Category Archives: Woolrich Cornell

I Married a Dead Man: Cornell Woolrich (1948)

Helen, 8 months pregnant, penniless and abandoned, boards the sleeper train. She’s hit rock bottom, and fruitless attempts to contact the father of her child result only in an envelope containing a 5 dollar bill and a one-way ticket from New York to San Francisco. Even though there’s no note, the message is clear.

Once on the train, she meets a young couple, happy, very much in-love, Patrice and Hugh Hazzard, who are travelling to Hugh’s family. They’ve yet to meet Patrice. Patrice is also pregnant, and stuck travelling in an over-crowded train together, Patrice generously befriends Helen. Even though Helen doesn’t share her story, it’s clear that she’s down on her luck. A terrible accident occurs, and Patrice, Hugh and their unborn baby are killed while Helen survives. Thanks to the fact that Helen had tried on, and was still wearing Patrice’s ring when the accident happened, Helen wakes up in hospital and discovers that due to a mix-up everyone thinks she’s Patrice.

I married a dead man

Helen isn’t a bad person, and she doesn’t intentionally set out to deceive anyone. But Hugh’s parents have arranged for a private room for the daughter-in-law (now with a baby) they never met. Along with the private room come flowers and baskets of fruit. With just 17 cents to her name, Helen, drugged up to the eyeballs, finds it easier to go along with the case of mistaken identity.

But one thing leads to another, and Helen is taken to the Hazzard home. Surrounded with the loving, affluent family Helen doesn’t have, she goes along with the deception mainly for her son’s sake. Soon she’s in so deep, it’s impossible to say where this will end. Hugh’s parents have already been devastated by their son’s death, but they carry on knowing that they have a grandson. The story isn’t just about Helen anymore: she has other people to consider–people who will be brokenhearted again.

It’s not easy to step into someone else’s shoes and Helen makes a couple of errors; no one seems to notice–except for Hugh’s brother Bill who isn’t as blinded by grief as his parents. Then the louse who abandoned pregnant Helen, smelling money, reappears like a wolf hunting his prey.

The book starts slowly and it’s not until chapter 4 and the train trip that things take off, but then the book takes shape. In this noir tale, Helen’s life looks bleak but then Fate takes a hand with the death of Patrice, Hugh and their baby. Helen steps into Patrice’s shoes, but it’s an uneasy existence, and it seems just a matter of time before events comes crashing down on Helen. And Fate seems to deal Helen a cruel hand once again–giving her what she thought she wanted back in New York.

And here’s a fantastic quote about Fate–always central to noir:

What makes you stop, when you have stopped, just where you have stopped? What is it, what? Is it something, or is it nothing? Why not a yard short, why not a yard more? Why just there, where you are, and nowhere else?

Some say: It’s just blind chance, and if you hadn’t stopped there, you would have stopped at the next place. Your story would have been different then. You weave your own story as you go along.

But others say: You could not have stopped any place else but this even if you wanted to. It was decreed, it was ordered, you were meant to stop at this spot, and no other. Your story is there waiting for you, it has been waiting for you there a hundred years, long before you were born, and you cannot change a comma of it. Everything you do, you have to do. You are the twig, and the water you float on swept you here. You are the leaf and the breeze you were borne on blew you here. This is your story, and you cannot escape it; you are only the player, not the stage manager. Or so some say.

For this reader, Helen isn’t a particularly interesting character, but the plot is fantastic; when we meet Helen, she’s beaten down by life. The train wreck appears to flip Helen’s fortunes, but it seems unsavoury that anyone would profit from the death of a young married couple and their unborn child. Helen is never comfortable with the deception, she’s not a grifter looking for an easy buck–she’s waiting for the ax to drop. Again. 

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Woolrich Cornell

Four Novellas of Fear: Cornell Woolrich

The collection Four Novellas of Fear from Cornell Woolrich is aptly named. Woolrich creates four domestic scenarios that tap into primal terror. Here’s the line-up

Eyes That Watch You

The Night I Died

You’ll Never See Me Again

Murder Always Gathers Momentum

Eyes That Watch You is the story of a paralyzed wheelchair bound woman who overhears her daughter-in-law, Vera, plotting to murder her son. Without the power of speech and unable to move, she is helpless to stop the crime. Given the woman’s incapacity, this is a story that in other hands could have lacked tension, but it’s the pure callous savagery of the plotters that knocks a powerful punch:

Just see that he soaks up enough, and you can bet all the oxygen in the world won’t pull him through. Watch his face. When that gets good and blue, all mottled, you got nothing more to worry about. 

