Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: Poe

Does this thriller sound too familiar? Woolrich review and cautionary tale

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Night Has a Thousand Eyes
By George Hopley
Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover   1945
Kindle book $9.99  368 pages      

Warning: this book review contains a spoiler. No, I’m not going to give away the plot of this Cornell Woolrich thriller (originally published under a pen name), I’m going to alert you to a spoiler of sorts, written by the author himself. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

City homicide detective Tom Shawn is on his way home from work late one evening, walking along a river. As he approaches a bridge, he finds money, loose bills drifting in the breeze like leaves. As he turns across the bridge he finds a diamond ring, then a purse. This shadowy bridge setting and the scenes immediately following exemplify noir as well as anything written during the period and pull you into a twisted tale.

Det. Shawn follows the trail of money, jewelry and other purse contents until he sees high-heel shoes and finally a woman standing on the bridge parapet. With difficulty, he talks her out of jumping and she steps down and out of the shadows. He sees her clearly for the first time. “The arc light gave him a drenching flash of surprise, as it tore the darkness apart and she stepped through the rent into full view.”

He’s surprised to find that she’s a beautiful young woman, barely 20. She tells Shawn she’s afraid of the stars twinkling above, so they make their way to a deserted restaurant where Shawn persuades her to tell her story.Night has a Thousand Eyes

She begins rambling on about “darkness and fear and pain and doom and death.” As she begins to settle down and explain, she soon outlines the theme of the book saying, “…God permits us to look backward, but God has forbidden us to look forward. And if we do, we do so at our own risk.” Her lengthy tale involves her father, a wealthy investor, who has become involved with someone who seems to be able to predict the future.

The predictions bring a promise of riches and fears of death. The story of Jean Reid and her father draw Shawn into a race against time and against capricious, malevolent forces that ultimately mobilize the city detective squad.

Woolrich’s noir style and attention to details highlight the novel. An early chapter focusing on terror is as close to Poe as anything I’ve read by Woolrich and one of the later “police procedure” chapters demonstrates–at length–the finer points of tailing a suspect.

As I read, I was dragged firmly into the heroine’s malaise until it sounded familiar. Too familiar. I had not read the book before, yet after rounding the half-way point in the novel, I knew exactly what was going to happen. Was a book about clairvoyance imparting some of its mystical powers? Was Woolrich a plagiarist?

I found the answer–although I had a notion what the problem was–in the book’s introduction by Woolrich biographer, Francis M. Nevins. He explained the 1945 novel was based on a novella Woolrich had published eight years earlier.   And I read the novella, “Speak to Me of Death,” in a Woolrich collection some time before. Apparently this is not the only short story or novella that Woolrich turned into a novel.

So, my advice for readers who are just getting into Woolrich is to be cautious. Try several novels before you pick up a story collection. If you have already read Woolrich short stories, there’s still hope. Most Woolrich books available today come with introductions by Nevins or others. Scan the intro to see if the novel might be based on a short story you’ve read.

In a cursory online search, I could not find a list of his novels that come from his shorter works. In fact, some of the references in the first search engine list I encountered were to this blog.

 

This is part of an occasional series on the work of noir thriller writer Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968).

 

And don’t be fooled by the different names Woolrich used. As mentioned, this book was originally published under a pen name, George Hopley, Woolrich’s two middle names. He also published under the name William Irish.

Meanwhile, back at the Thousand Eyes, the race against time that Shawn and other detectives embark on is typical of Woolrich thrillers and as Nevins says in the introduction, imminent death and the ticking of the clock are as central to this book as any Woolrich novel. (The description is also true of the story, “Speak to Me of Death.” ) Incidentally, the novel title comes from two of the characters’ aversion to stars, i.e. a thousand eyes.

Perhaps due to the novel’s genesis, it has more than one climax. In fact, it has more ups and downs than many mysteries, making it something of a noir rollercoaster. You will cling tightly to the coaster’s safety bar waiting to see if there’s a final descent and crash.

——————-

Video note: Like most, if not all Woolrich novels, this was made into a movie.   Edward G. Robinson, Joan Lund and William Demarest star in the John Farrow-directed film. It retains the title of the novel. Although the first scene makes it look as if the film will follow the book closely, it doesn’t. At all. The movie is based on a relatively creative concept, but one that’s not in the book. Woolrich, rather than George Hopley, receives screen credit for the novel. Apparently he was not involved in the script.  Remarkably, the one-hour, 20-minute film is available on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RH3bzUF862k

Christie, Conan Doyle and 38 more     cook up crime and puzzlement

Masterpieces of Mystery and Suspense
Compiled by Martin H. Greenberg
International Collectors Library
651 pages
1988
See below for prices and availability

 

It’s the late 1950s, Ginger works in a dime-a-dance joint in a rundown part of town, and someone is killing taxi dancers.

When two police detectives show up at the dance hall one night, Ginger falls for the taller one.  “…if I’d had any dreams left, he coulda moved right into them.”

The cops only know the killer’s favorite song, the kind of ring he has on one finger and the bizarre way he leaves the dancers’ bodies.  With nothing more to go on, they try a stake out.   Luckily, Ginger is one sharp cookie and a step ahead of the police.  Question is, will she be a step ahead of the serial killer?

