04 December 2008

Happy birthday Cornell—But I still wouldn't be in your shoes

Today is the birthday of Cornell Woolrich, my favorite American author. If were alive today, he would certainly be depressed about being another year older and closer to death. A happy guy, that Cornell. Strange that as readers we benefited from his deep-set angst.

How to celebrate Old Man Woolrich’s natavity? A review of one of his stories. One of his classics. One I had talked about before, but I went back and slashed out that post and present an expanded version for the B-Day festivities. And I should warn you, I am going to spoil the end to this one, but to properly talk about it, I have to. The story works whether you know the ending or not anyway.

“I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes” was first published in March 1938 in Detective Fiction Weekly, the magazine where Woolrich made his pulp debut in 1935 and his most consistent home for his fiction. The story later head-lined a popular anthology of his short stories published under the William Irish pseudonym.

The novella is one of the indispensable noir portraits of fate, where a mountain of circumstance and happenstance turns into a death trap. On a sweltering August night, Tom Quinn hurls his shoes out the window of his ramshackle tenement to silence some howling cats. He goes out to recover the shoes, but returns to tell his wife Annie he couldn’t locate them. A few days later the shoes appear on the Quinns’ doorstep without explanation. The couple forgets the incident. Not long after, Tom comes home with a wallet he found that contains two thousand dollars. They hesitate long enough to see if someone will claim the money, then start spending their windfall. And that’s when the police come through the door with the handcuffs. All of Tom Quinn’s apparently innocuous actions have created a snap-tight case against him in the murder of a neighborhood miser: a print left outside the dead man’s window matches Tom’s unique corrective shoes, the Quinns’ sudden influx of money, Tom checking the papers each night after the murder, a shoeshine boy noticing the mud on Tom’s shoes, etc. But when Tom sits on Death Row, ambitious detective White develops his own suspicions concerning the man’s innocence. The crusading detective tracks down the young man who may have been the actual murderer.

“I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes” lacks the breathless suspense of some of Woolrich’s other works, and that Tom and Annie both fail to remember the shoe-throwing incident when the cops build their case is another example of the author dancing too glibly around a plot-hole. It is easy to forget such things in the middle of Woolrich’s perfect evocation of poverty and helplessness. The dance of deadly circumstance, which Woolrich maps out step-by-step as the Quinns blindly create a case against themselves, makes for a powerful story.

What edges the story into classic status is the ending that flips the picture upside-down and leaves the reader staring at a black pit in the middle of events. Nice young boy Kosloff is now going to the electric chair for the killing, but in the final section Woolrich suggests through Annie’s doubts that Tom Quinn actually did commit the murder. The reader then realizes that the text has offered no proof of Tom Quinn’s innocence, or that the money he brought home came from a discarded wallet as he claimed. Is Kosloff the real victim of circumstances? Who killed the old miser? It seems that neither Tom or Kosloff did, but it’s too late for both: Kosloff goes to the chair, and Annie leaves Tom because she knows she can never trust him again. (“There are 364 days in the year; 182 of them I’ll believe you, 182 of them I won’t.”) The gods who load the dice and cast them—to paraphrase Woolrich—have destroyed two men and left the reader confounded about the workings of the universe. It presages the cruel mystification of I Married a Dead Man and has intriguing similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s , the best screenplay Cornell Woolrich never wrote.