Showing posts with label Cornell Woolrich. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cornell Woolrich. Show all posts

Friday, March 17, 2023

The Bride Wore Black

Up until 1940, Cornell Woolrich was mostly writing shorter works about the rich and privileged, like Times Square (1929) and Children of the Ritz (1927). After 1932's Manhattan Love Song, eight years passed before another Woorich novel was published. This hiatus set the table for a re-structure of Woolrich's subject matter and a new direction for his literature. 

In 1940, The Bride Wore Black (aka Beware the Lady) was published, the first novel-length suspense thriller from Woorich. The novel kickstarted a crime-fiction career that flourished for twenty years, producing over 15 masterworks of suspense and landing Woolrich in the upper echelons of crime-fiction authors and pioneers. 

The Bride Wore Black is presented in five separate parts, each titled as the last name of a potential victim. In between, the author includes a small portion of insight from the eyes of the murderer, an unnamed woman Hellbent on revenge. Then, another short narrative featuring insight on the victim, and then a paragraph serving as the postmortem. In this presentation, each part is set as its own short-story or novella. These parts eventually connect to make a spectacular whole, but the pure pleasure lies in the construction. 

The first victim is a man named Bliss, lured to the top of a building for an engagement party. It is here that he meets the beauty, a mysterious woman rejecting men while searching for someone special. Bliss, unfortunately, falls for the trap and takes a deadly tumble. His friend, a man named Corey, remembers the woman's eyes moments before Bliss's death. This tidbit will be of some use later in the book.

This same set-up is used as various men meet their demise after gaining some contact with this dark female avenger. The murders are clever, a cross between diabolic (shot with an arrow, suffocated) to quiet death (poisoning). All of these are written with a sense of white-knuckled dread. After Bliss, readers realize that they will be reading the last moments of life for all of these poor unfortunate men. 

Perhaps the most compelling and shocking is Moran. On his last day, his wife is lured out of town with a telegram informing her of her mother's sudden sickness. This was a way to isolate Moran, but there's a catch. He is left caring for his young son. When a woman arrives at the house, promising she is the teacher, Moran's son immediately rejects the visitor, explaining that she isn't his who she claims to be. Prone to fibbing, his warning falls on deaf ears and Moran is led into a macabre, murderous game of hide and seek. 

The Bride Wore Black is a masterpiece that essentially helped define the suspense-thriller market. The novel's use of certainty – a predetermined sentencing for each character – is oddly a paradox of suspense. Readers realize the outcome before death arrives. There is a void of uncertainty, but the build-up to death and murder creates an emotional stirring that's hard to suppress. Woolrich purposefully cranks the wrench, tightening the intensity until the last gasp. If Hitchcock was the master of visual suspense, then Woolrich was certainly his equal with literature. The Bride Wore Black is a must-read. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 23

This episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast celebrates the worst 20th Century novels the publishing industry had to offer. From TNT to Phoenix, we explore how bad things need to get before a reader will throw a paperback into the ocean. Don’t miss the fun as we discuss the absolute pits in vintage genre fiction. Stream below or on any podcast platform. Download directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 23: Hall of Shame" on Spreaker.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Tokyo, 1941

Cornell Woolrich wrote nearly 30 novels from 1926-1960. His most notable work is the 1942 short story “It Had to be Murder”, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcok as “Rear Window” in 1954. One of his shorts, “Tokyo, 1941”, was written in 1960 and later featured in two compilation books by Bill Pronzini and Martin Greenberg - “The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels” (1986) and “13 Short Espionage Novels” (1985).

The book begins in a Hong Kong hotel room as an American secret agent/spy named Lyons transfers some vials to a Caucasian male under the guise of selling a camera. There's a Chinese woman in the room with Lyons and we quickly learn that he's married but quite the ladies man. Adding to his rather unlikable nature is that he's a liar and a cheat, which are probably great traits for a spy to possess, but ultimately makes for a lousy human. After low-balling and cheating a shop owner out of a valuable diamond, Lyons makes his way back to suburban life in Azabu-ku.  

Returning to the normal 9-5 day job at the Acme Travel Agency, Lyons argues with his wife Ruth consistently. She doesn't know about his secret agent night life and Lyons, while being a real hothead, has no need to tell her his whereabouts. She thinks he's out bedding tramps...and she's fairly accurate in her appraisal. The reader can sense that the marriage is nearing its final end.

The story then takes a right turn by introducing us to a beautiful Japanese woman named Tomiko. She arrives at the equivalent of Japan's Secret Service upon request by Colonel Setsu. He demands she sacrifice herself to the Emperor by becoming Lyons lover. She'll submit her body in an effort to grab an important radio transmitter. It's all silly espionage stuff – secret vials, radios and handshakes – but it makes for an effective story. Gaining Lyons attention is no difficult task, and soon the story reaches a climactic point in a lakeside cabin. Lyons may be working for the Russians, Ruth may be on to Lyons game and this Japanese woman...well she's really just the connecting point. 

I'm not sure really what Woolrich had in mind when writing the story. It's certainly steeped in spy mythology, but comes across as social subtext on failed marriage. The Russian/US/Japan circus is prevalent, but there's the diamond portion and a slight prison angle that makes this wishy-washy at best. It's a myriad of story arcs that really doesn't lead to anything other than just an average story. Nothing more, nothing less. Paperback Warrior will continue the search for a satisfying Woolrich read.

Buy a copy of "The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels" HERE

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.