22 February 2008

The Madness of Collecting Cornell Woolrich

Woolrich during his college years
Collecting the works of mystery-suspense pulp writer Cornell Woolrich is one of my hobbies. But it also is a way to madness. First, Woolrich goes in and out of print with irregular weirdness, and many classics haven’t seen print in decades. Second, his stories frequently fly around with more than one title. Third, his stories are popular items in general anthologies, so often getting some of his rarer works requires purchasing a whole anthology of other author's stories just to grab one of his. My extensive short story collection sprawls over a labyrinth of collections, and keeping track of what is where can be a tangle. Fourth, collecting Woolrich stories also means reading them, which will send anyone into a deep depression if not done in moderation.

Do not mistake me: I love Cornell Woolrich’s work. More than any American author’s. But it is so utterly bleak and cruel that sustained doses can turn acutely painful. His novels Rendezvous in Black and Night Has a Thousand Eyes should come with a Surgeon General’s warnings to keep away from sharp objects while reading them. (Both are currently in-print, by the way. I don’t know if I’ve just recommended them to you or not.) Minor Woolrich stories, like “The Case of the Maladroit Manicurist,” are aggravating for different reasons, mainly the author’s sloppy plotting and brain-bending coincidences are too noticeable when he wasn’t writing in an inspired mood. It’s easy to tell when Woolrich was just kicking something out to pay the rent on his Manhattan hotel room, and getting through these true potboilers can be tough for a completist like myself. Good Woolrich and Bad Woolrich are both frustrating, but for different reasons.

What I really should do is start the long-term project that for years I’ve promised myself I would one day undertake in earnest: writing a catalog of reviews for every one of the Woolrich stories that I own. I already have a Word file where I’ve listed all the stories in my collection, along with their alternate titles and original publication date and location. But to get a real grasp on this Sargasso Sea of noir, I need to go into greater detail on each work. This wouldn’t just be for my benefit; I might put the reviews on-line to fill in the serious gap in Woolrich criticism on the Internet. It’s a lengthy project that will take years, but I think my favorite American author deserves no less.

I recently got two new additions to my collection: “The Dilemma of the Dead Lady” (a.k.a. “Wardrobe Trunk”) and “Face Work” (a.k.a. “Angel Face”—I told you about those multiple titles!)