Last week, a reader, intrigued by my recent articles, asked if I could recommend a starting point for reading Cornell Woolrich. Although I’m just beginning to explore this little-known author myself, I have a suggestion or two.
The Woolrich works I’ve read thus far are best considered for the journey, rather than the destination. Each scene, each page drags you deeper into the protagonist’s miasma as he or she races against the clock or death or both. The idea that every scene in a detective story should be as important and as involving as the conclusion–when the mystery is solved–was a priority for Raymond Chandler. And in his novels, each chapter and each dark, gritty scene created more trouble for Philip Marlowe. Finding out whodunit was just the final step in a perilous journey. The same can be said for Woolrich.
Therefore, I recommend the 1941 novel, The Black Curtain, as an introduction to Woolrich. In it, Frank Townsend gets a bump on the head and suddenly three years of his life disappears–or reappears. He searches for his home and discovers his apartment is vacant and that his wife has moved out. He finally finds her and she tells him she hasn’t seen him for three years.
So starts this different version of an amnesia story. After he’s been back with his wife a short time, Townsend discovers someone is following him. The more dangerous the pursuit becomes, the more Townsend realizes he must figure out what happened during the missing three years.
His struggle to discover his past leads him through a threatening world of suspicious looks and dead ends. The fast-paced story includes a case of murder and a decrepit, isolated mansion.
Like most roman noir novels, there isn’t exactly a Hollywood ending. The plot twists at the end leave some unanswered questions, but each step along the quick trip through Townsend’s cloudy world is worth the effort and then some.
To be picky, Woolrich uses terminology that refers to a semi-automatic pistol after he has already identified a gun as a revolver. The difference between the two types of handguns is significant in several ways and they look nothing alike. But confusing revolvers for semi-autos is so common in mysteries that I didn’t even notice the first time through.
The other way to get an introduction to Woolrich is through one or more of his numerous short stories. The best one I’ve read is “The Dancing Detective” written under the pen name, William Irish. The protagonist’s first person voice is unique and so strong she captures you from the first paragraph. “Dancing Detective” appears in several mystery/suspense anthologies and in Woolrich collections. Of course for short stories it’s hard to beat “Rear Window,” Woolrich’s most famous creation. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the story is still compelling.