answer is No. They are a savage tide, a horde of repulsive brutes in loincloths and Jacobin caps, screaming for victims to torture, shouting Robespierre slogans and war cries and voodoo chants all in the same breath, all except Aurelie’s faithful old nurse Marthe who saves her life.

   In the first and most vividly conjured-up sequences, Mon Repos is besieged. Aurelie’s mother kills herself, Aurelie herself is buried alive, and her fiancé Robert Lemaitre and the sadistic but cowardly plantation overseer Picard are taken prisoner and tortured until Aurelie turns the tables by rising from her open grave and masquerading as a zombie.

   She and the two Frenchmen boil the rebel leader in a vat of wax and escape into the jungle where more terror awaits them. It’s a long and ultra-lurid tale, worthy of appearance in Thrilling Mystery alongside “Baal’s Daughter” which we dissected last month, but nowhere near as vividly written as the noir classics Woolrich set on his home turf.

   One of the least popular of the Popular Publications pulps was Ace-High Detective, which lasted just seven issues, from August 1936 through February-March 1937. Its November 1936 number included “Evil Eye,” the earliest of several stories Woolrich was to write about the encounters of various plucky and mischievous young boys with death and terror, but this one unlike its successors is played almost entirely for comedy.

   Bronx plainclothesman Dan Kieran takes his 8-year-old son Danny to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a newly unearthed mummy with a priceless emerald eye. The orb is supposedly protected by an ancient curse that whoever tries to steal it will be blinded by the god Osiris. Danny slips away from his dad at closing time and is locked in the museum, as are two dimwits nicknamed Jojo and Donkey Mouth who plan to steal the eye during the night.

   Woolrich tells almost none of this story from the viewpoint of the boy as he would in later tales of this sort. Instead he concentrates first on making us laugh as we watch the thieves’ comic interplay (which may remind sufficiently aged readers of the scenes between Jackie Gleason and Art Carney on TV’s The Honeymoners) and the bungling efforts of Danny’s father and a helpful traffic cop to break into the museum and rescue the brat, and then on making us shudder as the gory curse is fulfilled. The setting shows that Woolrich intended “Evil Eye” to be included in his book of New York Landmarks stories- — a book that for unknown reasons never came into being.

***

   
   For the rest of this column let’s delve into a topic as far removed from Woolrich as possible, a trio of traditional detective novels from the Golden Age of that noble genre in England between World Wars. The authors I usually discuss when I’m on that subject are John Rhode and Christopher Bush, whom I’ve been reading intermittently since my teens. I don’t believe I’ve ever written a word about this month’s author. Isn’t it about time I did?

   Cyril Hare was the writing byline of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, who was born in the county of Surrey on 4 September 1900 and, in the interstices of a legal career, produced nine highly regarded novels and more than forty short stories. His earliest novel, Tenant for Death  (1937), written while he was still practicing law and before he migrated to the judicial side of the system, introduced Scotland Yard’s Inspector Mallett, a tall stout man with a taste for sumptuous lunches, not as memorable a protagonist as, say, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse who debuted almost forty years later but far more vivid than the all but characterless sleuths who were commonplace in British detective fiction of the Golden Age.

   Lionel Ballantine, a crooked financier on the brink of exposure and arrest, is found strangled to death with a Venetian blind cord in a house in Kensington, recently rented by a paunchy full-bearded man calling himself Colin James who seems to have vanished. The murder took place shortly after the release from prison of a banker who had been innocently caught up in Ballantine’s crimes and had sworn revenge in open court after his conviction but was still behind bars when the mysterious Mr. James made his first appearance.

   The banker however is hardly the sole suspect. Mallett also has to consider Ballantine’s equally corrupt secretary (who today would probably have a title like Executive Administrative Assistant), the bigamous husband of Ballantine’s mistress, a dotty nobleman who served on the crooked company’s board of directors, and several more. The traditional clues are few and far between — notably the riddles of why Ballantine was found wearing a sloppily tied green bow tie with an elegant gray suit and what happened to the umbrella with which he was last seen — but Mallett connects the dots with rare ingenuity and Hare succeeds in keeping us puzzled while playing fair all the way.

