Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: books

Discover Cornell Woolrich, author of “finest suspense novels ever written”


If you’re a mystery or suspense fan and have never heard of Cornell Woolrich, let me introduce you to one of the most prolific, stylistic and ingenious writers of the noir era.  His life was in some sense a tortured one containing successes and failures and dominated by his overbearing, wealthy mother.   Perhaps best known for his short story, Rear Window, which became an Alfred Hitchcock movie, Woolrich wrote more than 25 novels, numerous screen plays and dozens of short story collections.   According to Woolrich novels and short stories were used as the basis for more than 125 movies and TV dramas.

Woolrich died in 1968; few people attended his funeral.

Born in New York City in 1903, he struggled throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s writing short stories and (uncredited) screenplays for feature films in Hollywood.  While in California he married a producer’s daughter, but the marriage was short-lived and Woolrich returned to New York and his mother.  During the 1930s he wrote three novels and many short stories which appeared in pulp mystery magazines.  Gradually through his inventive plots and swift pacing he gained recognition and soon started cranking out superb noir suspense novels, many of which–if not all–became movies or TV dramas.

Eleven novels Woolrich published during the 1940s are “unsurpassable classics in the poetry of terror,” writes Francis M. Nevins, mystery writer, editor and Woolrich scholar.  Writing in the introduction to a Woolrich collection, Nevins says, “These [eleven] titles, all published between 1940 and 1948, make up the finest group of suspense novels ever written.”

The 1940s novels earned Woolrich a substantial living and a reputation on par with the best at work in noir.

Nevins says Woolrich’s world, “is a feverish place where the prevailing emotions are loneliness and fear and the prevailing action a race against time and death.”

“Woolrich’s fictional world is more discordant and threatening, and therefore perhaps more contemporary than that of either [Dashiell] Hammett or [Raymond] Chandler,” says Richard Rayner in the introduction to the 1988 Simon and Schuster collection, “Rear Window and Other Stories.”

Rear Window

This is one Woolrich collection that’s available, not the one mentioned in this article.

Rayner describes the situation one of Woolrich’s protagonists finds herself in as “something which might have been invented by Kafka on a bad day.”

The Woolrich novels are compelling but so are his short stories–his short crime tales from the 1930s are an excellent introduction to this author.  Originally this article was going to be a review of the “Rear Window” collection, but not only is it out of print, it seems to have disappeared.   In fact, many of Woolrich’s books are becoming rare.  Amazon and ebay prices for many used novels and story collections can reach more than $100 although many are available (used) in the $10 to $50 range.

There are other Woolrich collections called “Rear Window” available online but no listings I found provide the names of the stories included.  Thus, let me introduce you to a few of the master’s tales that you may find in more than one collection.

Woolrich stories often find average citizens stuck in impossible situations.  Such is the case in I Won’t Take a Minute (1940).  Protagonist Kenny is walking his fiancé home from work one evening and she has to stop at an apartment building to drop off a package that her boss asked her to deliver.  Kenny waits outside and she goes up in the elevator after telling him she won’t take more than a minute.  Of course she never returns, and the balance of the story is Kenny’s attempt to find her.

The Corpse Next Door (1937) is reminiscent of Poe’s Telltale Heart but Woolrich’s tormented main character is obsessed by the contents of a Murphy bed.  In, You’ll Never See Me Again (1939) , Ed Bliss has an argument with his wife who storms out supposedly heading for her mother’s house.   After two days Bliss is told that “Smiles” never made it to her mother’s and he runs afoul of the police in a frantic attempt to find his wife.  The 41-page story is filled with nighttime car chases, resourceful amateur sleuthing and repeated searches through a sinister house in the country.

In Dead on Her Feet (1935), rookie detective Smith is sent to investigate a nine-day old dance marathon and locate one Toodles McGuire, a 16-year-old whose mother has called police.   Detective Smitty, who flips over his jacket lapel to flash his badge, locates the missing girl but then finds himself investigating a murder.  His method of solving the case is macabre but effective.

Woolrich died at the age of 64 after many years of ill health and depression following the death of his mother.   According to Nevins, in a fragment of his papers found after his death Woolrich wrote, “I was only trying to cheat death.  I was only trying to surmount for a little while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me some day and obliterate me.”

Are you an “average” mystery reader?

How do you feel about e-books?

The average mystery reader is a woman in her 50s or 60s.  She generally buys mass market paperbacks, but e-book mysteries are becoming attractive for some readers.

