07 October 2008

Woolrich’s short shorts

Cornell Woolrich was very comfortable with the novella form, as such works as “Speak to Me of Death,” “I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes,” and “Jane Brown’s Body” show (and I really must write something about the last one, a neglected piece of supernatural fiction, in a future post). Novellas were highly remunerative for a payment-by-the-word pulp writer.

But often shorter is easier to sell, especially if a magazine editor needs to plug up a word-count hole in the upcoming issue. Woolrich penned a couple of interesting short-shorts coming in at less than 3,000 words. Two in particular always come to my mind: “Waltz,” a narrative experiment, and “Somebody on the Phone,” a familiar Woolrich theme telescoped in intensity.

Most of the plot of “Waltz” is conveyed through a monologue from a debutante at a party waltzing in the arms of Wes, a man she plans to elope with that night. Wes’s side of the conversation remains hidden behind ellipses, giving the effect of listening to one side of a telephone conversation. Through this device, Woolrich paints the action: a police detective is at the party looking for a serial murderer. (“Isn’t it thrilling? Somebody here at this party is a congenital murderer! Somebody right out on this floor dancing like we are this very minute! I wouldn’t want to be in his partner’s shoes….”) The expository spiel from the girl makes its clear who we should think the killer is, and wonder why she is so naïve as not to realize it. But wait… this might not be as simple as we think it is.

Honestly, this story is a bit of a head-scratcher for me. Is it a weak, obvious work with a weird ending, or a great piece of misdirection? Maybe it’s both; Woolrich is the sort of writer who can handle both opinions at once.

“Somebody on the Phone” has a poor women tormented by a caller who rings five times, and then hangs up. Her brother, a tough guy without any sense of restraint, thinks a gangster she used to work for is shaking her down, and goes out to set things ‘aright. Poor dope doesn’t realize he’s in a Woolrich tale, and has irony and a cruel universe breathing down his back. The brevity of this work makes the final punch a powerful one. Weird, unexplained, but effective.