   Barzun and Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime  (2nd ed. 1989) called this book “a very engaging debut,” distinguished by “sound yet uncommon philosophizing….” Readers who aren’t interested in legal issues or jargon may rest assured that Tenant for Death  is free of both.

***

   

   Except for a brief colloquy in Chapter 1 on whether fishing rights are a covenant running with the land or an easement — terms which for attorneys will evoke fond or bitter memories of their Property course as first-year law students — legalisms are also absent in Hare’s second book.

   I’m sure there are other detective novels in which anglers and angling are central to the plot but I can’t recall any in which the pursuit of fish figures so prominently as in Death Is No Sportsman (1938). An elaborate map of a three-mile stretch of the river Didder and its surroundings, which most readers will have to consult again and again as various characters traipse through the area, portrays footpaths, a ford, a cart track, a bridge across the river, and assorted copses and trout pools, with stately Didford Manor at the map’s northern edge and the village of Didford Magna (which is dwarfed by its companion village Didford Parva) at its southern end.

   Each summer weekend the village’s only pub is taken over by four Londoners, the members of a fishing syndicate which owns the exclusive right to cast reels along this stretch of the river. All four have reasons to despise Sir Peter Packer, the wealthy owner of Didford Manor, who late one hot Saturday afternoon in June is found on a tiny piece of solid ground known as the Tump with a bullet through his eye that took most of his brains with it when it exited. Suspects besides the four fishermen include the young wife of the syndicate’s senior member, the even younger wife of odious Sir Peter, a young man from the village whose fiancée Sir Peter had (as we used to say) knocked up, and — perhaps — the rector’s unspeakable wife and the local doctor.

   Almost halfway through the novel Scotland Yard in the person of Inspector Mallett is called into the case, which is labyrinthine to the max and brim-full of fishing lore. Dare I venture to suggest that most if not all of the dramatis personae must be Anglicans?

   Whether Hare plays completely fair with the reader is uncertain. At the denouement Mallett offers several reconstructions of what happened, each positing a different killer, but it’s all a charade to pressure the real murderer into a confession without which, as Mallett freely admits to his local colleagues, there’s no real evidence against the culprit.

   The authors of A Catalogue of Crime couldn’t agree on a    verdict, with Wendell Hertig Taylor calling it the second best of the nine Hare novels while Jacques Barzun disliked it “because of the long windup and fumbling detection.” One can see his point: without real evidence how could Mallett reasonably identify the guilty party? But I remain uncertain about my own verdict. Who can decide when doctors disagree?

***

   
   In Hare’s third book, the last he completed before the outbreak of World War II, Mallett appears only in the early and final chapters, but for my money it’s the finest detective novel of the trio. Suicide Exceptted (1939) opens on the last evening of the Inspector’s holiday, which he’s spending in a stately Georgian house turned mediocre country hotel, 42 miles from London.

   That evening in the hotel lounge, after an indigestible meal, Mallett is approached by a fellow guest, a rather eccentric old bloke named Leonard Dickinson, who hints that he may take his own life before morning. As any whodunit devotee might have guessed, he’s found dead in his bed by the maid bringing him his breakfast. The physical evidence plus Mallett’s statement convinces the coroner’s jury that Dickinson deliberately took a fatal overdose of a sleeping potion called Medinal (which I gather Hare invented out of whole cloth), and a verdict of suicide is reached.

   Shortly thereafter it develops that less than a year before his death the old man had put most of his money into a life insurance policy on himself — a policy which offers a huge payout but becomes null and void if he should kill himself within a year of its inception. Faced with the prospect of destitution, Dickinson’s son Stephen and his daughter Mary, assisted by Mary’s fiancé Martin Johnson, set out to prove to the insurance company that the old gentleman was murdered by one of his fellow guests at the country hotel.

