“This Death Called Strangeness: Some Reflections on Cornell Woolrich” (by R.T. Raichev)

R.T. Raichev, mystery scholar and author of the Antonia Darcy and Major Payne series, has written previously on this site about Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Sherlock Holmes, and others. Here, he turns his attention Cornell Woolrich—continuing the theme of last week’s post and coinciding with the publication of a previously unpublished Woolrich tale in our current issue.—Janet Hutchings

It was Frederic Dannay, one of the two first editors of EQMM, who coined the phrase “the long march of implausibility” in connection with the stories of Cornell Woolrich. If he didn’t mean that as a compliment, Dannay didn’t seem to have intended it as withering criticism either. He rather liked, published and republished Woolrich’s stories, even his later weaker efforts. Dannay’s words should be taken as a mere statement of fact: the main feature of a typical Woolrich plot is its air of overwhelming strangeness which is almost invariably linked to death. 

Consider the premise of the 1948 novel I Married a Dead Man: on a train a pregnant woman meets another woman, also pregnant, who is traveling with her new husband to meet his parents for the first time; just as the two women have started a friendly chat and the first woman has been allowed to put the second woman’s wedding ring on her finger . . . the train crashes, killing the young bride and her husband . . . the survivor then is mistakenly identified as the dead woman and warmly embraced by the dead husband’s bereaved family. . . .

Or the chain of events set in motion in Into the Night, the last novel Woolrich left unfinished at his death in 1968, which was completed by Lawrence Block and published in 1987: an unhappy, lonely girl tries halfheartedly to commit suicide . . . to her relief the gun jams . . . she tosses it on a table, causing it to discharge a bullet that flies through her window, crosses the street and kills another girl, one rather like herself . . . the girl proceeds to investigate her victim’s past and when she discovers that the latter has been treated appallingly by her husband she determines to expiate her crime by plotting the destruction of the husband. . . .

What are the odds of any of that happening? Very low, to put it mildly. And the likelihood? Negligible. But while the two sequences thus described strain credulity considerably, they are not impossible. Such events could happen, under certain circumstances—in one of those million-to-one chances. We turn the pages of a Woolrich story and we read on, we race on, anxious to discover how the author manages to pull it off.

Cornell Woolrich—the author of twenty-two novels and more than 200 short stories—is a mesmerizing raconteur who has the power to hold and propel the reader’s attention by playing on their curiosity, imagination and sense of wonder. He achieves this in ways none of his noir confreres, such as Chandler or Hammett, ever considered attempting. As it happens, Chandler—a professed admirer—commented on Woolrich’s liking for “artificial trick plots” which are full of “excessive demands on Lady Chance.” In that respect, oddly enough, Woolrich has more in common with Agatha Christie than with Chandler—think of the baroque clockwork plotting of And Then There Were None and A Pocketful of Rye, in both of which a number of theatrically choreographed killings depends on exquisite timing and devilish precision—one false step and the whole meticulously constructed edifice falls apart.

And like in those two Agatha Christie novels, events in Woolrich’s world unfold with the logic and inevitability of a nightmare; the situations he creates are more often than not surreally outlandish and mind-bogglingly melodramatic. Woolrich’s characters, on the other hand, are the very antithesis of extraordinary. They are believably and sympathetically delineated people with whom the average reader has no difficulty identifying.

The typical Woolrich protagonist is usually a man, a solitary figure who finds himself trapped in some impossible predicament, a haunted individual who either hunts or is hunted—and in the case of Jeff in the short story “It Had to be Murder” (filmed by Hitchcock as Rear Window)—he is both. Woolrich’s biographer Francis M. Nevins praises his gift for generating suspense by calling him the “Hitchcock of the written word.” Cornell Woolrich’s fictions are indeed highly, excitingly cinematic. According to recent statistics, there have been 108 films and TV shows based on them, the earliest in 1928, the latest in 2002.

It goes without saying that Woolrich writes not for uncompromising realists but for romantics who relish an escape from the tedium of everyday life into a parallel kind of universe which looks but only looks like the real one. It is a predominantly urban world, dark and twisted and fraught with danger, treachery, and all manner of malignant scheming. Eleanor Sullivan—Dannay’s successor as EQMM editor—identified a “nightmare New York world” as one of the themes that tend to repeat themselves in Cornell Woolrsich’s oeuvre. It is a New York that has the forlorn, menacing anonymity of an Edward Hopper painting.

II.

One of my personal favorites, set in the fictional “Michianopolis,” is the short story “All at Once, No Alice,” first published in Argosy Magazine in March 1940 and reprinted in EQMM in November 1951. Its plot centers round the mysterious disappearance of an attractive young woman—a set-up for which Woolrich seemed to have had a particular penchant as he used it in at least two more stories (“Finger of Doom” and “You Will Never See Me Again”).

The narrator of the story is Jimmy Cannon, a store clerk, who elopes with Alice Brown, a girl whom he hardly knows but is very much in love with. The two marry in a rushed ceremony presided over by a roadside justice of the peace, after which they go in search of a hotel. The story’s early paragraphs are lighthearted enough, even slightly comical, with Jimmy forgetting to pay the roadside justice his fee—but soon a sense of dread starts creeping in. All the hotels are filled up and the reason given is that it is the “three-day convention of the Knights of Balboa.” Who or what the Knights of Balboa are we are never told, but somehow a bizarre note has been struck and the departure from reality subtly set in motion. 

