Sunday, September 15, 2013

Four Novellas of Fear (Cornell Woolrich, 1936 - 1940, republished in 2010)

Reading The Vengeful Virgin got me a little nostalgic and in a perfect mood to read this short collection of four Woolrich stories republished recently. It has been sitting on my shelf for a few months just waiting for the right moment.

As expected, not much of the asphalt jungle's bright city lights here with cynical detectives investigating complex plots involving dirty politicians blackmails or addicted celebrities doing porn flicks. These are simple stories about everyday people who are driven by simple pleasures and whose actions are motivated by the most basic instinct and feelings. Although fear is mentioned in the collection's title, I would say that greed is their most common theme.

Eyes That Watch You (1939)
Nasty and pretty hard-boiled one even though its protagonist is an old handicapped lady who cannot even speak. She overhears her daughter in-law plotting murder of her son but she's (obviously) powerless to do anything about it. Everything takes place in this old secluded house which gives a novel great tone. Thing I liked the most about it was great suspense. Woolrich plays kind of cat and mouse game with his characters (and of course with us) and just when you think that poor sucker might get away, he actually gets killed. Nice!

Good story, masterfully written and executed - my favorite of the collection. It's such a good material that I find it a bit surprising it has never been made into a movie. Especially since (according to Wikipedia) Woolrich has had more books adopted into film noirs than any other authors of that era.

The Night I Died (1936)
Greed again. And plot of killing a close family member again. It even starts similarly as Eyes That Watch You by our hero over-hearing sinister conspiracy about killing him. And once again is his greedy spouse, but in this one he manages to escape the dark demise that she had arranged for him. But unfortunately in the process he crosses the line to the dark side becoming greedy, violent and paranoid asshole himself. Cool stuff and good combination of hard boiled story and psychological drama.

You'll Never See Me Again (1939)
Good opening line (It was the biscuits started it) that implies that once again there will be family trouble. Not murder this time (at least not yet), but classic plot with inexplicable wife disappearing and her hubby frantically trying to find her while becoming a prime suspect himself in the process. Fast paced page turner at the beginning but unfortunately in the second half it dissolves into standard and predictable "run against the time" type thriller. With 70 pages (and only one corpse!) this is the longest entry of the collection and also in my opinion its weakest. Good story but plotting towards end somehow didn't work for me, some stuff was pretty hard to believe.

Murder Always Gathers Momentum (1940)
Excellent and very promising title that indeed delivers (see body count section below!). This one is not so much about money or greed, it's more about cowardice and how it sucks our anti-hero into a spiral of crime. Actually pretty sad and you really feel bad and sympathetic for the poor sucker. Reminded me of Mickey Rooney in Quicksand. Minus happy end (thank god!) plus cool final twist.



Various small towns

Body count: 1 + 1 + 1 + 6

I think it's safe to say that only Vera from Eyes that Watch You qualifies as a dame:

She came, the murderess, in pink satin and foamy lace, like an angel of destruction, stroking her loosened hair with a silver-backed brush.  [Fatale]

Cool sounding, but I think it would be more suitable to replace fear with greed.

Super eerie photo, unfortunately uncredited. This journey into the darkness with meaningless speed limit is relevant to all four stories.

Cool lines:  

Eyes That Watch You:

- Are you sure everything's shaped up right?
- Yeah. He's insured up to his ears. All his stock's been bought in my name. The business has been doing pretty good, and there are no other relatives to horn in.

They exchanged a kiss. A blood-red kiss of death. 

The Night I Died

Then we turned in, one to a bed. "I'm dead," was the last thing he yawned.
"You betcha sweet life you are, brother!" I thought grimmly.

Murder Always Gathers Momentum 

He kept buying off time with bullets.[The Coolest!]

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