   A rum assortment of guests indeed! An antiquarian parson and his wife, a young couple spending an illicit night, a mystery man who stayed confined to his room, a Lincolnshire dowager and her mentally challenged son, a gas company executive rendezvousing with a blackmailer, and of course Mallett himself and the decedent.

   Most of the novel follows various combinations of the three amateur detectives, whose sleuthing soon establishes that an incredible number of the hotel’s guests that night had motives for killing the old man. Mallett comes back into the picture and exposes the murderer, whose identity is a stunning surprise (at least to me), although later I discovered that Hare had planted all sorts of subtle pointers to the truth which aren’t apparent except on a second reading.

   For some reason Barzun and Taylor weren’t impressed by this novel, calling it “one-third good, two-thirds fumbling.” Long after the end of the war, when it was first published in the U.S., Anthony Boucher in the New York Times Book Review (7 November 1954) found it “more conventional and less witty” than Hare’s postwar novels but “adroit in its manipulation of [the] three amateur detectives” and “distinguished by a plot-twist” worthy of Agatha Christie. With the last point I agree completely.

***

   
   Hare spent the WWII years first as a judge’s marshal (somebody who sits with and performs various chores for a judicial officer), then with the Department of Public Prosecutions and finally with the Ministry of Economic Warfare. Apparently he was kept quite busy, so much so that during the war he published only one novel, Tragedy at Law  (1942), which many consider his masterpiece.

   With the defeat of Hitler he resumed writing a book every few years. In 1950 he was appointed a County Court judge for his native Surrey, a position he held until he died, at the all too early age of 57, on 25 August 1958. Whether he chose the title himself or his publisher came up with it when he was no longer with us, it’s equally fitting that his last novel is called Untimely Death.

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

   

   A few weeks ago I received an email from bookseller Lynn Munroe, asking me a question about the uncollected short stories of Cornell Woolrich. The result was that I got interested in how many uncollected stories there were and how many might be worth collecting. It will take more than one column to explore these questions but let’s start here.

***

   For the first two years in which Woolrich published crime-suspense stories, the number of uncollected tales is zero. Why? Because I brought together all three of the tales that first came out in 1934 and all ten of those that appeared in ‘35 in the collection DARKNESS AT DAWN (1985). Woolrich’s output grew exponentially in 1936: a total of 26 crime stories, earning him a total of $4,300, which was a respectable annual salary back then.

   Some of them—for example “The Night Reveals” (Story, April 1936), “Johnny on the Spot” (Detective Fiction Weekly, May 2, 1936), “The Night I Died” (from the same magazine’s August 8 issue) and “You Pays Your Nickel” (Argosy, August 22, 1936), which is usually reprinted as “Subway”—rank among his most powerful short stories. Others from that year—including, I fear, most of the dozen that remain uncollected—are pretty terrible.

   The year kicked off with one of the worst tales he ever perpetrated; perhaps the worst of his career. The mild success of the Popular Publications pulp chain with weird-menace magazines like Dime Mystery inspired rival entrepreneur Ned Pines of Thrilling Publications to launch a competing monthly called Thrilling Mystery, which debuted in October 1935 under editorial director Leo Margulies (1900-1975).

   During its 50 issues the magazine offered a parade of strange cults, diabolic rituals, gruesome murders, sadistic villains, slavering beasts and (of course) beautiful young women shivering in peril. Woolrich dipped his toes into these weird waters just once. Like the 1935 classic “Dark Melody of Madness” (better known as “Papa Benjamin”) and the 1937 classic “Graves for the Living,” “Baal’s Daughter” (Thrilling Mystery, January 1936) is about hapless innocents falling into the clutches of repulsive religions.

   But this version of the story is so sloppily and luridly written, so overloaded with stupid inconsistencies and grotesque twaddle, that to claw one’s way through its pages is an act of masochism. Narrator Bob Collins visits his psychiatrist friend Dr. Dessaw to ask for help in freeing his fiancée Gloria’s dotty aunt from a Westchester cult.

