Saturday, February 3, 2018

Night Has A Thousand Eyes

"Night Has a Thousand Eyes" is a highly-regarded 1945 noir suspense classic written by Cornell Woolrich (“Rear Window”) under the pen name of George Hopley. It was later reprinted under Woolrich’s more successful pseudonym, William Irish, and in the modern era, under Woolrich’s own name. After it’s release, the novel was adapted for the screen in 1948 starring Edward G. Robinson, and the movie’s theme song became a hit and lives on as a jazz standard.

The story opens with good-hearted loner police detective, Tom Shawn, saving a distressed 20 year-old woman, Jean Reid, from jumping off a bridge in the middle of the night. He corrals her to a safe place to hear her story.

In Chapter Two, the story toggles into the first-person narration as Jean tells her tale to Detective Shawn. The story of her spooky journey to the bridge’s railing takes up about the first half of the novel, and we learn that Jean is the wealthy daughter of a successful silk importer living on the U.S. east coast (city unmentioned) in a large estate filled with servants.

While Jean’s beloved father was away on a west-coast business trip, a servant confides that the servant’s psychic friend had a vision that Daddy’s return flight would crash. Knowing that clairvoyants are hogwash, Jean initially dismisses the prediction as nonsense and banishes the servant from the estate. As the return flight time grows closer, Jean grows panicky and desperately tries to telegram her father to have him skip the flight. Before Daddy could get the message, the plane crashes in the Rocky Mountains with no survivors.

Any more details would be spoiling some pretty cool plot points. Suffice it to say that Jean and a companion spend much of the novel’s first half tracking down the psychic to determine how this reclusive oracle could have known about the crash in advance. Supernatural powers? Fraud? Foul Play? The psychic’s subsequently accurate predictions further support Jean’s belief in the claimed supernatural powers.

The novel’s second half cuts back to the third-person narration where the reader re-joins Jean, fresh from a thwarted suicide attempt, and Detective Shawn, ready to investigate the authenticity of Jean’s fantastic story of a seemingly-accurate clairvoyant along with a team of police colleagues. The police procedural half of the book was the stronger of the two halves and helps justify the book’s claim to classic status.

Woolrich was a talented writer and the pages are filled with rich prose designed to evoke a dark mood. It’s clear that he regarded this novel to be an important work of literary fiction rather than a genre paycheck. At times, this made for a wordy, slow-moving slog as the simplest action (walking from a car to the psychic’s front door, for example) takes pages to complete when it could have been an economical simple sentence. The things that happen in this novel are occasionally interesting, but it takes pages and pages of hand-wringing and emotional torment for the actions to actually occur. This 368 page novel only had enough actual plot to fill a lean 150-page novella.

The other problem with the book (primarily the first half) is our heroine protagonist. Jean is a clingy, spoiled rich girl caught in a perpetual emotional wreck. Her story and overwrought tone have all the hallmarks of a melodramatic gothic novel. In fact, one of the many reprintings of the book was marketed as “A Paperback Library Gothic” compete with a genre cover depicting Jean fleeing from a imposing mansion in the dark.

The second half investigative procedural has solid moments, and the reader becomes invested in the quest to determine the truth of the mysterious psychic and the predictions that shook the foundation of Jean’s family. However Woolrich’s tiresome wordiness remains, and  the third-person narration does little to dull the sting of Jean’s dramatic histrionics and personality shortfalls. 

It’s hard to understand why this novel is so highly regarded among noir fiction fans. While writing a novel that’s half Daphne Du Maurier and half Ed McBain is no small feat, the tense conclusion to the book’s central mysteries is moronic and unsatisfying. Fans of crime fiction, horror fiction, and literary fiction deserve much better from their sacred canon. Life is too short. Take a hard pass on this so-called classic.

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