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A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Recommended Works:

Cornell Woolrich

After Dinner Story

Somebody on the Phone


Blind Date with Death

The Blue Ribbon


Darkness at Dawn

Dead Man Blues

Six Nights of Mystery

Vampire's Honeymoon

Angels of Darkness

The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich


Night and Fear

Uncollected Stories

Deadline at Dawn (1944) (Chapters 1 - 5)

Thomas Walsh

Short stories

Zenith Gray

"You Can't Get Rich Jerking Sodas" (1943)

Bruno Fischer

The Angels Fell (1950)

Short stories

Fredric Brown

Carnival of Crime Before She Kills Madman's Holiday Pardon My Ghoulish Laughter The Freak Show Murders Mr. Henry Smith stories Uncollected Stories

Day Keene

"Remember the Night" (1949)

Wake Up to Murder (1952)

James A. Kirch

Short stories

Charlotte Armstrong

The Albatross Night Call and Other Stories of Suspense (available from its publisher Crippen & Landru)

William O'Farrell

Short stories

Cornell Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich was a pulp writer and novelist whose work is noted for its suspense, emotionalism, and vivid writing. He started out as a mainstream writer in the 1920's, whose work was in the tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald. When the Depression caused him to lose his markets, he turned to the pulp magazines to survive. He also changed his style to one of dark, brooding suspense.

From 1934-1946 Woolrich was an immensely prolific pulp writer, turning out scores of pieces, both long and short, for the pulps. Starting in 1940, he also wrote over a dozen suspense novels in the 1940's. Woolrich's work was adapted into numerous motion pictures, the best being Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944) and Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954).

Woolrich's fiction is at the center of what has come to be known as the noir style. Noir, pronounced 'nwahr', is the French word for black. In noir works, the protagonist is menaced by sinister, powerful forces from the world around him. He has to struggle to survive in a sinister labyrinth of a universe that he can barely understand or control. Noir was an important style in the 1940's and 1950's, both in prose works such as Woolrich's, and in Hollywood films. The movie version of the style, known as Film Noir, runs through hundreds of film thrillers of the era, including many of the best films directed by Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Orson Welles, Joseph H. Lewis, Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Gerd Oswald, and Robert Aldrich. Noir also influenced comic books, including the science fiction comics scripted by Joe Samachson and the King Faraday stories of Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino.

Prose Style

Woolrich had a remarkable prose style. He especially excelled at description. For a good example, see the small story, almost a fragment, known as "Funeral". This is one of Woolrich's best pieces of writing, exemplifying his descriptive gifts. It describes that cliché of gangster movies, the shoot out with police, with unforgettable literary brilliance.

Light and Color

Woolrich loved descriptions of light. These often show light in bright colors. Examples: Woolrich can be a powerfully visual writer.

Impossible Crimes

A surprising number of Cornell Woolrich's stories deal with impossible crimes. Many of his tales of Vanishing Women (which as Anthony Boucher pointed out, was a Woolrich staple) are in fact impossible crimes. How could a woman disappear so completely, that everyone around her would deny her existence? On the surface this seems impossible, yet... These tales include Phantom Lady (1942), and "I Won't Take a Minute" (1940).

There are also impossible crimes in "Screen-Test" (1934), which is one of Woolrich's earliest mysteries, "Murder at the Automat" (1937), "The Room With Something Wrong" (1938), "The Street of Jungle Death" (1939), "Nightmare" (1941), "That New York Woman" (1942) and "Money Talks" (1961). One suspects that there are others scattered through Woolrich's voluminous, still often unreprinted work.

Woolrich's interest in impossible crimes extended throughout his mystery career. His attitude towards them was curious in many ways, however. The "impossible" nature of the crimes is not emphasized. In John Dickson Carr, by contrast, there is always someone to point out that a seeming impossibility has occurred; the detectives ask and brain storm throughout the book, how the "magic trick" was done; people talk about other impossible crimes solved by the great detectives, and so on. Now Carr was always more reflective a writer than many other detective writers, often making explicit references to the fact that his characters were inside a detective puzzle. Still, most writers of impossible crimes have gone the Carrian route, emphasizing their special nature. Not Woolrich, however. One can read any of these stories without being conscious of anything other that it being a puzzling mystery.

