Sunday, March 20, 2011

Out of the Darkness


Darkness at Dawn: Early Suspense Classics by Cornell Woolrich, edited by Francis M. Nevins, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg (1934-35; collected 1988): Woolrich's contemporary fame rests pretty much on the fact that he wrote the novel that Hitchcock's Rear Window was based on. A prolific writer of suspense short stories and novels, Woolrich was one of the first American pulp writers to be lionized in France for his noirish work (The Bride Wore Black remains Woolrich's best-regarded suspense novel).

By the mid-1930's, Woolrich had already published two well-regarded but light-selling realistic novels of the Roaring 20's, gone to Hollywood and failed there as a screenwriter, and finally returned to New York, where he would live and write until his death in 1968. All that, and he was a tortured homosexual in an America that shunned sexual difference. Whee, what a great fucking time the golden hued past was! Let's get back there as soon as possible in our Conservative time machine!

While Woolrich would write across all genres early on in his third career as a writer, his strengths lay in suspense oriented around a flawed or even murderous protagonist -- some stories parallel the efforts of fellow chronicler of the urban and suburban damned James M. Cain in 1930's suspense classics that include The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

Woolrich's prose was never the equal of Cain's, or the slightly later starting Jim Thompson's. But he had a flair for propulsive action and for telling detail which we would now call period detail, though of course Woolrich lived in that period. The Depression-haunted streets of New York, marathon dance competitions, the interior of the Statue of Liberty, a high-end gambling resort just across the Mexican border -- all these locations and more make Woolrich's stories sing when it comes to establishing a potent and dark sense of time and place. These aren't great stories, but they are compelling portraits of a lost time and place submerged in exterior and interior darkness. Recommended.

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