For me, The Night I Died was the weakest of the bunch. This is the story of a married man who goes from marriage and dead-end job to murder, insurance scam and stolen identity all in one night:

The point about me is: that I should stay on the right side of the fence all those years, and then when I did go over, go over heart and soul like I did–all in the space of one night. In one hour, you might say.

I liked the story’s premise: a married man comes home unexpectedly from work and finds his wife plotting his murder. Nice. Things go downhill from there. The narrator/husband’s decisions seemed a little implausible given that he can’t trust his wife to the slightest degree. Murder is one way to end life, but handing it over to someone you can’t trust is another.

Four novellas of fear

You’ll Never See Me Again is the longest story in the book, and again Woolrich taps into a primal fear when he creates a nightmarish situation involving a missing wife. Newlyweds argue about the wife’s baking and she takes off into the night and disappears . …

Murder Always Gathers Momentum is the story of Paine, a married man who goes to his boss to claim his wages. The encounter ends in murder and murder having been done once… This story shows Woolrich’s skill at pacing for the tale seems to speed up with each murder as Paine rushes towards his violent fate. 

My favorite was Eyes That Watch You. Woolrich really ramps up the fear factor with this tale. It’s terrifying to imagine being paralyzed but even more terrifying to be paralyzed, overhear a plot to murder your child and be unable to stop it. ….

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Woolrich Cornell

Rendezvous in Black: Cornell Woolrich

“For me, she thought wryly, but without complaint, all life is a tunnel; a long, never-ending tunnel, which has no other end.”

Cornell Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black is a relentlessly bleak, cold, dark tale of revenge. Its powerful, ceaseless bleakness resides in a killer’s uncompromising mission: revenge yes, but it’s revenge involving innocents and driven by complete mercilessness.

It’s May the 31st, and Johnny Marr is waiting outside of a drugstore in the town square, as he does every night, for his long-time girlfriend Dorothy. Dorothy and Johnny have been in love since the ages of 7 and 8; they’ve always been a couple, and they cannot imagine a world in which the other does not exist. Lack of money led to them putting off their wedding for years, but now the date is planned. It will be a June wedding:

They would have been married long ago; last June, the June before, the very first June that he was a man and she was grown up girl. Why hadn’t they? What’s the one thing that always interferes, more than any other? Money. First no job at all. Then a job so small it wasn’t even big enough for one, let alone for two. 

The work-related death of Johnny Marr’s father led to a small pay-off from the railroad. It’s not much money and by the time the lawyer takes almost half, it’s even less, but it’s still enough for Johnny and Dorothy to set a date.

The book’s first pages establish several main themes: there’s the unexpected consequences of murder and how one person’s callous indifference ricochets throughout the universe. The idea of wasted time is another theme which is juxtaposed, in intriguing contrast, with timelessness. Other characters in the book struggle with the fact that they’ve ‘wasted’ time, and also time plays a huge role in the crimes. Another main theme is the powerless of the individual when faced with Big Business or dazzling wealth. The small man will always stay small and powerless because that’s the way the world is organised. Money rises up; it doesn’t trickle down. The fact that Johnny’s father was killed through negligence, has allowed a few thousand to come Johnny’s way. Yes the money was almost split 50:50 with the lawyer, but to Johnny, the money is a miracle. Finally, Johnny, an “average” man, an underdog, has managed to move ahead a little in the world and finally he can marry Dorothy.

But in this noir novel, fate intervenes and snatches Dorothy away in a freak accident. At first Johnny just hangs around in the town square, still waiting for Dorothy. A little kindness is occasionally shown to Johnny but he becomes a curiosity and then a spectacle. Finally a cop “brutally” tells Johnny to move on, and with a few pokes of the nightstick, Johnny ambles off:

Maybe the cop should have let him stand there, should have let him alone. He hadn’t been hurting anybody , until then.  

