Delve Into Deception

The city as a character. Happenstance as motive. A mystery within a mystery. These are the thoughts foremost in my mind after recently finishing three novels from one of the original masters of noir–the great Cornell Woolrich. While his reputation has not been as storied as Raymond Chandler and other crime and mystery writers of the 30’s and 40’s, his output and success rate often surpassed his contemporaries. More Woolrich books and stories were turned into movies and teleplays than writers more easily remembered today. Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film, Rear Window, was based on a Woolrich story. Chances are, if you watch old movies on TV, you’ve seen a number of Woolrich works without knowing so, unless you’re as glued to the credits as you are to the films.

In Deadline At Dawn, a couple thrown together by circumstance, must solve a murder one of them is suspected of before the sun rises so they can catch a bus that will take them out of the city that has seemed to plot their downfall. The city itself becomes the all-seeing, all-schemeing, omnipotent force that continually conspires to thwart their efforts and keep them wrapped in its tentacles. Woolrich’s evocation of the city as the ultimate evil is as entertaining, if not more so, than the plot of this pot boiler as the hours and minutes until sunrise tick away.

The hyperbolically titled I Married A Dead Man, has nothing to do with the gore laden zombie books and films of today. The dead man in question does not return from the grave. Woolrich is too skilled at plotting to rely on such a haggard cliche. Rather, he has the heroine of the story posing as the dead man’s wife in order to raise her newborn child with some measure of security under the roof of the deceased’s loving (and wealthy) parents. Parents who never met their son’s fiancee and bride prior to their wedding. The actual couple died in a tragic accident enabling the deception. The suspense comes in living through the heroine’s fear and terror at being discovered. Particularly when the real father of her child comes back into the picture with blackmail on his mind.

Phantom Lady is an exercise that borrows a bit from both of the novels above, without copying either. Rather than a clock counting down the hours until sunrise, here the days, weeks, and months tick away leading to a final sunset–the execution of an innocent man convicted of murder. As each day brings us one day closer to an appointment with the electric chair, Woolrich spins a tale rich in detail and ingeniously plotted. The reader is fairly sure he knows where this story is heading, but not how it will get there. When it arrives at what appears to be the conclusion, the reader is not only surprised, but astounded that he missed the clues the author planted along the way to give him the real identity of the murderer.

Some have faulted Woolrich for an over-reliance on coincidence as plot device. But this reviewer sees that merely as literary nit-picking. The willing suspension of disbelief is essential to virtually all mystery or cloak and dagger tales. Accepting it in Woolrich’s writing takes nothing away from the enjoyment of being caught up in the wicked webs he weaves to engulf both his characters and his readers in deliciously torturous situations.

Cornell Woolrich’s life was often as macabre as some of his stories. Why did his marriage end mere weeks after it began? What was the mother like that he lived with until her death? Why did he keep wearing a shoe too small for his foot that eventually gave him gangrene and caused him to lose his leg? Why did the creator of so many successful novels and stories wind up dying as a virtual recluse, nearly penniless and alone? ┬áTo find the answers you can look into his life in the search engines or the biographies. To find out why he is regarded as one of the most renowned writers of crime and noir, you need only read one of his novels. The Fiction Fortune Hunter hopes you do.

One Response to “Delve Into Deception”

  1. I found so many innesertitg stuff in your blog especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! keep up the good work.

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