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Mystery Monday – Rear Window and Other Stories

Rear Window and Other Stories by Cornell Woolrich

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Among fanatics of noir, Woolrich is up there with Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, though most admit, I gather, that his prose is the most purple and pulpy of the founding bunch. Among non-fans of noir, Woolrich is probably best-known through movie adaptations: The Bride Wore Black is a 1968 French film directed by François Truffaut and Rear Window, a 1956 fun fest by Alfred Hitchcock.

It Had to Be Murder was the original title of Rear Window, which he published in 1942 in the late lamented pulp Dime Detective. Left obscure in the story is why the narrator is trapped in his Big Apple apartment and so idle that he takes to secretly observing the lonely city lives of his neighbors through their windows. He realizes that the man across the way has very likely done away with his invalid wife. And he enlists the help of his “houseman,” an African-American, to break into the possible killer’s apartment. It’s a solid story that’s fun, though allowances must be made for the casual racism of the time and all of us readers know the reveal, more or less.

Though the fanatics seem to regard Post-Mortem (1940) as a mediocre story, I think the over-the-top premise redeems it. A widow wants to have her recently deceased husband disinterred so that a pocket of the last suit he’ll ever wear can be checked for a missing but winning sweepstakes ticket. Hey, $150K back then had the purchasing power of $2.5 million today, so I don’t think many people would think twice on this unique problem. The oddity is that her current husband puts his foot down, refusing to go along with the disinterment. Why?

The story Three O’Clock made its first appearance in a 1938 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. A concussion turns a mild-mannered watch repairman into a deviser of infernal engines of death. He rigs up a homemade bomb to blow up his house with his wife in it. What these nimble-fingered handy guys will get up to. But circumstances prove that Creation is not above having its little joke on the unwary makers of infernal engines. The suspense in this story is so killing that the smart reader slows down to get the maximum effect.

Change of Murder (Detective Fiction Weekly, 1936) is the shortest story of this collection. It is a noir story with gangster characters, one named Brains and the other Fade (as in the craps term). What makes it worth reading in our jaded day is Woolrich’s surprise ending, which will call to mind the tradition of H.H. Munro (Saki) but a lot grimmer, as befits the period between the wars.

Momentum was originally published as Murder Always Gathers Momentum in 1940. In a story with a persuasive Depression-era bleakness, an ordinary guy, half of a young married couple, has the wolf baying at the door. He runs into a peck of trouble when he accidentally yet fatally shoots a conscience-free rich guy who owes him money. This fast-moving, ironic story will persuade even the most optimistic reader that doing a bad thing once makes it more likely to do so again. And again. And again.

In Woolrich’s view, the universe has endless space, time, flux, and hostility. In other words: so many people are bouncing off so many other people – especially in cities, the usual setting of his stories – that mischief and turmoil and irony are inevitable. The characters in Woolrich stories think to get across muddy roads they are walking safely on planks but really they are on tightropes over abysses. With no pole.

 

 

 

 

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One Response to “Mystery Monday – Rear Window and Other Stories”

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