Johnny Marr, driven insane by grief, assumes various identities and finds out who is ‘responsible’ (in his mind) for Dorothy’s death. He draws up a death list. On May 31st of each year, one by one, a man whose name is on the list will lose the woman he loves the most: a wife, a mistress, a girlfriend, a daughter … it doesn’t matter to Johnny who the victims are as long as their deaths causes irreparable damage to the men left behind: they will feel the same pain that he endures.

Detective Cameron, another unassuming, almost invisible man, realizes that something isn’t right when the first death occurs. By the third, he knows he’s on the trail of a maniac who has a death list. He doesn’t know the identity of the killer; the only thing he knows for certain is that the next death will occur on the 31st.

Money only has power over the sane mind. Maniacs don’t have motives. I could call it revenge, but even that wouldn’t be correct, because where the injury has been unintentional or unknowing, revenge can be reasoned with, turned aside. About the closest I can get to it would be a revenge-mania.

Woolrich eases us into the darkness easily at first. The first murder is fait accompli, and the second murder with its unexpected consequences form their own sort of rough justice. But the subsequent crimes are malicious, evil and enacted with maximum cruelty. I’m not talking gore here–I’m talking about cold, calculated vicious retribution calculated to cause maximum suffering. The novel is particularly bleak when considering that 5 people who had nothing to do with Dorothy’s death  but who are connected with 5 men (ONE of whom MAY be responsible) will pay the ultimate price. Unlike Fate, Marr’s retribution isn’t random; it’s directed and deliberate, forming its own nihilistic ball of hate, taking aim at innocents. Nonetheless, the cosmic unfairness of Johnny’s selection and relentless pursuit mirrors Fate in a distorted, warped way.

My Modern Library copy includes a bio of Woolrich as well as a brief section describing the relationship Woolrich had with a woman that mirrors Marr’s (without all the murders):

A “sense of isolation, of pinpointed and transfixed helplessness under the stars, of being left alone, unheard, and unaided to face some final fated darkness and engulfment slowly advancing across the years towards me .. that has hung over me all my life.”

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Woolrich Cornell

Night Has a Thousand Eyes: Cornell Woolrich (1945)

In the excellent, perceptive introduction to Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), Woolrich’s biographer, Francis Nevins gives an overview of the author’s life and career. There are some  great quotes about Woolrich’s work here, but I can’t include them all, so here’s just one:

All we can do about this nightmare world is to create, if we can, a few islands of love and trust to sustain us and help us forget. But love dies while lovers go on living, and Woolrich is a master of portraying the corrosion of a relationship. Although he often wrote about the horrors both love and lovelessness can inspire, there are very few irredeemably evil characters in his stories. For if one loves or needs love, or is at the brink of destruction, Woolrich identifies with that person no matter how dark his or her dark side.

Nevins explains that although Woolrich (1903-68) “knew overwhelming financial and critical success [but] his life remained a wretched mess.” Woolrich, a homosexual who tried marriage once, lived with his mother for a great deal of his life, but after her death in 1957, he was a recluse–miserable from the sounds of it–while he struggled with diabetes and alcoholism. Woolrich also seems to have a death obsession. Perhaps that’s not quite the right term I’m looking for, but certainly he had an awareness that death waits in the wings for all of us, and that life, to a great extent is an attempt to avoid or deny the inevitable.  I think that’s a fairly normal realisation for those who live with chronic disease, but Woolrich seemed to be aware of the inescapable nature of death even as a child, and that knowledge of imminent death seems to have found its way into Night Has a Thousand Eyes–a story in which an obsession with death so plagues two of the characters that in an attempt to avoid Fate they rush headlong to meet their deaths before Death can come for them.

The story begins with an earnest young New York homicide detective named Tom Shawn walking along the river as he does every night after work:

You can’t dream in a bus, with your fellows all around you. And so-every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night about one, a little after. Anything you keep doing like that, if you keep doing it long enough, suddenly one time something happens. Something that counts, something that matters, something that changes the whole rest of your life. And you forget all the other times that went before it, and just remember that once.

Woolrich sets up his story immediately with the idea of permanence, predictability and routine, and this is a brilliant move as these elements of life are those about to be challenged and even, perhaps, eradicated by Fate.

