31 March 2008

Book Review: Night & Fear

The most recent collection of stories by Cornell Woolrich was released in 2004 from Carroll & Graf: Night & Fear. Woolrich’s biographer and estate consultant Francis M. Nevins edited the collection and wrote the introduction and blurbs for each story. Nevins’s purpose seems to have been to select Woolrich stories that had not appeared in print for many years, and he dug up some obscure gems. The collection slants heavily toward tales of what Nevins calls “noir cops,” the near-psychotic tools of cruel justice that pop up throughout Woolrich’s writing. I might say they are over-represented here, but how can I argue with classics like “Detective William Brown” and “Three Kills for One”? Even “The Fatal Footlights,” which I read years ago in an anthology, completely caught me by surprise when I read it this time—don’t cross a cop’s path in Woolrich-land, believe me! You’ll end up crammed into a locked trunk, slowly suffocating to death, or tortured in indescribable ways with a ballpoint pen.

Here is a run-down on the fourteen stories in Night & Fear, presented in the chronological order in which Nevins slots them:

Cigarette (1936)
I’ve already written a long review of this, one of Woolrich’s best early tales. I’d like to think this is an anti-smoking diatribe, but since Woolrich was a life-long smoker himself, I kinda doubt it.

Double Feature (1936)
The first cop adventure of the anthology, although it isn’t a sadist-cop story but a single-location white-knuckler. Detective Merrill, while at the picture show with his girl, discovers a wanted fugitive sitting a few seats away. Merrill tries to bring in the dragnet, but the criminal snatches his girl and holds her hostage so he can slip out of the theater. I love old movie palaces as much as Woolrich evidently did, so the décor of this suspenser is an added bonus.

The Heavy Sugar (1937)
A perfect example of a bleak joke in Woolrich’s world: a down-trodden man on his last dime finds a fortune in a diamond necklace in the bottom of a restaurant’s sugar bowl—then has to run for his life from the criminals who stole it in the first place. Good panicky desperation and Woolrich’s sharp eye for impoverished living make this one memorable.

Blue Is for Bravery (1937)
A hero-cop goes crazy trying to save his wife from the gangsters who kidnapped her in order to force his silence after he observes one of them leaving the scene of a murder. Beat Cop Danny O’Dare tortures suspects and beats up other police officers, but for once Woolrich wants us to root for the nut-cop and we do. However, this is the weakest story in the collection.

You Bet Your Life (1937)
This story reads like a twisted morality fable. Three men enter into a bet that they can make two total strangers try to kill each other within a week. The motivation is two halves of a thousand-dollar bill. This is definitely an odd-ball work, and the cold rationality involved in the deadly game may repel some readers, but it’s one of the collection nicest surprises.

Death in the Yoshiwara (1938)
But here is the collection’s best surprise: a rare gem that’s only been reprinted once (in an obscure men’s magazine in the ‘50s). The action-packed race through Tokyo’s seedy district to save an American woman from being framed for her fiancé’s murder doesn’t have too much depth, but it’s a wild ride and as “fun” as Woolrich stories ever get.

Endicott’s Girl (1938)
Woolrich once called this his favorite of his stories. It’s one of mine as well because of the genuine emotional involved in its misguided love. Noir doesn’t often explore the father-daughter relationship, so this tale of a police detective willing to do anything to keep his daughter’s name out of a murder investigation has a unique poignancy. Watching a man slowly convince himself to his utter horror that his beloved daughter is a murderess makes engrossing reading.

Detective William Brown (1938)
A quintessential “psycho-cop” story. It doesn’t contain much in the way of suspense sequences, and instead works as a character study presented through the eyes of the slow n’ sturdy good cop observing the meteoric rise of the title character through corruption. Woolrich’s writing is stellar and controlled here, as if he knew he was tackling a key piece of work.

The Case of the Killer-Diller (1939)
Here’s the silliest piece in the collection, about a murderer within a swing band who goes insane when he hears Ravel’s “Bolero.” I’m not making this up. It works for me, however, because of its view of swing musicians of the day, which seems obsessively realistic—as opposed to everything else in the story.

Through a Dead Man’s Eye (1939)
Woolrich had a knack for writing from the point of view of children placed in jeopardy. A twelve-year-old kid tries to help his detective father crack a case by tracking down a glass eye he won in a swap. “Kid plays detective” sounds cute, but Woolrich doesn’t play nice with the kiddies either, and the ending is one of the most nail-biting sections in the collection.

The Fatal Footlights (1941)
A dead gold-painted girl… and Goldfinger is nowhere to be found! This murder thriller set against the backdrop of a burlesque theater is plenty seedy, but watching the psycho-cop play games with the two suspects to see which one will try to kill the other first is an even nastier experience. This is the story most likely to blindside you.

Three Kills for One (1942)
One of the oddest pieces Woolrich ever wrote, with a strange structure and a divided reaction that will leave most readers bewildered. It definitely cries for multiple readings. It’s another “psycho-cop” tale, although it doesn’t seem to be at first, and the obsession with justice reaches a level of purest insanity. The machinery of the law is heartless and inescapable here.

The Death Rose (1943)
The most obscure piece in the collection, having previously appeared only in a three-issue pulp magazine, Baffling Detective Stories. A young debutante tries to help her police detective boyfriend find a killer by posing as bait. The coincidences are outrageous, but I can’t argue with the doozy of a climax that Alfred Hitchcock would’ve loved to try. Kids, don’t climb on the roof!

New York Blues (1970)
The prize story in Night & Fear is also Woolrich’s final work sold in his lifetime. It’s abstract and filled with poetic descriptions of loneliness and the coldness of fate. This is one work you won’t easily forget, and as a career capper it’s appropriate.