   As Woolrich Coincidence would have it, the head of the cult is Dessaw, who drugs Bob and spirits him to the religion’s headquarters mansion on the banks of the Hudson, where in rapid order our hero is stripped to his shorts, flogged by a tongueless black giant, menaced by a man-eating panther, tortured with boiling oil injected into his veins, forced to kneel before a woman calling herself the reincarnated goddess Ishtar, forced to help lure Gloria to the mansion for ritual sex with with the god Baal who of course is Dr. Dessaw, and so on and on long past our endurance.

   The narrative throbs with clunkers like “The fiend on the throne stood up and turned to me as I quivered there, ashen-faced” and “I was prone there, at the mercy of the he-devil and the she-devil….” How desperate must Woolrich have been to have cranked out this garbage?

***

   Of the dozen uncollected Woolrich stories from 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly was the original home of seven, including two that might well deserve collection. Not, though, the first pair we consider here. “Blood in Your Eye” from the March 21 issue is an insanely bad cop story set in an anonymous city on which Woolrich sticks the label Los Angeles.

   Mitchell, a rambunctious young homicide dick, is the only one who sees the truth when a murder victim is found in a rooming house with the image of his killer apparently imprinted on his eyes. Instead of sharing his insight, Mitchell throws down his badge in disgust at his colleagues’ willingness to believe medieval superstition and goes out to solve the crime lone-wolf style.

   The hunt takes him to two venues that Woolrich was to use over and over, a manicurist’s booth and a dance hall. For this one you have to accept that neither a roomful of cops nor the medical examiner can tell the difference between genuine and glass eyes, but the climax is violent and the central gimmick Guignol-gruesome.

   Just two weeks later, in the magazine’s April 4 issue, came “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” which Woolrich submitted as “Death in Three-Quarter Time.” In a lifetime of reading whodunits I’ve never come across an alibi gimmick as wacko as this one. Homicide cop Dennis Small happens to be in the Curfew Club on the night when the specialty dancer Emilio is shot to death in his dressing room just a few minutes after he and his partner Lolita have finished performing a bizarre new number.

   All the evidence points to chorus line dancer Mary Jackson, for whom Emilio was about to dump Lolita. This tale too is never likely to be reprinted or collected so I might as well give away the solution: Lolita herself killed Emilio before the dance, then rigged herself in a crazy costume and went out into the spotlight and convinced a clubful of people that she was both herself and her partner! The story becomes interesting only in the final scenes when Woolrich makes us empathize with her for two crucial noir reasons: she had lost her love and she’s about to die.

   For the next uncollected story we jump into the summer months. “Nine Lives” from the June 20 number is set in the waterfront district around New York’s South Street. Demon newshawk Wheeler stumbles onto the story of an old bum who’s been treated by three sinister strangers to booze, food, clothes, and to an insurance policy on his life. The best scene finds Wheeler bound, gagged and left for dead at the bottom of an old-fashioned bathtub filling with water, but even in this serial-like incident there’s nothing terribly urgent.

   Later that summer, in the August 15 issue, came “Murder on My Mind,” the earliest appearance in Woolrich and perhaps the earliest in crime fiction of a plotline which was a staple of film noir classics like SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946, directed by Joseph H. Lewis) but ultimately goes back to the Greek tragedy OEDIPUS TYRANNUS.

   Marquis, the detective narrator, is assigned with his partner Beecher to the brutal murder of a harmless cigar-store clerk, but as the investigation goes forward, countless tiny details push Marquis and the reader closer and closer to becoming convinced that the murderer is Marquis himself.

   This tale has never been reprinted or collected as it first appeared but a heavily revised and less crudely written version was included as “Morning After Murder” in the paperback collection BLUEBEARD’S SEVENTH WIFE (Popular Library pb #473, 1952, as by William Irish).