Tom is a good, honest, and hard-working young man who is grounded in reality. That night in the park, he comes across some money discarded on the ground. Once again, character is fate. A lesser man would pocket the money and chalk the find up to luck, but Tom is curious. He follows a money trail which leads to an expensive handbag and a diamond wristwatch, and eventually he finds Jean, a distressed, wealthy young woman, beautiful, of course, who is about to commit suicide. He saves the woman, and in the emotional aftermath, she tells a strange tale involving her father.

Jean Reid and her debonair, handsome father are extremely wealthy New Yorkers who lead an enviable life, but all that ‘good fortune’ is apparently swept away when psychic predictions surrounding the Reids begin to come horribly true. After Mr. Reid’s death is predicted, he becomes fixated on the date. Paralyzed with fear, he loses all his confidence, undergoes a frightening personality change, and holed up in his mansion, he can no longer function.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is an iconic tale which deals with issues of Fate and Predestination. In creating the Reids, Woolrich offers us two characters who have the best that life has to offer: looks, confidence, money, power, intelligence and good health. The Reids are the sort of people who make their own destinies–or so they think. When confronted with a power that seems to erode their worldly position, Jean and her father are rendered helpless for the first time in their lives. They are reduced to the same sort of powerlessness felt by their impoverished, plain, dull and worn-out maid, and suddenly, money and prestige mean nothing. It’s not simply that Mr. Reid is terrified of his own death (and that is definitely his ostensible, palatable fear), but it’s also that their entire value system no longer exists. Their money or connections cannot help them avoid the horrible Fate predicted for Mr. Reid by a shady psychic, and there’s the subtle issue of privilege bowing to a greater power underlying the tale. The novel doesn’t spend a great deal of time on character–although many of the secondary characters are great sideshow creations. The psychic is a particularly interesting character as with his sort of gift, you’d expect some sort of enlightened individual, but when Woolrich pulls back the layers of deceit on this character, we find a shrivelled, unpleasant, bitter little man. Primarily, however, this is a plot-driven story which builds with incredible tension that keeps this story rolling to the last page. Unlike Black Wings Has My Angel, Night Has a Thousand Eyes has an archaic feel which grounds the novel firmly in its times.

I recognized that the focus of this pall of fear and grief that hung over me was not the catastrophe itself or even the loss that it had wrought; it was the fact of having been forewarned against it. There was a curious sort of clammy terror in that, there was horror, there was-I don’t know what. There was a nightmare feeling heavy upon me, and not even the fact that the destructive climax was already past and no longer still ahead could lessen it any.

Review copy from Open Road Media

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Woolrich Cornell

The Black Angel: Cornell Woolrich (1943)

“Death is man’s greatest gift from Nature.”

Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) began his writing career producing Jazz age novels along the lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but by 1934, in debt and unable to sell his work, he began to focus on the crime genre. Using pseudonyms, he wrote a vast number of stories and novellas for various pulp magazines before embarking on his Black Series: The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), Black Alibi (1942), The Black Angel (1943), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948). An impressive number of films have been based on his work, including a film version of The Black Angel starring one of my personal favourites, Dan Duryea. Woolrich was not a fan of the film as it was greatly altered from the source material. Not only is Woolrich a major contributor to film noir, but he is also considered one of the greatest American crime writers of his period. Lucky for us he gave up on the F. Scott Fitzgerald theme.

The story begins with 22-year-old narrator, Alberta Murray, rummaging through the cupboards only to discover that a number of items belonging to her husband, Kirk, are missing. She finds his valise locked and heavy, and jumps to the conclusion that he’s packed his bag and intends to leave her. This is not a decision based on hysteria; Alberta has deliberately ignored a number of tell-signs that her husband is having an affair. The most notable of these is a gold compact she discovered in a pocket. It was engraved to “Mia,” and a little detective work behind the scenes led Alberta to believe that the Mia who owned the compact was also the same Mia, “who looked good to stay away from,” employed by a nightclub. More detective work and Alberta tracks down Mia’s address and what appears to be a very tacky love nest with a turquoise colour scheme and monograms everywhere you look.

A few hours later, Alberta’s husband is arrested for a murder that she knows he did not commit, but according to the police, it’s an open-and-shut case. Taking an address book and a clue from the scene of the crime, Alberta decides that if she wants to save her husband from the electric chair she’ll have to do the sleuthing on her own.

