The stories that marked Cornell Woolrich’s debut as a mystery writer display a fatalism that lends added weight to surprise endings and ironic twists. Almost invariably, seemingly innocuous situations become fraught with dangerous possibilities. Outwardly ordinary people prove to harbor devious and malign intentions; the innocent, by the odd machinations of fate, often find themselves enmeshed in the schemes of the guilty. Frequently, the outcome of these dark, troubled struggles remains in doubt, and Woolrich was not averse to letting characters perish or be undone by their own devices. Many of his works are set in New York or other large urban areas during the Depression and depict people who, already impoverished and often desperate, are drawn relentlessly into yet more serious and threatening circumstances.
In Woolrich’s first suspense work, “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair,” the mysterious demise of a man who has recently had his teeth filled leads to some frantic searching for the murderer. An unusual murder method is uncovered, and the protagonist is nearly poisoned during his efforts to show the culprit’s mode of operation. In “Preview of Death,” when an actress costumed in an old-fashioned hoop skirt is burned to death, a police detective shows how the fire could have been produced by one of her cohorts. “Murder at the Automat” leads to some anxious investigations when a man dies after eating a poisoned sandwich obtained...
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