   The trademark Woolrich combination of breathless urgency and plot flubs permeates the long story which he submitted as “Right in the Middle of New York,” but it’s so packed with action and tension that one barely notices that nothing in it makes sense, not even the published title, since no murder is committed at all in “Murder in the Middle of New York” from the September 26 issue.

   Tony Shugrue, a relatively honest protégé of mobster Chuck Morgan, is set up by his mentor with phony references and gets hired by wealthy Cole Harrison as chauffeur for his beautiful and spoiled daughter Evelyn. Unaware that he’s married, Evelyn makes several passes at her driver, and for a while we’re reminded of the romance between another flighty heiress and her chauffeur in Woolrich’s 1927 pre-crime novel CHILDREN OF THE RITZ.

   Finally Tony realizes that Morgan plans to kidnap Evelyn, hold her for ransom, kill her and leave him to take the fall. From this point on the story morphs into a wild roller-coaster ride crammed with thrills, anguish and suspense as Tony fights to save himself and his wife and Evelyn from the gang. Some of the dialogue creaks—“‘Rats!” he hissed viciously through his teeth. ‘Lower than rats, even!’”—and the crucial scene requires Tony literally not to recognize his wife at close quarters.

   But the irresistible Woolrich urgency sweeps away all nitpicking into the ash heap and suggests that this one of the uncollected dozen may deserve being revived.

   I feel the same way about “Afternoon of a Phony” from the November 14 issue—so much so that it was reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (June 2012) at my recommendation and with a new introduction by me.

   The story is something of a departure for Woolrich, a charming, clever and bizarre whodunit where the detective role is played by a con man. Clip Rogers steps off the train at the Jersey seaside resort of Wildmore and is instantly mistaken by the brainless local cops for Griswold, the supersleuth from Trenton, whom they’d sent for to help solve the bludgeon murder of a woman in one of the town’s vacation hotels.

   What complicates the case beyond the local yokels’ power to unravel is that the woman’s eight-year-old son, who witnessed the crime in the middle of the night but is too young to understand its meaning, has identified as the murderer a man with a perfect alibi. Rogers exposes the real killer rather neatly, but the story becomes distinctively a Woolrich tale only afterward when, as in “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” a criminal motivated by lost love takes center stage and, for a page or two, becomes a deeply sympathetic character. His comment that the impostor Rogers is more humane than any cop he’d ever met is evidence that when Woolrich drew genuine cops as brutal thugs he wasn’t doing it inadvertently.

   His final 1936 appearance in Detective Fiction Weekly was one of his weakest, but for anyone with a little knowledge of law, it’s a coffee-out-the-nose classic. The year’s last issue, dated December 26, included “The Two Deaths of Barney Slabaugh,” in which Woolrich dusted off his favorite James M. Cain plot twist, backdated it forty years, and threw in so much of the tinny insult humor and gangster stereotypes from the current James Cagney movies that the illusion we’re in the New York of the 1890s isn’t sustained for a microsecond.

   Manhattan racket boss Emerald Eddie Danberry is persuaded by his shyster lawyer Horace Lipscomb that the proper way to kill rival mobster Barney Slabaugh is to take the man prisoner, frame himself for Barney’s murder beforehand, and get himself acquitted in court. Then, Lipscomb explains—foreshadowing an infamous recent comment by Donald Trump?—even if Danberry were to murder him in full view of a thousand people he could never be prosecuted for it.

   Danberry asks for the name of this marvelous rule of law. Lipscomb replies: Why, it’s the Statute of Limitations! (Cue the coffee.) Fighting DA Barry McCoy, one of the city’s few uncorrupt officials, tries to snooker the plot, and fate works another Cain trick to help him out in this super-pulpy tale, which is full of police brutality, casual racism and enough Woolrich-style wisecracks to sink an aircraft carrier.

***

   So much for eight out of the dozen, and quite enough for one column. I’ll finish the tabulation next month. With perhaps a bonus thrown in to boot.

CORNELL WOOLRICH “Crime on St. Catherine Street.” Novelette. First published in Argosy 25 January 1936; reprinted as “All It Takes Is Brains” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1966. Woolrich’s original title: “Murder on St. Catherine Street.”

