Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) write a vast number of novels and short stories, often under pen names such as William Irish. He hit his stride in the 1940’s with a series of novels and stories that redefined the concept of the American crime story. Unlike his more famous contemporaries in the genre, Woolrich eschewed the detective story, preferring to leave the fate of the solving both the mystery and often saving their very lives up to the regular people trapped in webs of coincidence and evil. When cops and detectives do show up, they are usually in the surface of maintaining the system. In the world of Woolrich, the legal system is just another thing to keep running smoothly in order to maintain order and not a mechanism of justice, much less truth.
While Woolrich dabbled in a number of different genres, his most famous stories are those which served as the foundation for the development of a genre more often associated with movies. The fundamental world of film noir is one that mirrors many of Woolrich’s stories: characters inhabit a world in which their confidence that they can control their own destiny is invariably ripped apart by often mysterious forces of fate. While the moral universe of his stories are consistent with that of film noir, his characters are usually closer to the world of Hitchcock. They are usually innocent men unjustly accused or suspect of criminal activity who must spend the bulk of the narrative trying to clear their name. And, indeed, Woolrich’s most famous short story is “It Had to be Murder” because that story was adapted the film Rear Window by none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself.
The best film adaptation of Woolrich is the relatively low-budget and cult favorite noir classic Phantom Lady. It is the story of a man wrongly convicted of a murder who must depend upon a female business associated to prove he wasn’t the person responsible for the murder of his wife and time is quickly running out as his appointment with the executioner draws near. That basic outline can be applied in a nutshell to the bulk of Woolrich’s best crime fiction which is heavily dependent upon a person either needing to prove something that nobody else believes or relying upon the assistance of an outsider to find that proof. In the case of “It Had to be Murder” the protagonist is hampered by a broken leg which has severely limited his own ability to investigate the murder he believes he has witnessed. In other famous story, the person who knows the truth is hampered not only by the fact that he is a child, but a child prone to exaggeration and making up stories.
Woolrich is assuredly deserving of being referred to as one of the architects of crime noir. Noir is constructed upon a much more ambiguous view of good and evil than was found in the detective and whodunit stories of the 1930’s. The noirish landscape of 1940’s morality grew directly out of the horrors of World War II when the world learned just how stupendously evil man could actually be to each other. Do not go in search of a Philip Marlowe or even a Sam Spade in the crime fiction of Woolrich. His is a world where everybody is subject to becoming a mere victim of circumstances at any time. The stories of Woolrich are those in which no knights in shining armor are coming to the rescue. It is a dark, cruelly random universe where the only person you can count on to save you is yourself.
Or, if for some reason fate has decided to bless you with just one stray ray of hope, a very special someone who will never give up on you.