Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Cornell Woolrich

Avoid the shadows when night falls

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Nightfall
David Goodis
170 pages
Black Curtain Press  1947
$8.49 paperback    Kindle $  .99

James Vanning is lonely, depressed, afraid and plagued by insomnia.  In other words he’s a classic protagonist in a noir novel.

The commercial artist and World War II vet is on the run from the police and a gang of bank robbers.  He’s holed up in a small New York City apartment selling his work to ad agencies to get by and feeling sorry for himself.  As an average guy entangled in a seemingly unexplainable criminal morass, he could be a character in a Cornell Woolrich novel.  Instead he’s the creation of another respected noir author, David Goodis, noted for his mystery, Dark Passage, that became a Bogart and Bacall movie.

In Nightfall, published in 1947, Goodis imperils Vanning without letting the reader know too many details.  Except for one thing: he’s killed someone, or is convinced he did. And, he’s scared.

 “He wanted to go out.  He was afraid to go out.  And he realized that.  The realization brought on more fright.”

A few sentences later a Woolrich-style premonition: “…something was going to happen tonight.”

Vanning knows that the story of the killing, as he remembers it, is so preposterous no cop or DA would believe him. We learn bits and pieces: A Seattle bank was robbed of $300,000.  One of the gang responsible for the robbery was murdered. The money disappeared.

The story unfolds through chapters of alternating points of view, that of Vanning and of Fraser, the NYC police detective following him.  Married with three children, Fraser (we never learn his first name) has been shadowing Vanning for months and thinks he knows nearly all aspects of the artist’s solitary life.  But he worries the case may be his undoing.  His superiors are calling for an arrest and return of the money.  And Fraser has doubts.

Despite overwhelming evidence against Vanning, Fraser thinks he might be innocent.  “With what they have on him already,” Fraser tells his wife, “they can put him on trial and it’s a hundred to one he’d get a death sentence.

“They’ve got witnesses, they’ve got fingerprints,” Fraser says, “they’ve got a ton of logical deduction that puts him dead center.  And what I’ve got is a mental block.”

Vanning’s faring no better.  His memory is full of holes.  He knows Continue Reading →

Whodunit: murder mysteries 101

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Who has sold the most mystery books? Where did the line, “the butler did it” come from? And who wrote the first detective novel?

Begun more than 170 years ago, the detective story is a staple of American literature and equally popular overseas. American writers are joined on best seller lists by mystery authors from the UK, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Italy and other countries. In essence, killing people on paper is popular the world over.

This begins an occasional series on the history, subject matter, authors, techniques and trivia of this genre.

Fedora,-gun-etc.-Sepia--Es-The modern detective story was born in 1841 with the publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue in Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia.

First in an occasional series

Edgar Allen Poe’s story describes the analytical power used by detective Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin to solve a series of bizarre murders in Paris. Like the later Sherlock Holmes stories, the tale is narrated by the detective’s roommate. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but a monkey did it. Yes, it is a bizarre twist to have a murderous monkey, but consider who wrote the story.

Following the publication of Poe’s tale, detective short stories and novels gradually became popular. English novelist Wilkie Collins published The Moonstone in 1868, a detective novel that includes several features of the typical modern mystery, including red herrings, false alibis and climactic scenes. Continue Reading →

Only the orange hat can save his life

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Phantom Lady
Cornell Woolrich writing as William Irish
Introduction by Barry N. Malzberg
Centipede Press 2012
288 pages
Trade paper $18
Originally published in 1942

Hear the clock ticking? It’s counting down the minutes and seconds that Scott Henderson has to live. He’s accused of murdering his wife who, he admits to police, had refused to give him a divorce. But he didn’t kill her.

At least we don’t think he did, although his alibi is almost impossible to believe. He says he spent the evening with a lady he picked up in a bar. They attended a musical revue together, then parted after the show without ever exchanging names or personal information.Phantom-Lady-novel-cover

Fans of Cornell Woolrich will appreciate this new edition of Phantom Lady. It contains a unique, if rambling, reminiscence about the author by someone who was his agent a year before he died. It also includes color pictures of posters from the 1944 movie based on the novel and shots of various cover treatments of the book since its original release. This beautiful edition, on heavy stock, makes a great addition to your mystery library.

If you’ve just discovered Woolrich and are working your way through his substantial body of suspense work, Phantom Lady is not a bad place to start. Although it’s not my favorite Woolrich tale, it’s an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter until the end. But that was Woolrich’s MO for more than two dozen books. Continue Reading →

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