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 from a machine; actually, the trick seems remarkably simple once the murderer’s likely whereabouts have been reviewed. Other deadly devices, some outwardly improbable, appear in various stories.
In “Kiss of the Cobra,” death from snake poison cannot easily be explained until it is learned how a strange Indian woman could have transferred venom to common articles used by her victims. Suggestions of supernatural agencies are developed more fully in “Dark Melody of Madness” (also known as “Papa Benjamin” and “Music from the Dark”), in which a musician all too insistently attempts to learn the secrets of voodoo from some practitioners of that dark religion. Although he can compel them to divulge the incantations that seemingly will summon malevolent spirits, such forces are not content to be used in the man’s stage performances. Eventually, whether from the intervention of unearthly powers or from sheer fright, he collapses and dies. “Speak to Me of Death,” which eventually was incorporated into another work, concerns a seemingly prophetic warning: When a wealthy old man is told that he will die at midnight, other interested parties take note of the means specified and gather to prevent harm from coming to him. In the end he falls victim not to any human agency or to anxiety and apprehension; rather, the original design is carried through in a wholly unexpected way. In Woolrich’s stories, the distinction between known operations of the physical world and his characters’ subjective beliefs is often left shadowy and uncertain; when improbable events take place, it is not always clear whether individual susceptibilities or the actual workings of malignant powers are responsible. Similarly, when protagonists are introduced in an intoxicated state, sometimes it cannot easily be determined whether they are actually responsible for deeds that were perpetrated when they were inebriated. In other stories, certain individuals are under the sway of narcotics, such as marijuana or cocaine.
At times, Woolrich’s protagonists find themselves implicated in grim plots that begin with apparently incriminating situations and end with unusual resolutions. In “And So to Death” (better known as “Nightmare”), a man who has been found at the scene of a murder has some difficulty in convincing even himself that he is innocent, and only with the intervention of others can the facts in the case be established. Police procedures are often portrayed as arbitrary and brutal. A marathon dance contest furnishes the background for “Dead on Her Feet,” a macabre study of a killing in an unusual pose. When a girl is found rigid, not exhausted but actually murdered, a ruthless police officer forces a young man, weary and frightened, to dance with his dead partner; though soon afterward he is absolved, he breaks down under the strain and falls prey to uncontrollable mad laughter. In “The Body Upstairs,” police torment a man with lighted cigarettes in an attempt to make him confess; all the while, another man on the force has tracked down the real killer.
“The Death of Me” and “Three O’Clock”
If the innocent generally suffer in Woolrich’s stories, it is also true that crime often fails to achieve its ends. Well-laid plans tend to go awry in strange or unanticipated ways. In “The Death of Me,” a man determines to stage his own death to defraud his insurance company. He exchanges personal effects with someone who was killed at a railroad crossing, but this other man proves to have been a criminal who had stolen a large sum of money; thus, the protagonist is pursued both by the man’s cohorts and by an insurance investigator. When he turns on his company’s agent and kills him, he realizes that he will be subject to criminal charges under whichever name he uses. In “Three O’Clock,” a man decides to eliminate his wife and her lover. He builds a time bomb that he installs in the basement of his house; once the mechanism is in place, however, he is accosted by burglars, who tie him up and leave him behind as the fateful countdown begins. After the man has abandoned all hope of rescue, it is discovered that the device had inadvertently been deactivated beforehand, but by then he has been driven...
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