The Mysterious Bookshop

Gathering Woolrich


Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) was considered by some of his contemporaries as one of the best crime fiction writers, right up there with Hammett and Chandler.  He is perhaps best known for ‘It Had To Be Murder,’ memorably filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1954 as ‘Rear Window.’ ‘The Bride Wore Black’ was filmed by Francois Truffaut, as was ‘Mississippi Mermaid,’ and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film for German television, ‘Martha,’ was loosely based on Woolrich’s story ‘For the Rest Of Her Life.’

Certainly Woolrich wrote some pretty purple prose, although some readers & critics feel that some of it is a little too purple, and some are critical of his plotting, feeling it unrealistic and less than plausible. Unlike most mystery writers, though, he becomes less familiar the more his work is read.  Suppose you’d seen some of the Perry Mason television shows, or read some of the later Erle Stanley Gardner novels.  You’d learn pretty quickly that whoever is in jail for the crime didn’t do it, right?  But with Woolrich, to his credit, you never know.  Could be the logical suspect, could be the one you least expect, could even be the butler!  Or there the murder may lie, unsolved.

A New Yorker by birth, Woolrich left Columbia University before his class graduated when his first novel, Cover Charge, was released.  He did, however, eventually endow a scholarship fund at that august citadel of learning.

His first six novels were creatures out of Fitzgerald, and rather obviously at that, but he hit his stride with the next six written under his own name, which placed him firmly in the pantheon of noir fiction writers. It’s generally conceded that his books with ‘black’ in the title are the best of his work and some of the best thrillers ever.  The Bride Wore Black, The Black Curtain, Black Alibi, The Black Angel, The Black Path of Fear, and Rendezvous In Black are the ones not to be missed.  In between these, Woolrich published several books under one or another of his pseudonyms, among them the Dell paperback original Marihuana, the story of a troubled man who goes berserk when he has a puff on a reefer.  The book is today a cult classic, and nice copies regularly sell for three figures.  Writing as William Irish, Phantom Lady is the story of a man accused of murder who predictably insists upon his innocence, but the woman he was with who serves as his alibi cannot be found.  Is she even real?  Published in a nice facsimile edition, and also memorably filmed.

One thing that might set Cornel Woolrich apart from the pack is his strong female characters. Particularly evident in ‘Angel Face’ and ‘Murder In Wax’ (The stories upon which The Black Angel was based), these dames are not necessarily paragons of virtue, nor are they paper saints, but they are very real, especially by the standards of the crime fiction of the time. They simply do what they have to do to survive and in the novels these characters thankfully are not bombshells or simpering doormats fainting at the drop of a hat (or a gat), but these women come across as rather more fully fleshed out characters than the norm.

Cornell Woolrich was second to none in creating atmosphere for his characters, who tend to be amoral or helpless with little in between.  Moral ambiguity is thus quite evident. For example (Spoiler!), in The Black Angel, when the besotted drunken man takes his own life after falling in love with the heroine, she feels neither sorrow nor remorse, only satisfaction.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Woolrich did not start his writing career through the pulp magazines, nor did he have any recurring characters.  In a way, this freed him, for there was no need for the happy ending done up in a ribbon.  His standalones could end any way he wished them to, reader expectations notwithstanding, which is refreshing.  A critic for a Pittsburgh newspaper wrote that if one could imagine Alfred Hitchcock writing a novel the way he directed his films, one would have a Cornell Woolrich story (referring to The Bride Wore Black), and that is as good a way of putting it as any.


Now you’re all curious to read some Cornell Woolrich, right?  Right?

Ask about our facsimile editions in general and Phantom Lady in particular!

Questions/Comments/Night Light?


Written by Ian Kern — November 07, 2016