That’s the short version of many conclusions to be drawn from a collection of recent reader surveys conducted by Bowker, the book information systems company and the official ISBN agency in the U.S.

According to an Aug. 6 Bowker news release, the company’s 2013 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review showed that e-books account for 20 percent of spending on mystery titles.  Spending on e-books in all fiction and nonfiction categories, however, amounted to only 11 percent, compared to seven percent in 2011.

The Bowker release says women increased their lead over men in overall book buying, accounting for 58 percent of book spending in 2012, up from 55 percent in 2011.

Women buy a much bigger percentage of mystery books.  According to a presentation by James Howitt, director of publishing services for Bowker, and reported on the website, 70 percent of mystery books are purchased by women.

As to the age of mystery buyers, regardless of gender, about 70 percent, according to the Howitt presentation, are 45 years old or older and more than half are 55 or older.

The Howitt presentation, based on a 2011 Bowker PubTrack survey, also showed where mysteries are purchased:

E-commerce  (2009) 18%  (2010) 26%

Large chains   (2009) 25%   (2010) 21%

Book clubs   (2009) 15%    (2010) 9 %

Independent bookstores (2009) 7%   (2010) 8%

Mass merchandisers (not warehouse stores or clubs)  (2009) 7%         (2010) 5%

Bear in mind these figures report where books are purchased, not the book format.  The above figures account for about 70 percent of books sales.  The balance come from grocery and drug stores, book fairs and other retail outlets.

Howitt’s graphic presentation also showed the popularity of the various formats for mysteries.  Mass market paperbacks are the most popular with about 30 percent of the market, followed by hardcover at about 25 percent, with e-books and trade paperbacks both accounting for approximately 20 percent each.  Audio mystery books make up less than five percent of the market.

Many other details about mystery readers can be found in a December 2010 Bowker readers survey commissioned by Sisters in Crime, an organization of professional women crime writers.

Some of the findings:

77 percent of mysteries are purchased by households with no children at home.

48 percent of mysteries are purchased by readers who live in suburban areas.

Readers over 60 are more loyal to an author or character than younger readers.

Women mystery readers spend an average of 11.3 hours per week in front of a book, men 8.6 hours.

The survey also addressed e-book mysteries and only 13 percent of the respondents had ever read one.  Half of the mystery readers said they were dead-set against e-books, with people in their 30s and 40s somewhat more likely to be open to reading e-books in the future.

Interested in more details?  The Sisters in Crime survey contains a comprehensive picture of mystery readers, their behaviors and demographics.  See the link below.

Commentary   Surprising to me that women make up 70 percent of mystery readers; not surprising that women read mysteries, but that men don’t.  But men don’t buy as many books nor read as much as women either.  I’ve been in a men’s book group for more than six years and every one of us devours books.  I’ll talk more about that in a coming blog installment.

E-books are becoming more popular–gradually–despite the Sisters in Crime results that say many readers are dead-set against them.  The Sisters survey is a few years old; e-books are gaining acceptance.  I think some people who resist e-books have never given them a fair chance.  Ever try to find a favorite or crucial passage you remember but didn’t mark?  Good luck in a paper book.  Traveling?  Pay the airlines for your stack of books, or carry a lightweight reader or tablet.  But I’ve trod this ground before.

Interesting to note that to the vast majority of mystery readers, the gender of an author is not a factor in their decision to buy or read a book.  One wonders if authors such as J.A. Jance or P.D. James initially picked initials to overcome gender prejudices.

Finally, the Bowker news release noted that despite the growth of ebooks, traditional print book output grew three percent in 2012, from 292,037 titles in 2011 to 301,642 in 2012.   With so many new titles each year, how does an author without a household name get recognized?


Bowker Aug. 6 news release

Howitt presentation

Sisters in Crime survey 

Tahoe beauty hides motives, murder

Tahoe Chase
by Todd Borg
Thriller Press   351 pages
Kindle $3.99  Trade paperback $15.26


Someone is killing people around Lake Tahoe.  And the chase is on.

In Tahoe Chase, PI Owen McKenna is hired by Joe Rorvik to find out who tried to kill his wife by pushing her off the deck of their mountain home.  Rorvik is an elderly Olympic skiing medalist who doesn’t believe the police reports that say his wife’s fall was an accident.   McKenna is sympathetic, but Rorvik is at a loss to name anyone who might even remotely want to hurt his wife.

