Monday, February 27, 2012

Off the Shelf #3

Cornell Woolrich is one of the more unusual writers of the pulp crime era. My understanding of his life is that he was a deeply unhappy, closeted homosexual who lived most of his life with his mother, and spent much of that life cranking out, as most pulp writers did, dozens of novels over the decades, many of which are forgotten, with others managing to cling to some level of respect and recognition. This was helped by some of his work being adapted into famous films, most notably his short story "It Had to Be Murder", which was transformed into Rear Window.

It hardly begins and ends there, however. I admit, I've only read, along with a small handful of his short fiction, two Woolrich novels, Rendezvous in Black and the deeply bonkers, as well as deeply ambitious and psychologically withering, Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Woolrich wrote a number of books which are now referred to as his "black series," and I remember thinking, as I read Rendezvous in Black that the structure was so ingenious, that it was surprising that nobody had thought to rip it off yet. The idea is basically that a man lost the woman he loved in a freak accident (improbable ways of dying seem to be a common theme in Woolrich; this could be read as Woolrich regarding death, the fear of which is thick in his work, or at least what I've read of it, as absurd. This itself implies that Woolrich not only feared death, but loathed it) -- the responsibility for that accident can be laid on the doorstep of a group of men whose carousing led, wildly, to the woman's death. The man, in a fevered, but somewhat calculated madness, sets about exacting revenge on the men one by one, and the novel -- this is the ingenious part -- takes the structure of a series of connected short stories, each describing the life of the victim, and the day on which he meets his end.

I have quickly picked up on the possibility that structure is something of a big deal with Woolrich (Night Has a Thousand Eyes basically begins with a massive, novella-length chapter that sets everything up, and continues with a series of much shorter chapters that move the pieces around until the inevitable-after-the-fact climax), so I was rather taken aback to realize, very early into my current reading of his 1940 novel The Bride Wore Black, that the structure of the book was basically identical to that of Rendezvous in Black, which was published in 1948. That structure being very particular, I have no choice but to assume the plot will follow suit. There are other indicators beyond structure in The Bride Wore Black that this will be the case, but if memory serves the reveal of the motivation behind the murders in Rendezvous in Black comes very early in that novel, maybe even right at the beginning, and this hasn't happened in Bride, so I guess we'll see. In any case, if I didn't know any better I'd think that Woolrich's "black" novels had not only that title color in common, but also that they were all the same book. Except I know that another book, Black Alibi, served as the basis for Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's The Leopard Man, so I'm going to go ahead and assume this isn't the case.

Anyway, regardless of how it all plays out, The Bride Wore Black (which was adapted by Francois Truffaut in 1968) strikes me as thus far significantly better than Rendezvous in Black, just on a basic writing level. I'm in no position to analyze why this might be, not least because I read Rendezvous a very long time ago, but another interesting thing about Woolrich is that he started his writing career trying to emulate F. Scott Fitzgerald, and only turned to crime and suspense fiction when he failed to set the world on fire in his chosen mode. I don't know that this was a strictly commercial-oriented decision on his part, but either way he certainly seemed to take to the genre. It does seemed to have matched view of the world.

In closing, though, I'd like to note that it's not all despair and sad-sackery in Woolrich's fiction. There's life in it, not just death, and even some level of post-modern laughter. Early in The Bride Wore Black, a character named Ken Bliss (not long for this Earth, to be sure) reacts to some surprising news, and Woolrich describes the reaction, and in his own way -- and this is the point -- reacts to the censorship and publishing restrictions of the day, like this:

"Well I'll be a -- " Bliss said. He went ahead and said what it was he would be.


P. McKelway said...

Totally off the subject, but just read Stark's COMEBACK. I've never seen one of his books move this fast. 291 pages whoosh by like a bullet train. Have you read that one?

bill r. said...

No, I haven't made it that far in the series yet. Next up for me is DEADLY EDGE. Pretty much all the books in the series I've read so far, though, have moved like lightning.