Cornell Woolrich’s highly suspenseful plots are often recounted from the standpoint of leading characters who, however ordinary they may seem at the outset, become embroiled in strange and terrifying situations. Woolrich was particularly adept at handling questions of betrayal and suspicion, arousing doubts about characters’ backgrounds and intentions. Works dealing with amnesia or other unknowing states of mind produce genuine tension, though in other hands such themes might seem forced and overused.
Woolrich rarely made use of master detectives or other agents committed to bringing criminals to justice. His police officers attempt as best they can to grapple with apparently inexplicable occurrences; some of them are willful and corrupt. When they reach solutions, often it is with the help of individuals who themselves have been suspected of or charged with criminal acts. One of Woolrich’s strengths is the vivid depiction of stark emotional reactions; the thoughts and feelings of leading characters are communicated directly, often in sharply individual tones. Some of his plots revolve about methods of crime or detection that might seem ingenious in some instances and implausible in others. Taken as a whole, his work may appear uneven; his best tales, however, produce somber and deeply felt varieties of apprehension, plunging the reader into the grim, enigmatic struggles of his protagonists.