RARA-AVIS: Chandler on Woolrich

From: Richard Moore ( moorich@aol.com)
Date: 02 Feb 2008

I recently dug out my copy of Frank MacShane's SELECTED LETTERS OF RAYMOND CHANDLER (Columbia 1981) as I recalled Chandler had praised Woolrich as a good idea man but rather empty in the execution. My memory was generally correct but I had not recalled an earlier, much more positive reference.

On October 22, 1942, Chandler wrote Blanche Knopf, wife of publisher Alfred Knopf and also an important contributor to the publishing company. "I have just been reading a book called PHANTOM LADY, by William Irish, whoever that is. It has one of those artificial trick plots and is full of small but excessive demands on the Goddess of Chance, but it is a swell job of writing, one that gives everything to every character, every scene, and never, like so many of our overrated novelists, just flushes the highlights and then gets scared and runs. I haven't seen the book advertised anywhere and such reviews I have seen of it show a complete unawareness of the technical merits of the book. So what the hell."

PHANTOM LADY was the first novel under the name William Irish and it was so different it bowled people over. Chandler was not a quick man with praise.

On February 8, 1943, less than four months after writing Blanche, Chandler wrote her husband Alfred Knopf. "William Irish is a man named Cornell Woolrich, an author under his own name, and one of the oldest hands there are at the pulp detective business. He is known in the trade as an idea writer, liking the tour de force, and not much of a character man. I think his stuff is very readable, but leaves no warmth behind it."

This is a very interesting critique of Woolrich, not one that can be dismissed easily. Chandler could be catty and a touch jealous of other writers but this is a thoughtful analysis. The paranoid viewpoint of much of Woolrich does not lend itself to warmth. The universe is a cold place which will snatch away everything you love in an instance. The woman you love is either an unattainable Goddess or a conniving bitch but you will continue loving her until life leads your body. An aside, I wonder if Woolrich picked up the Madonna or whore view of women during his years south of the border? It is a concept I've seen discussed by writers examining attitudes of some Mexican men.

I also wonder if the knowledge that Irish was actually Cornell Woolrich helped lower Chandler's opinion. Although he calls him "one of the oldest hands there are at the pulp fiction business" the truth is that Woolrich first appeared in the detective pulps in 1934, about the same time as Chandler. The magic of Irish may have been reduced by knowing that behind the name was a penny or two a word pulp writer who shared many contents pages with Chandler.

Richard Moore

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