One can ascribe several artistic motives to Woolrich for this "concealment of genre", to coin a phrase, but they are all guesswork. One idea is that the impossibility of the crime is designed to heighten the mood of irrationality and terror. The hero is in the grip of some horrible force that he cannot even understand rationally, let alone control. The impossibility is just used to heighten the sense of a general mysteriousness, to make the situation even more puzzling. The last thing an author would need, according to this scenario, is any attempt to lighten this mood, to suggest that the impossibility is just a game designed for the reader's entertainment.

Another possibility is that pulps discouraged story emphasis on the pure puzzle during the development of the tale. Pulp stories tend to be fair play mysteries, with clever, surprising solutions worked out from fairly given clues at the end of the tale. But the early parts of the story do not pause and emphasize the puzzle, the way a detective novel of the period would. Instead the story barrels along on waves of action, so that readers who read only for adventure will be entertained. At the end, those readers who expect a fair play solution will be rewarded, too.

There could be other factors. Woolrich never used series detectives, and most of his flat foots are ordinary policemen of the Depression era. He had no need to build them up as Great Detectives, a la Dr. Fell or The Great Merlini. Instead, he went out of his way to emphasize the ordinary nature of his cops.

The Street of Jungle Death. "The Street of Jungle Death" (1939) is an impossible disappearance story. As the title suggests, the disappearance is linked to the architectural subject matter that plays such a role in Woolrich's fiction.

The explanation also has some relationship to the solution of a non-impossible mystery Woolrich wrote the same year, "You'll Never See Me Again" (1939). Both tales' architectural ideas show affinity.

Screen-Test. "Screen-Test" (1934) is too violent. But it does have a decent impossible crime plot.

"Screen-Test" contains the "back and forth" structure found in Woolrich. People keep going into and out of the sound stage that is the main locale. And the film footage at the end is repeatedly scrolled backwards and forwards.

SPOILERS. The descriptions of light show Woolrich's skill with this subject.

SPOILERS. Woolrich's tale frequently show what an individual character is seeing. "Screen-Test" offers a creative variant: what a roll of movie film is showing.

All at Once, No Alice. "All at Once, No Alice" (1940) is one of Woolrich's tales of a Vanishing Woman. The hero's wife disappears, and every witness denies her existence. It is sometimes classified as an Impossible Crime. However, it does not actually seem to be an Impossible Crime, in my judgement. SPOILERS. The solution is simply that all the witnesses have been bribed to lie. This seems like an obvious possibility, right from the start of the tale. The mystery strongly resembles those tales based on the Paris Exposition, in which a woman disappears in a hotel, and everyone lies about her never having been there. Such tales are eerie. But there is nothing Impossible about them. The possibility that everyone is simply lying, is something readers consider from the start. It makes the events of the tale look possible, not Impossible.

Woolrich and Traditional Detective Fiction

Woolrich liked many traditional elements of detective fiction: "The Book That Squealed" (1939) contains much detection involving a cryptogram, for instance, and the amateur detective heroes of this story and "Rear Window" are as nosy about their neighbors as any of Anna Katherine Green's spinsters. There is in fact something 19th Centuryish about Woolrich. His combination of mystery plots and thrills recalls the Sensation Novelists, as do his elaborately descriptive prose, and emphasis on storytelling. So does the perennial Woolrich theme of being buried alive, which turns up in LeFanu and Poe.

Early Classics: An Architecture Based Writer

Cornell Woolrich's earliest mystery stories, those 1934-1935 works collected in Darkness at Dawn, are generally pretty labored. By 1936, however, he had hit full stride. Several pieces from 1936-1938 are among his greatest works. "The Room With Something Wrong" (1938) is his greatest and most accomplished fiction. It combines the sheer thrills and suspense of such short works as "After Dinner Story" (1938), with a sustained, long narration, and the impossible crime theme that is such an important strand in Woolrich's work. "Death in the Air" (1936) is a thriller that shows Woolrich's interest in architecture, in this case New York's elevated trains, and their tracks. Height seemed to trigger Woolrich's suspense creative mechanism during this period, whether elevated trains ("Death in the Air"), hotel windows ("The Room With Something Wrong"), bridges (the somewhat later "If the Shoe Fits"), fire escapes ("Mamie 'n' Me") or elevators ("After Dinner Story"). All of these stories deal with various kinds of architecture.

