As a writer of historical crime fiction, I have a particular pleasure in reading classic hard-boiled fiction. Naturally, any of the “Black Mask” writers issue forth dramatic tales that were brand new for their day.

Dashiell Hammett’s work reads like a classic procedural given his experience as a Pinkerton agent. Raymond Chandler, on the other hand, eschews logical story-telling for mood and tone. There is a guttural sensibility about Jim Thompson with novels that define “pulp.” And, of course, James Ellroy blends jazz rhythms and scatological attitudes in his works.

However, one particular writer stands out for dark themes that are truly not found in the aforementioned authors. Cornell Woolrich’s world is populated by doomed individuals. People, often decent in nature, find themselves is tragic situations and will invariably get dragged down in them. There is no happen ending, no resolution that brings someone from the shadows into the light. The bleakness falls under the auspices of noir. However, it is unrelenting. The suspense is created by the mere possibility that something good, anything good, may come out at the end.

Early in life, he failed as both a screenwriter and a husband. He returned to New York from Hollywood and lived with his mother, mostly in hotels, for the rest of his life. Many of his classic works had the word “black” in the title: The Bride Wore Black; The Black Curtain; Black Alibi; The Black Angel; The Black Path of Fear. The tone is unmistakable. Several of his works, novels and short stories, were made into movies or radio programs.

The most famous is the story It Had to Be Murder. This became the enormously fascinating Hitchcock film “Rear Window”. Many of his works were out of print when he died in 1968. Fortunately, short story collections started to appear in the early 1990’s. I own a total of 16 volumes, far and away more than any other author. The one volume I do not have is the excellent biography by Francis Nevins, “First You Dream, Then You Die.”

That being said, I appreciate Woolrich’s style and nihilism. It is reflective in some ways of his own life. He was able to infuse his works with much more of himself than an ordinary craftsman of writing. The underlying themes are too bleak for me to pursue in my own works. Nevertheless, he still provides a great deal of fascination all these years later and is worth looking into.


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