Cornell Woolrich, Hack
Which of these names does not belong with the others: (a) James M. Cain, (b) Raymond Chandler, (c) Dashiell Hammett, (d) Cornell Woolrich? Put the question to the average consumer of mainstream entertainment here at the beginning of the twenty-first century and most would guess (d), and then ask: Who is Cornell Woolrich? … The volume you hold in your hands, dear reader, should convince you that Woolrich indeed belongs with the others and perhaps even surpasses them …
That’s from Richard Dooling’s introduction to the current reissue of Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black (1948). I’m sorry to report that Dooling is drastically overstating his case. But this book did provide an interesting glimpse into what the average “pulp” writing may have been like, and a reminder of why those three stood out from it so sharply.
Let’s start with the plot, which is contrived even by noir standards, contrived to the point of being comical. The main character is Johnny Marr, a 19-year-old whose girlfriend is killed when some drunk businessmen, flying back from a fishing trip in a small charter plane, throw an empty liquor bottle out the window and it falls on her head. Oh, and she’s not just his girlfriend, but his lifelong childhood sweetheart, and this happens on May 31st, just before their planned June wedding.
What do you do if the love of your life is killed in a hilarious aerial accident on the eve of your wedding? If you’re Johnny Marr, you track down all five men who were in the plane and spend the next five years stalking each one’s wife or girlfriend and murdering her — one per year, always on May 31st.
If you’ve ever seen a movie about a serial killer, you pretty much know how it goes from here: he’ll succeed in the first few murders with increasingly cruel and elaborate schemes, while the cops struggle to find the pattern and track him down. There will be some drama about the last one or two, but either way Marr will die in a showdown with the cops at the end.
But that brings us to the next part of Woolrich’s style: nothing is too obvious for him to pound it home another ten times. For example, the first victim dies of tetanus after scratching herself on a nail in her doorframe. But where did this nail come from? Her husband reports to the police investigator:
“…as I opened the door for her and she went in, the darn thing grazed her leg as she went by. We couldn’t understand what it was doing all the way down there. It served no purpose. There’s no split in the wood to be held tight. It seemed to have been driven in at random.”
Sounds like someone put an infected nail there on purpose, no? But Woolrich wants to make sure we get it:
“Had it ever grazed her leg until that night, or yours?”
“No, never. Neither one of us.”
“Then it was never in there until that night.”
Good work, detective. Let’s –
“If it scratched her leg that night, it would have scratched her leg before, if it had been in there before that night. That takes care of that.”
“Had anyone heard any sounds of tapping or hammering?”
“There wasn’t anyone here to have heard. We’d been away for the weekend. This was a Sunday night and we’d been away since the Friday before…”
That’s what a weekend is, yes…
“…The house had been closed for those two days. The servants only came back after we did, the following morning, Monday.”
OK, so someone put this infected nail there while you were gone. Moving on…
“And you want to know something funny about it? It was driven in the wrong way around.”
Almost as if someone wanted it to scratch someone, no?
“The head was the part imbedded in the wood, the point was the part sticking out.”
So it wasn’t hammered in at all…
“Then it wasn’t hammered in.”
Almost as if…
“A nail can’t be hammered in in that position. It would simply bend over and fold up. The entering wedge has to be sharp, not flat.”
Clearly we’re dealing with a real Sherlock Holmes here. But the chief of police is unconvinced:
“I told you she died of lockjaw [tetanus]. What more is there? Now report to –”
“Yes, sir. But she could have been murdered by lockjaw.”
“There can be two kinds of lockjaw, the accidentally contracted and the purposely contracted. Lockjaw could have been the weapon, just as a gun or a knife or an axe is the weapon.”
Believe it or not, I’ve only given you about half of the expository dialogue about this fucking nail. I kept expecting to turn the page and find a hand-drawn storyboard showing the entire sequence of events, like those oxygen-mask info cards on airplanes. And don’t get me started on the rest of the murders, or the final plot twist that’s lifted directly from Around the World in 80 Days.
Woolrich’s work has inspired a lot of movies, most famously Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (from an earlier Woolrich novel with essentially the same plot as Rendezvous) and Hitchcock’s Rear Window. It’s easy to see why his over-the-top storylines work better on the screen than the page. Truffaut also filmed Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis, who had a similarly awkward, stylized writing style that worked much better as narration in the movie.
As a fan of old genre fiction, I understand the impulse to elevate every forgotten practitioner to an unsung master of the form. But some of them have been forgotten for a reason. And comparing Woolrich or Goodis to Chandler, Hammett and Cain, as so many seem eager to do, is ridiculous. Even those three combined only produced about a dozen truly great hard-boiled novels. (It’s a testament to our romanticized modern view of these authors that Cain’s recently “rediscovered” final novel seems to be more of a literary event than any of the previous ten novels he wrote while he was still alive.)
I’ve read a few “lost” classics that really do approach the level of the “big three” at their best — like Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock or Howard Browne’s The Taste of Ashes — but they’re few and far between, and over-hyping run-of-the-mill pulp writers like Woolrich isn’t doing anyone any favors.