Dreaming, then dying

Dreaming, then dying
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First Published: Fri, Jan 16 2009. 09 41 PM IST
Updated: Fri, Jan 16 2009. 09 41 PM IST
If you trawl determinedly through those tattered paperbacks of the pavement book bazaar in any Indian city, you will probably come across the name Cornell Woolrich. Or his nom de plume William Irish.
Or George Hopley, another name for the same writer. The book, be it The Bride Wore Black (1940), Phantom Lady (1942) or Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1945), isn’t likely to cost you more than Rs20, a price which will give a new meaning to the expression “cheap thrills”.
If it happens to be a first edition in mint condition, it may well fetch a couple of hundred dollars in the international collectors’ market because once upon a time, this American was one of the most prolific and best-selling crime writers around, whose rise to fame coincided with the paperback revolution of the 1940s.
Woolrich’s weirdly paranoid stories were a major source of inspiration for the film noir genre and at least 20 were filmed, including one major classic by the lord of goose bumps, Alfred Hitchcock, and two by the legendary auteur François Truffaut.
In fact, the film Rear Window (1954), based on the Woolrich short story It Had To Be Murder—where a crippled paparazzo with a phallic telephoto camera peeps on his neighbours and uncovers a brutal murder only to find that nobody believes him—was one of Hitchcock’s favourites among his own films. More recently, Waltz Into Darkness (1947) inspired the cheesy, big-budget, no-brainer Original Sin (2001), starring Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas (in the roles played by Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo in the Truffaut version of the same story).
And although Woolrich was several years junior to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, he is still spoken of as “the father of noir fiction” and considered perhaps the most artistic among writers in the hard-boiled school. As a matter of fact, it has been suggested that the entire noir genre got its label from the way Woolrich favoured titles with words such as “black” or “dark”. Yet today, he is strangely forgotten—his books are by and large out of print and in the Yahoo discussion group set up on the Internet by fans, there hardly seems to be any discussion going on.
So who was this guy? Born in 1903, Woolrich started out as an F. Scott Fitzgerald epigone and while still in his 20s, published several novels about the young, smart urban set. Children of the Ritz (1927) won him an award and his Manhattan Love Song (1932) was made into a motion picture. He may well have followed in Fitzgerald’s footsteps to a decadent expat party life on the French Riviera, if it hadn’t been for the Great Depression of 1929—which forced him to eke out his living for the next 10 years by writing a-penny-a-word stories for cheap pulp magazines such as Black Mask. Then in the 1940s, he came into his own and the books from that decade are considered vintage Woolrich.
But unlike his colleagues Chandler and Hammett, World War veterans who’d seen plenty of real action (Hammett even did an eight-year stint as a Pinkerton detective), Woolrich never even set foot in a police station and everything he knew of criminals was, well, based on what he imagined them to be.
Nevertheless, he soon became notorious for his darkly disturbing, claustrophobic plots brimming with desperation and extreme psychological tension—the protagonists’ sense of permanent anxiety is highly infectious, which makes it hard to stop reading a Woolrich story. One of his pet plots revolves around ordinary people being falsely suspected of heinous crimes—such as in Nightmare (filmed in 1948 as Fear in the Night) about a man who dreams of killing somebody, only to wake up and find that he probably has committed murder while asleep! Another trademark of Woolrich’s was the twists; he pushed the reader relentlessly through one mind-blowing twist after another.
Although he has been compared to Edgar Allan Poe, and TV serials such as Twilight Zone (1959-64) were clearly indebted to him, Woolrich was regrettably rather too formulaic: His contrived stories relied heavily on the unlikeliest of coincidences, and his plotting was often full of holes large enough to drive an armada of autorickshaws through. On top of this, he created no memorable characters comparable to Hammett’s Sam Spade or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—both of whom, incidentally, were portrayed on screen by that icon of film noir, Humphrey Bogart.
However, reading a Woolrich story is always worthwhile: He was a craftsperson down to his fingertips, his craft was to thrill, and he would always deliver. Readers of pulp fiction may not have had a highly evolved literary taste, but they expected to get their money’s worth.
The outward success story hid a tragic private life: rotten childhood and a life spent as a self-loathing closet homosexual shacked up with his mum in seedy hotels. He apparently never even met Hitchcock, nor did he go and see Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black when the film was premiering in New York in 1968, during the last year of Woolrich’s life.
In a back issue of Twilight Zone magazine, writer Ron Goulart reminisced about keeping the elderly alcoholic writer, who had lost one leg to gangrene, company in various Manhattan bars in the 1960s, “Woolrich wasn’t writing much anymore, and you sometimes got the impression he felt he’d already been dead for several years. ‘I was only trying to cheat death,’ he wrote in his unfinished autobiography, ‘I was only trying to surmount for a little while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me one day and obliterate me. I was only trying to stay alive a little brief while longer, after I was already gone.’”
I would argue that Woolrich is one writer well worth rediscovering, and for those who wish to know more about him, there’s Francis Nevins’ biography, First You Dream, Then You Die (the title is an aphorism coined by Woolrich). Though I doubt you’ll find that one on the pavements.Write to Zac at criminalmind@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jan 16 2009. 09 41 PM IST