RARA-AVIS: Fright by Cornel Woolrich

From: Dave Zeltserman ( dz@hardluckstories.com)
Date: 15 Sep 2007

Hardcase is reissuing Fright, and it's really quite a study in noir. The setup for this one is great. You have this guy who could've been happy, could've led a normal and even somewhat privileged life, except for one lapse in judgment--that lapse going out and getting stinking drunk when a woman he wants to someday marry has to call off a date because of a death in the family. That leads to him waking up with a woman who's intent on blackmailing him--as much for sport as for the money. When he proposes to his girlfriend and she accepts, he moves to a new rooming house under a false name to keep this blackmailer away until after his marriage. So here's the setup-- minutes before his bestman is going to pick him up for the wedding his blackmailer shows up and he ends up in a blind rage choking her to death, and as his bestman is outside his door, dumping the body in the closet. What follows after that--and the damage that this guy ultimately causes was painful enough that it had me at times having to put the book down. The contrast between this where you had a normal guy devolving into a monster, and Cain, Thompson and others where the protagonists are losers or borderline sociopaths on the outer edge of society to begin with was really quite stunning. This wasn't a perfect book--while I found a large part of book's writing riveting, at times found Woolrich's highly stylized fashion tough to get through. Also, while the relationship and exchanges between the protagonist and his wife were as realistic as I've found in crime fiction, some of the protagonists hallucinations seemed pretty farfetched. There was an unfortunate postscript at the end that turns noir more into irony. Still, given this, it was still a fascinating read. I had given up on a couple of Woolrich books in the past because of his highly stylized writing, but I'm going to be seeking them out again.

I'm very interested in what fellow RARA-AVIANs think about this book and Woolrich--also any recommendations for their favorite Woolrich books.

--Dave Zeltserman

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