   Woolrich was the kind of writer that could start with the screwiest kind of idea, get his protagonist to go along with it, and make the reader swallow it down whole, enjoying the whole rest of the story without hesitation and with no holds barred.

   Case in point. On a drunken whim, a man named Hewitt, one of Manhattan’s idle rich, agrees to a wager that he can go to a strange town — Montreal, say — with only six bits in his pocket, and manage to survive for a whole week without knowing a single soul. Which he manages to do, of course, and in fact he comes out ahead by several thousand dollars, not including the money he wins on the bet.

   It all begins with him picking up a girl as he starts the first night of his stay, or rather, as it turns out, she thinks she’s picking him up. But when she quarrels with his boy friend and accomplice in crime, a man known only as Louie, she ends up dead and Hewitt ends up on run from the law, with only a salt shaker in his pocket that he can use to pretend he has a gun.

   Coincidences always played large roles in any story that Cornell Woolrich wrote, and this one is no exception. But this is no tale of gloom and doom. In spite of all the odds against him, Hewitt maintains an upbeat attitude throughout, making this a lot of fun to read.

THOUGHTS ON CORNELL WOOLRICH
by Dan Stumpf


   Just finished re-reading Mike Nevins’ Woolrich bio: First You Dream, Then You Die, an excellent work and one I recommend highly.

   It was Nevins who reminded me, almost 50 years ago, how fine a writer Woolrich was. I had read and been very impressed by Rendezvous in Black, back in the 60s, but Nevin’s well-edited collection of Woolrich short stories, Nightwebs, got me seriously into collecting him, and turned me on to a lot of very fine tales.

   There’s one point, though, where I disagree with Nevins seriously, and I’m afraid it’s a point that he insists on over and over:

   The Police in Woolrich books are always out there. Everywhere. Vaguely menacing, impossibly vigilant, and unconscionably brutal. They do things in Woolrich stories that would make LAPD look like Quakers. Naturally, Attorney Nevins is appalled by all these shenanigans, and he says so. But he also implies that Woolrich himself condemns such tactics, and that he means for his readers to be horrified by them as well.

   But unfortunately for Woolrich’s reputation with those of a progressive nature, I have never seen any sign in any of his books that he regarded the Cops as anything Other than a Fact of Life, and their fantastically hard-nosed tactics as other than necessary. This, by the way, is not just a problem for Nevins; It’s a question that invariably confronts any fan of Woolrich — How can such a sensitive, romantic stylist condone such brutality and facism?

   The answer, I think, is in Woolrich himself. Woolrich was Homosexual, but he could hardly be called Gay; By all accounts he despised himself for his attraction to men, and there are several passages in his books where he seems to positively lavish self-hatred on characters who are in any way less than manly.

   It’s worth remembering, then, that homosexual conduct was against the law in Woolrich’s day, and that the Police were notoriously rough on Gays. There was a phrase still current in my childhood, “Smear the Queer,” whose frightening implications were not apparent to me until much later, but it pretty much describes the treatment a Gay could expect in those days at the hands of the Law.

   Think, then, of that tormented mind when Woolrich knew that at any time, he might be caught by the slimiest of dodges and subjected to legal torture — and probably thought he deserved it — writing of crime and necessarily of Police.

   For an apt contrast, look at the obsessive detective Ed Cornell in Steve Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming. Visually based on Woolrich himself, the bent cop does all the things a Woolrich cop might do, and comes off as purely evil. But in the view of Woolrich himself, nothing the Police did was as corrosive to Society as evil the Evil they were trying (literally) to stamp out, and hence the most outrageous conduct on the part of Cops throughout his canon gets casually shrugged off, if not defended.

   This aside, First You Dream, Then You Die, is a model of what a Literary Biography should be: Informative, Analytical and compulsively readable. Go out and buy a copy. And tell ’em Stumpf sent ya.