This carefully crafted tale, The Dancing Detective, is classic noir by Cornell Woolrich and it’s one of 40 short stories in Masterpieces of Mystery and Suspense, a must for the library of every mystery and short story lover.  The stories are short–10-20 pages–and not quite short enough to qualify as flash fiction.   But they clearly demonstrate how a skilled mystery/suspense writer can weave a tale, create characters with depth and have you guessing right up to the end–all in a tiny package.masterpieces of mystery

Woolrich’s story is a good example, combing rich characters and dialog with a snappy plot.   Aspiring mystery writers: read this story.  See how Woolrich creates a thick, gloomy atmosphere and tells us so much about his characters through the way they talk in addition to what they talk about.  Woolrich, like many of the authors in the anthology, were or are known as much for novels as well as short stories.  And again, like other authors, many of Woolrich’s stories became movies.  One of his most famous was Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window.

I discovered this collection of gems in a used book store.   It can be found easily online.  See the note at the end of this review.

Writers from Poe to Sue Grafton and Lawrence Block are represented here.  Stories of suspense, mystery and those featuring hard boiled detectives fill the pages.  The collection’s anthologist, Martin Greenberg, introduces each story with a brief biographical sketch of the author and a few words about the selection.

The usual suspects are all here: Dorothy Sayers, Earl Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Ross Macdonald, Ellery Queen, Dick Francis and John Dickson Carr.  A few writers not known for mysteries also provide fascinating stories.  Greenberg included Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King in the collection.

King’s Quitters, Inc. has Dick Morrison run into an old friend in an airport lounge, back when you could smoke in an airport.  The friend has quit the habit for good, he tells Morrison, with the help of an organization that guarantees its results.  In this suspenseful story, the method is the mystery and Morrison’s trials trying to stay off cigarettes can be most appreciated by ex-smokers.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Copper Beeches, Holmes and Watson are approached by a  governess who lives in a country house and works for an eccentric gentleman.  She becomes fearful when her employers ask her to pose for them in certain ways.

Frederick Forsyth’s contribution is, There Are No Snakes In Ireland, a creepy tale of revenge set in Ireland and India.

Rex Stout offers, Help Wanted, Male.  One of the longest entries in the collection, the story begins with a man who has received an anonymous letter saying he is about to die.  He goes to Nero Wolfe for help.  Archie Goodwin figures the man would need to look elsewhere:

“In the years I had been living in Nero Wolfe’s house…I had heard him tell at least fifty scared people, of all conditions and ages, that if someone had determined to kill them and was going to be stubborn about it, he would probably succeed.”

The next day, of course, the man is killed and the police want to know what Wolfe and Goodwin know about it.

If you’re looking for a collection of new crime and detection stories, obviously this isn’t it.  The book is 25 years old and many of the stories are decades older than that.  If, however, you want to be challenged and entertained by some of the best mystery and suspense writers who ever pounded a typewriter, this is the collection for you, if you can find it.

Note on availability:  The book is out of print, but used copies are available from many online sellers.   I purchased my hardbound copy (International Collectors Library edition, listed above) from our local library’s  used book store.   A check of listings for the book at Amazon and other online stores yielded the names of three other publishers and page lengths.  Most common was an edition from St. Martin’s Press at 672 pages.  Minotaur and Doubleday are also listed as the publisher on some sites.   Most available copies are paperback going for $1 or less; shipping charges vary.

Short mystery story writers quiz – part 1

          “Cops, Crooks & Other Stories” contains flash fiction mysteries, certainly not the first time whodunit writers have reduced the genre to a few pages (or a few words).   In fact, many of the most well-known mystery novelists also published also short stories–some short-short stories.  (Which begs the question, are they short mystery stories or mystery short stories or maybe short story mysteries?)  In any event, here (and in the next installment) is a quiz about writers of short mystery fiction.   It’s not too easy.  Answers next time.

 

1.  Known more for mystery novels than short stories, this prolific author wrote hundreds of short stories.  Only Shakespeare’s works have been published more than this author’s.  A mystery play by this author has been running continuously in London since 1952.

a. P.D. James

b. Agatha Christie

c. Josephine Tey

d. Ellery Queen

 

2.  Many of this author’s 200 short stories featured a detective who was a parish priest .

a. G. K. Chesterton

b. Mary Higgins Clark

c. Dorothy L. Sayers

d. Donald Westlake

 

3.  Also an attorney, this British author wrote about a curmudgeonly barrister with a taste for wine.   More than a dozen short story collections featuring this character are in print.

a.  Colin Dexter

b.  Earl Stanley Gardner

c.  John Mortimer

d.  Lawrence Sanders

 

4.  Although this author is known for novels, First Blood and Brotherhood of the Rose, his/her suspense short stories include Dead Image and Black Evening.

a. T.  Jefferson  Parker

b.  Robert B. Parker

c.  Charlotte MacLeod

d.  David Morrell

 

5.  Awards presented by the Mystery Writers of America bear this short story writer’s first name.

a.  Arthur Conan Doyle

b.  Agatha Christie

c.  Raymond Chandler

d.  Edgar Allen Poe

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