Suspects are initially scarce save for a 6-foot, 3-inch, 220-pound knife-throwing wife abuser who seems intent on not only getting McKenna off his trail, but off the planet.   Before long, a murder, possibly related to the assault on Rorvik’s wife, puts more emotional strain on McKenna’s 92-year-old client who now regrets ever calling the detective and threatens suicide.

“Everything was wrong, and I was at the epicenter, the cause,” McKenna tells himself.  “Without seeing it coming I had become the new agent of Joe’s misery.”

Later, the Tahoe detective seems to have a better grasp of what’s happening–but it’s only temporary.  In a crucial scene late in the book, he and his cop friend, Diamond Martinez, frantically chase clues and suspects around in their heads until it’s clear neither has a good idea of where the case is going.

Clues are not the only things chased here.  The novel’s title could refer to chases in cars, boats, skis and on foot, all of which add action and suspense throughout the book and keep the plot moving ahead swiftly.  Author Todd Borg’s unusual, quirky–sometimes bizarre–characters add to the complexity of the story, keeping the PI chase fresh and appealing, not to mention puzzling.

McKenna occasionally mentions a previous case and he even borrows a cabin cruiser from a former client.  The detective has lots of previous cases to ponder, if he chooses, as Tahoe Chase is Borg’s 11th Owen McKenna whodunit.  Fans of McKenna will appreciate the ways this case is different from previous novels.  Yet the familiar cast of characters is still here including McKenna’s entomologist girlfriend Street Casey, his Great Dane, Spot, and his law enforcement friends from California and Nevada jurisdictions around the lake.Tahoe Chase

Tahoe Chase, like Borg’s other books, has background subjects, areas of specialization related to suspects or victims and readers gain insight on new topics as they work on the case with McKenna.  In Chase, readers learn details about such diverse topics as skiing and domestic abuse.  In one of his earlier novels–and one of my favorites–Borg took up the topic of autism.  In Tahoe Silence, a young autistic girl is kidnapped and terrorized by a biker gang.  McKenna–and readers–learn valuable lessons about autism delivered in a more sensitive way than you might expect in a PI novel.

Borg’s sensitivity comes through in his books.  McKenna has a code.  Not only does he not use firearms–as a result of a tragic shooting when he was a San Francisco cop–but McKenna treats his girlfriend (as well as most everyone else) with respect and no matter how depressing a case may be, he never gets drunk or beats up on people except in self-defense or defense of others.   This is not to say that McKenna is a schoolboy.  He’s devised ingenious (and sometimes quite painful) ways of dealing with criminals, he sleeps with his girlfriend (although readers never get in bed with them) and he loves a good bottle of wine or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Along the way to solving a crime, McKenna usually offers simple wisdom in the form of observations or occasionally as advice to friends.  In a scene in Tahoe Silence he finds himself on the losing end of a misunderstanding with his girlfriend.

I suddenly stopped as I remembered the proverb that says when you find that you’re digging yourself into a hole, stop digging.

In Tahoe Chase, while McKenna is talking to Joe Rorvik in Rorvik’s home, he thinks he sees movement outside.  But he’s not certain, so he waits as he thinks to himself:

I’d learned long ago that patience was often rewarded.  Certainly impatience rarely was.

When McKenna and Casey are trying to console a young woman who’s been brutalized and is now facing a daunting journey, McKenna is impressed with his girlfriend’s supportive technique.

Talk only about trivial stuff, and it communicates that you’re worried about the big issues and are afraid to focus on them.  Talk only about the major stuff, and it clutters the traveler’s mind with too many concerns. Strike a medium balance, and the person knows that you understand the scope of the mission, but you are still relaxed about it.  The relaxed manner telegraphs confidence in the person who is about to embark on the big event.

McKenna’s philosophical observations aren’t always designed to advance the plot, but you get a more clear understanding of the protagonist as a fully developed character.

Meanwhile, back at the Chase, Borg keeps McKenna, Martinez and Rorvik guessing until almost the final scene when the complex plot twists back on itself and the murderer is revealed.   Tahoe Chase is not a sprint but a marathon giving readers cerebral and emotional exercise along the way.  Borg fans will enjoy the chase and eagerly await the ending, and first-timers will want to find the early books in the McKenna series and start following Lake Tahoe’s coolest character.


Todd Borg books on Amazon

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