Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: William Irish

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 →

Woolrich: novels or short stories?

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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.The Dancing Detective

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.

Cornell Woolrich’s 110th birthday; Dark stories, fast pacing

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Master of the noir suspense story, Cornell Woolrich was born 110 years ago today.  Having created one of the greatest collections of suspense novels and short stories ever written, he died in 1968, depressed and wheelchair bound.

My Nov. 20 blog article summarized his work: He wrote more than 25 novels, numerous screen plays, dozens of short story collections and his stories and novels were the source for more than 125 movies and TV dramas.   His most well-known work, the short story, Rear Window, was the basis for a 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.   Another short story, The Boy Cried Murder, was the basis for three movies: 1949, 1966 and 1984.

Sadly, many of his works are out of print and nearly forgotten.  The latest movie taken from a Woolrich novel was the 2001 production “Original Sin,” based on the novel, “Waltz Into Darkness.”   Many of his movies are unavailable on DVD although some occasionally show up at film festivals.

A few websites provide information on Woolrich and the availability of his movies and books.  A primary source is CornellWoolrich.com.  That’s the name of the site, but not its web address.  See the link below hosted by toast.net and avoid going to the site with his name on it. (It seems to originate somewhere in Asia.)

The toast.net site has a beautiful collection of vintage Woolrich book covers, posters for a sampling of his movies, a brief biography and links to buy a selection of his books on Amazon.  Some of the books are pricy, some not.  Most are used.  When looking for Woolrich novels and short story collections, take note that he also wrote under two pen names: George Hopley (his middle names) and William Irish.

Cornell Woolrich was not a prose stylist with the sledgehammer metaphors of Raymond Chandler.  Black CurtainThe secret to Woolrich’s stories is the tension, the unanswered questions, the average guy who finds his world turned upside down and begins a headlong search for reality.

His “Black” novel series from the 1940s includes “The Black Alibi,” “The Bride Wore Black,” “The Black Path of Fear,” “The Black Angel” and “The Black Curtain.”   In the latter title, Frank Townsend suffers a nasty blow to the head when a portion of a building’s brick roof coping falls on him.  He dusts himself off and walks home only to find that his apartment is vacant and that his wife moved months before.   He manages to track down his wife who is overjoyed–and a little shocked–to see him because he’s been missing for three years.  The balance of the book puts a unique twist on an amnesia tale.  It’s a story of love and murder moving at a breakneck pace.

Woolrich’s stories, set in dark urban surroundings of the 1930s and 40s, hook you at the beginning and pull you into worlds that he imagined and you can live in for as long as the story lasts.

Links:

http://members.toast.net/woolrich/black.htm

Essentially a fan page, titled CornellWoolrich.com, this site has book covers, movie posters, Woolrich archive materials and more.

http://www.escape-suspense.com/cornell_woolrich/

Many of Woolrich’s stories became radio dramas.  This site has collection of the programs in audio format.   Cary Grant and Joseph Cotton are among the famous names giving voice to the suspense shows.

http://www.detnovel.com/Woolrich.html

This biography of Woolrich calls his work “endlessly descriptive.”

http://www.tv.com/people/cornell-woolrich/

Listing of episodes of TV dramas such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” featuring Woolrich stories.  The shows are available for download/viewing.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cornell-Woolrich/10491472214

The Woolrich page on Facebook has some colorful pictures of his book covers and 945 “likes,” but nothing’s been posted for nearly three years.

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