29 February 2008

Book Review: Manhattan Love Song

Manhattan Love Song (1932)
By Cornell Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich books fluctuate in print without much rhyme or reason. You have to stay alert on the publishing front and do regular Internet searches to catch the new items as they appear. The sudden re-emergence of Night Has a Thousand Eyes caught me off-guard; I didn’t expect this bleak work to be next on any publisher’s list of Woolrich novels ready for resurrection. Black Angel or Deadline and Dawn seemed much more probable. Publishers have also ignored one of my favorites, Black Alibi, for far too long, and I think the current public would devour this serial killer tale with gory relish. And yet, beyond expectations, the only fitfully popular Night Has a Thousand Eyes is back on bookshelves. No complaints—it’s a great book and quintessential Woolrich doom n’ gloom—but it’s an unusual twist in the tale.

As a capper, the other Woolrich novel now in print is one of his earliest, 1932’s Manhattan Love Song. For any book from the author’s pre-pulp days that started in 1934 with the publication of “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair” to get back into print is a minor miracle. Most of these works, which aren’t crime novels and aimed toward the literary crowd of the 1920s, haven’t been available for decades. Woolrich’s first novel, Cover Charge, probably has been out-of-print since the 1930s. Ramble House, a print-on-demand publisher, has made available Woolrich’s semi-autobiographical 1930 work A Young Man’s Heart, which most likely is its first appearance since…well, 1930. As for Times Square, Children of the Ritz, and The Time of Her Life, unless Ramble House decides to add these to their catalog, don’t count on ever seeing them again.

But Manhattan Love Song is back, and it’s a shrewd choice. It’s the only of the early works that might compete in the modern marketplace. Although not originally marketed as a crime novel, it most definitely is one, and the subtlety of the way the suspense element plays into the story is a very modern literary appraoch. It has been reprinted once before, as part of Otto Penzler’s hardcover mystery series, in 1980. My copy is from that printing. Woolrich’s biographer, Frank Nevins, has also defended and promoted the novel as the important transitional opus in the author’s career, where he moved from the disaffected jazz-age themes of his early phase and into the world of noir, crime, suspense, and despair. A two-year gap of inactivity separates Manhattan Love Song and Woolrich’s emergence into pulp fiction, which tends to obscure Manhattan Love Song’s connection to his prime novel-writing period of 1939–1948, but Nevins is dead-on in his assessment. This novel is Woolrich’s first great work, even if he didn’t know it at the time and went into a long depression before getting his writing legs back.

Because Manhattan Love Song made no impression on its first publication, it never has received the respect it deserves as a classic of the emerging roman noir of the time. It was contemporary with James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which were responsible for elevating the American crime novel into the literary mainstream. Manhattan Love Song is done in a similar style, with subdued criminal aspects, tortured first-person narrative, obsessive behavior, existential doom, and general hopelessness. It’s flawed the way Woolrich books are often flawed (the trial that concludes the book doesn’t make much sense, and Woolrich seems to have scant understanding of the legal system; Erle Stanley Gardner he ain’t), but nonetheless has astonishing impact and is filled with riveting scenes and perfect prose encapsulations of dark love to which anyone can relate.

Perhaps the title has always dragged the book down. Manhattan Love Song sounds like a Broadway musical destined to close after a month. In the early Depression the title must have been like a glaring red beacon yelling “RUN AWAY! JAZZ AGE TRIPE!” Today it sounds like a cheap, feel-good romance—the farthest thing possible from what it actually is. It should be titled Manhattan Hate Song, since characters letting their love turn into hate drives the story. The plot predicts Woolrich’s later novel Waltz into Darkness in the way it shows characters enslaved to each other in a mutually destructive relationship. You occasionally want to slug the protagonist for letting himself get duped into this ruinous “love,” but because his obsession is both so familiar and so fascinating, you hang on until the nasty end.

If you have interest in the development of the American crime novel, Manhattan Love Song is a dark gem of book, the equal of many other, better-known classics of the period.