Don’t be put off by the publication date — we’re deep in the Golden Age here, with the twelve stories in this collection originally published in 1934 and 1935. And, oh my, what a collection it is.
A quick piece of clarification before we begin: the collection Darkness at Dawn (1985) was originally published in the US by the Southern Illinois University Press before a 1988 UK reprint by Xanadu Publications. Mine is the UK edition, pictured above, which I mention only because the copyright page herein lists thirteen stories — ‘Dead on Her Feet’ (1935) being M.I.A. — and a checklist of Woolrich’s work by co-editor and introducor Francis M. Nevins, Jr. which is also not included.
My reading of Woolrich is limited at present, but I wasn’t prepared for just how traditional some of these stories would be. ‘Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair’, a.k.a. ‘Hurting Much?’ (1934) and ‘Preview of Death’, a.k.a. ‘Screen Test’ (1934) are arguably neatly-contrived impossible crime problems, and the solidly procedural elements to ‘The Body Upstairs’ (1935), ‘Red Liberty’, a.k.a. ‘Mystery in the Statute of Liberty’, a.k.a., ‘The Corpse in the Statue’ (1935), and ‘The Showboat Murders’ (1935) elevate them above mere sensation pieces: the scheme of ‘Red Liberty’ in particular, while I don’t for a second believe the clue that puts our culturally-deprived detective on the correct scent, is really neat and beautifully explored: how can a man weighing 250 lbs disappear while on a walking tour of the Statue of Liberty? And how do you find him?
Additionally, ‘Murder in Wax’ (1935) is a wonderfully twisted mystery in which a woman tries to save her husband from his conviction for the murder of his mistress not necessarily because the marriage they had sounds anything worth saving…
The coffee [he threw] in my face wasn’t hot enough to scald me luckily, and I didn’t even mind hitting the floor over in the corner of the dining nook.
…but almost just to prove to herself that she can after years of being told “I didn’t have a thing inside my head” by her far-from-a-catch of a man. Not all Woolrich’s relationships are messed up — witness the father-son bond in the inverted ‘The Corpse and the Kid’, a.k.a. ‘Blind Date’ (1935), wherein the latter seekes to cover up the former’s crime out of nothing more than love — but the overriding themes of generally unhappy or compromised existences and of the easy, casual, brutal violence that goes hand in hand with them makes for a fascinating dual thread throughout.
Woolrich’s cops are, as a rule, poorly-educated lunks who resort to using their fists far more often than their heads, with a casual disdain for anyone not in a uniform who tries to help out (“Drop around sometime and we’ll be glad to give you a job — scrubbing the floor”) and an easy, inevitable resorting to violence that the denizens of these stories who come into contact with the bastions of law and order accept with the indifference of a trifling occupational hazard. Even when written from the perspective of a sympathetic policeman, as in the two Detective Jimmy Galbraith stories ‘Preview of Death’ and ‘The Body Upstairs’, there’s a sense of the expected about him holding the husband of a woman found murdered in her bath under the blood-stained water dripping through the ceiling to force a confession from him. It is at once brutal and, in the world Woolrich creates here, entirely sensible.
The violence, too, is…quite something at times. Obviously we fall considerably short of pornographically lingering over ruined flesh or beaten suspects, but the crime which lauches the amateur investigation in ‘Walls That Hear You’ (1934) will live with me for a long time, and the central event that powers the plot of ‘The Death of Me’ (1935) — a story which opens with our narrator unsympathetically preparing to commit suicide, and gets only darker from there — is bracingly relayed, let me tell you. Woolrich’s men and women are made durable by a life that knocks them around — perhaps resigned to their lives in a way, but living them with an indissoluble spirit that views triumph and tragedy as destinations with barely any discernable gap between them. When it goes wrong for them, and sometimes it really does, there’s no lachrymosity; when it goes right — and one story in particular has a sting in the tail that made me hoot with delight — you really do feel the relief that seemed so unobtainable only moments before.
Not all the stories herein are of equal quality, of course. ‘Kiss of the Cobra’ (1935) is little more than a sensationalist, tawdry Yellow Peril affair, and the voodoo gang at the centre of ‘Dark Melody of Madness’ (1935) contribute to an Othering of foreigners that sits uneasily against the humanity and brilliance showing up elsewhere. At times Woolrich has legitimate sympathy for his non-American brethren — pointing out that a man speaking broken English would be unlikely to dream up the false name of Jones because “[f]amiliar as it is, it would have been as foreign to him as his own name was to me” — but then he has the narrator of the none-more-hardboiled ‘Hot Water’ (1935) declare that there’s no sense in calling in the Mexican police to engage a suspect in a vehicular chase because “what could they do, chase the kidnap-car on donkeys?” and I found myself recoiling a little from the pages.
And while Woolrich doesn’t quite have the mind for subtle clewing — all that talk bout black hair-pins in ‘The Body Upstairs’ goes precisely nowhere — he gets the essential construction of criminous schemes magnificently: building one alibi and then pointing out flaws in another in ‘The Corpse and the Kid’, say, or talking us through the subterfuge in ‘Walls that Hear You’ with an almost John Rhode-ian scientific delight in precision. And, good god, the prose is simply terrific at times, with every single story offering up striking lines of either magnificent simplicity:
He was alone in the house now with the body of a murdered woman.
He speaks, and if the unburied dead ever spoke, this is the voice they’d use.
Twenty-one years of energy pulled forty-two years of apathy to its feet by the shoulders.
…or sublime economy:
The trial opened in the middle of a freak heat wave that had got its dates mixed up. At 90 in the shade, with a perspiring jury ready to convict the Angel Gabriel if they could only get out of there and into a shower bath and a cranky judge who hated his own mother, he didn’t have a chance.
Certain phrases from this collection — heavy breathing sounding “like sandpaper on concrete”, or a rented room so small that “I didn’t even smoke; there wasn’t room enough for two kinds of air in the place” — really hit the mark, and discovering just how damn fine a stylist Woolrich can be is a real delight. He’s always written well even in the small coverage I’ve managed to date, but to see story after story turn up striking images, palpable emotions, and tellingly limned characters is a real delight. Mind you, the moment the narrator of one story, in a fit of panic, describes himself as “quivering inside like a vibrator”…answers on a postcard for that one, please.
So, my reading of Woolrich is limited at present, but on this evidence I think I’m going to be a fan. He has the fatality of Jim Thompson, but the interest in justice that informed so much of the Golden Age; he has the cynicism of Dasihell Hammett, but the belief in people’s essential decency and loyalty that makes his protagonists act with often the best (occasionally misgiuided) intentions; and he has the lyrical power of Ross Thomas matched with an eye for sudden developments that would make Erle Stanley Gardner proud. “Who says the innocent don’t run as great a risk as the guilty?” one of his narrators asks early on and, in essence, that’s the heart of Woolrich’s darkness right there. Expect developments, because he and I are going to investigate this philosophy further together.