The reader’s unease deepens when at the newlyweds’ fifth try, the Royal Hotel, Alice is allowed to spend the night in a claustrophobically tiny single room with a bed that is “little wider than a shelf”—while Jimmy is consigned to a room at the local YMCA. Their parting—just for the night, as they think—is poignantly described:

The last I saw of her that night she was sitting on the edge of that cot in there, her shoeless feet raised to it and partly tucked under her, like a little girl. She raised one hand, wriggled the fingers at me in goodnight as I reluctantly eased the door closed.

The next morning Jimmy returns to retrieve Alice only to find that she has vanished without a trace, not only from her room but from the hotel register as well. Although she did sign it, her name is not there and the hotel staff claim that no girl of her description ever stayed with them. Dazed, distraught, out of his mind with worry, Jimmy seeks help from the police. The roadside justice of the peace is questioned, but says he has never laid eyes on Jimmy and has most certainly not performed his marriage ceremony. The people at the big house in Lake City—the prominent, rich Beresfords—where Alice supposedly worked as a maid—also deny her existence. Since Jimmy is unable to produce any proof of Alice’s existence the police dismiss him as “some sort of crank.”

“All at Once, No Alice” is one of Cornell Woolrich’s “annihilation stories. (Annihilation in the sense of complete obliteration.) It is also an audacious example of the curious sub-genre known as “paranoid noir—whose invention is attributed to Woolrich, though its plot is a familiar variant on the Lady Vanishes theme (the 1936 novel by Ethel Lina White made famous by the 1938 Hitchcock film).* The story is charged with undercurrents of fear, guilt, despair, and the intimation that the world is controlled by malignant forces. The first-person narration effectively conveys Jimmy’s feelings of terrifying disorientation and loss, his total alienation from those around him—

. . . people were bustling back and forth, casually, normally, cheerily . . . something was already trying to make me feel a little cut off from them, a little set apart. As if a shadowy finger had drawn a ring around me where I stood, and mystic vapors were already beginning to rise from it, walling me off from my fellow men.

— while “shadowy finger” and “mystic vapors” conjure up the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe.

The tone then gets darker:

I fought against this other, lesser kind of death that was creeping over me—this death called strangeness, this snapping of all the customary little threads of cause and effect that are our moorings at other times.

And darker:

The invisible fumes from that necromancer’s ring, that seemed to cut me off from all the world, came swirling up thicker and thicker about me.

The reader is now firmly, poetically—one may say, extravagantly—plunged into Poe’s realm. (Who would have thought a store clerk capable of such Gothic flourishes?) Jimmy also compares himself to “. . . someone in a dark room, crying for a match . . . someone drowning, crying for a helping hand.” The tone of the story veers between the morbidly lyrical and the homely mundane and that is another of the story’s idiosyncratic features.

Just when Jimmy loses all hope and appears to suffer a nervous breakdown, just when he is on the verge of committing suicide, the investigating policeman discovers a handkerchief with Alice Brown’s initials on it. The search for the missing girl is resumed and, ultimately, at the eleventh hour, they find her—as she is about to be murdered by her relatives. 

It turns out she is no mere menial but the sole heiress to a vast fortune—“the richest gal in twenty-four states”—in fact she is one of the Beresfords—her real name is Alma Beresford. (The elusiveness of identity is another recurrent motif in Woolrich.) The poor rich girl had been trying to escape from her lonely, stifling, prison-like existence, hence the maid masquerade. 

Her disappearance was in fact a kidnapping orchestrated by her greedy relatives who bribed everybody who had been in contact with her into a far-reaching conspiracy of silence. Their intention was to prevent her from getting married. Alma’s guardian, described as “vicious-looking . . . in a brocade dressing-gown” and later as “that silver-haired devil”, had paid “all kinds of money to hush everyone up . . . and destroy the documents, so it wouldn’t be found out.” The devious—and frankly fantastical—scheme involved keeping Alma insensate by means of opiates and procuring the dead body of a girl of similar age to bury in her place, so that Alma could be quietly disposed of later on, “at leisure.” 

After what Ellery Queen calls a “whiplash of surprise” beside an open grave and a shattered coffin, the story ends happily with Alma and Jimmy embracing, after which Jimmy starts making plans for a second—proper—wedding. And he issues an invitation to the investigating policeman to act as best man! Such an outburst of high spirits tinged with drollery is rare in Woolrich—but it is similar to the joyous conclusion of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

* The rather creepy plot idea goes back to the19th-century urban legend known variously as “The Vanishing Hotel Room” or “The Vanishing Lady,” which has proved so popular as to inspire a number of various fictional treatments: at least two short stories (Nancy Vincent McClelland’s 1897 “A Mystery of the Paris Exposition”, Sir Basil Thomson’s 1925 “The Vanishing of Mrs Fraser”), a radio play (Cabin-13 by John Dickson Carr, 1943), two films (So Long at the Fair, 1950and the A Treacherous Crossing, 1953) and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Into Thin Air”, 1957).

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