The structure of the novel then follows Alberta’s investigation into four names from the address book. These are four men from Mia’s life, and since Mia wasn’t a very nice woman, so it follows that Alberta is going to have to meet lowlifes and crooks on her determined path to the truth. Alberta is called “Angel Face” by her husband which gives us a clue about what she looks like–she’s a stunner, but her beauty is the look of innocence. Underneath that look, however, she’s steel, and even though Alberta is terrified at times by those she encounters, she never once deviates from her plan to investigate the murder until she finds the truth.

The book’s biggest weakness is arguably its basic premise–Alberta’s determination to save her husband–the man who cheated on her, packed his bags and planned to split. Would most women bother with this heel? Isn’t it more plausible that Alberta would say sayonara to her cheating spouse and let Kirk fry? Or does Angel Face also have an Angel Nature? I chalked up Alberta’s decision to save her no-good husband to the idealism of youth, and, after all, Alberta’s initial reaction when she discovers that her husband is cheating is not anger but dismay. Regardless of Alberta’s decision to save Kirk, the man is still a heel and although he’s off stage for most of the book, at one point Alberta visits him in prison, and he makes a last request of her after she insists, against the odds, that he’ll be a free man soon:

He smiled as though he had his doubts. “but in case, in case I don’t, afterward, after it’s over–Angel face, you won’t let anyone else bring you flowers home at night or kick around the coffee, will you? Don’t let anyone else–I know you’re young yet–but that belongs to me.

Ain’t that sweet? So let me get this straight– ‘Save yourself for me, honey, even though I didn’t do the same for you’….

Woolrich takes us on a tour of both the high and the lows of the city: the seedy bars, the flop houses, the nightclubs, the dope fiends, the mansions of the blue-blood rich–all the way to the lavish penthouse suite of a psychotic gangster.  Here’s Alberta in a bar where she meets one of Mia’s earlier victims, the hollowed-out shell of a man.

I’d never been in a Bowery drinking place before. I’d heard the phrase “the lower depths”; I don’t remember where.  I think I read it once. This was it now. The lowest depth of all, this side of the grave. There was nothing beyond this, nothing further. Nothing came after it–only death, the river. These were not human beings any more. These were shadows.

And there was one thing more pathetic than themselves, more eloquent of what had become of them. It was the hush that fell when I came in. That bated breathlessness. I went into many places after that, but never again did the same thing happen in just that way. Men in a barroom will often fall silent when a woman comes in. This was not that. This was not admiration or even covetousness. I don’t know what I would call it myself. It was the memory of someone in each man’s past, someone like me, long ago, far away, come back to mind again for a moment, before the memory darkened again and went out-forever. It was life’s last afterglow glancing off the faces of the dead as I brushed by them.

This passage also reflects the idea that while Alberta’s quest is to save her husband, it’s a quest that is, ultimately, a process of experience and maturity for Alberta for she enters a “world of jungle violence and of darkness, of strange hidden deeds in strange hidden places, of sharp-clawed treachery and fanged gratitude, where compunction and conscience are just other words for weakness and used as such.”

There’s one later passage when Alberta notes that gangsters have splashed aftershave on their faces, and she silently marvels that they are just like other men–except they operate without a moral centre. For some reason, that was one of my favourite parts of the book–perhaps because it’s just so simple. Alberta’s nickname may be Angel Face, and while she’s a decent person, when she begins her investigation and penetrates the dark universe of crime and corruption, she becomes The Black Angel–inadvertently bringing death and destruction in her wake and capable of whatever it takes.  According to Woolrich’s biographer, Francis M. Nevins Jr, the dark, destructive angel is a recurring motif found in Woolrich’s work–I’m thinking The Bride Wore Black.

The Black Angel’s ending–dark, haunting and extremely troubling–makes this novel something very special in a twisted noir way. There’s a loneliness here in Alberta’s journey to the truth, and that loneliness and isolation seems to be reflected in everyone she meets. For fans of the genre, or for those who haven’t tried Woolrich, this dark tale of the forbidden world of lust, despair and madness perforated by decency and goodness is well worth catching. Moral choices are a turning point for those confronted with the opportunity to commit crime. In Alberta’s case, there’s an inversion of that common scenario, and the moral choices are made when she pledges to find the real murderer. One intriguing, lingering question remains when the book concludes.  Will her life ever be so simple and innocent again?….

Review copy from the publisher via Open Road Media.

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Woolrich Cornell