RARA-AVIS: Re: Fright by Cornel Woolrich

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 16 Sep 2007


Re your comments below:

"I'm very interested in what fellow RARA-AVIANs think about [FRIGHT] and Woolrich--also any recommendations for their favorite Woolrich books."

I've never read FRIGHT, though I've certainly read a lot of Woolrich.

My favorite novel is THE BRIDE WORE BLACK, in which Woolrich manages a real tour de force. Set up as an
"inverted mystery" in which we see the killer (a woman widowed on her wedding day), plan a series of murders, then carry those murders out, then watch a detective try to solve them.

We know who did the murders. The cop doesn't. So, as with a COLUMBO episode, the fun is in watching how the detective figures out, and proves, what we already know.

Each murder is set up as a three-chapter section, the first chapter told from the POV of the killer, the second from the POV of the intended victim, and the third from the POV of the investigating detective who's sure there's a link between all these crimes.

However, in each section, the killer takes on a different disguise. And in the LAST section, we don't know what disguise she has taken on. Thus, Woolrich adroitly turns what has been a inverted mystery into a whodunit at the last minute, something I've never seen done before or since.

It's also noir, by anyone's definition, even William's, for reasons I can't get into without ruining the plot. So skip the next paragraph if you've never read the book.


The killer has been motivated by vengeance, because she blames each of the men she kills for the death of her husband as they exited the church where they had just exchanged vows.

But it turns out that none of these guys had anything to do with her hubby's death. So she's squandered her soul, by ruthlessly murdering a series of innocent men.

Meanwhile, the cop has to live with the fact that, despite his best efforts, he wasn't able to put it all together in time to save those men.


Woolrich reworked the same basic situation in a later novel, RENDEVOUS IN BLACK, which many people prefer. I personally like the earlier BRIDE WORE BLACK better.

His most famous novel, with the exception of BRIDE, was his first as "William Irish," PHANTOM LADY. This is one of the best examples of the "save the wrongfully convicted man before he's executed for the murder someone else did" gambit ever. Ultimately, though, I don't find it as well-constructed as BRIDE.

THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, which he wrote as
"George Hopley" (his middle names), is particularly haunting, but it has the faults you mentioned. HIghly stylized writing and unbelievable coincidences.

It occurs to me that, precisely because of those flaws, at least at novel-length, Woolrich generally works best at short story length. Two collections of his short work are particular standouts, NIGHTWEBS and NIGHT & FEAR. My personal favorite of his short stories is "Detective William Brown," a great little procedural (and it's amazing how convincing his procedurals are, given that the reclusive Woolrich di very little research). His own favorite was said to be "Endicott's Girl." Both of these stories appear in NIGHT & FEAR.


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