Crazy House. Woolrich is an architecturally oriented writer, and he even wrote a couple of stories with secret passageways, the best of which is "Crazy House" (1941). Secret passages were supposed to be passé by the 1930's, but Woolrich clearly enjoyed thinking about them. Woolrich did not use them to solve a locked room mystery, so he did not violate any fair play rules by using them.

SPOILERS. A secret-passage-like feature is indeed used to solve an impossibility (the fireplace). However, this situation is off-trail, and the use of the feature seems legitimate.

The "Crazy House" mansion of the title, is an example of the "Old Dark House" that used to be so popular in mysteries and thrillers.

The opening, with the hero on foot battling his way through a dense fog, recalls a long series of mysteries. Please see my list of Fog in Mysteries.

A sinister doped drink appeared earlier in Woolrich's "Blind Date with Death".

Throughout the tale, the hero goes back and forth between the lower parts of the hill, and the top of the hill where the mansion is. This is typical of the back-and-forth movement sometimes found in Woolrich.

The police call-box, is part of Woolrich's interest in the communications infrastructure of modern society.

Mamie 'n' Me. In "Mamie 'n' Me" (1938) the hero figures out what is going on in the apartment, not through guesswork, but through reasoning from evidence. In other words, he uses reasoning appropriate to a detective.

He follows up not just a single clue, but several clues, to perform his reasoning. This profusion of evidence makes his reasoning stronger.

The hero goes up-and-down the fire escape, and the apartment building stairs. Back-and-forth motion is a common Woolrich approach.

We learn various ways in which customers communicated with milkmen in that era. In an odd way, this is an example of the communication infrastructure Woolrich likes to explore. While simple, the details will likely be unfamiliar to contemporary readers, and interesting.

More conventionally, "Mamie 'n' Me" also shows a society where both the hero and many other people follow the details of the crime in the newspaper. This is also communication infrastructure.

The hero is an archetypal working man: in this case, a milkman. The tale paints a positive picture of him, as a decent person who tries to help others in need. This is an idealized portrait of the working class. It likely has strong political undertones.

Subway. Woolrich's "Subway" (1936) is a little thriller that contains virtually every staple of all the subway and train suspense movies made since. There are problems getting off and on cars from the platform, there are suspenseful watches on the platforms, there are chases from car to car, there are shoot outs in crowds, there are trains hurtling out of control down tracks, you name it. I don't think this story has ever been officially filmed, but it was widely reprinted at one time, and perhaps is the ultimate source of all these movies. Reading it today it has a deja vu feel - most people have seen all of this, and in Technicolor. Also, there is no mystery plot. Between its now familiar material, and its lack of a mystery plot, "Subway" dates a little; I think that Woolrich's elevated train successor tale, "Death in the Air" (1936), now seems like a better story.

Still, "Subway" has merits, including some of Woolrich's vivid descriptive writing dealing with effects of light and color in the subway tunnels. This becomes especially good at the finale.

The hero repeatedly goes up and down the route in the subway. This anticipates the hero of "The Dog with the Wooden Leg" repeatedly going to and from his home to the park.

Communication infrastructure of modern society is stressed:

The subway itself is part of New York's transportation infrastructure.

An earlier tale looking at New York City's infrastructure is "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" (1913) by Frederick Irving Anderson.

The early newspaper accounts of the villain as the subject of a manhunt in a huge deserted office building, recalls an episode in the film M (Fritz Lang, 1931). By contrast, the finale of "Subway" anticipates another Lang film While the City Sleeps (1956).

Death in the Air. "Death in the Air" (1936) has terrific story telling. The tale unfolds like a piece of music.

The Ninth Avenue El was a real train, at the time the story was published. It was the oldest elevated train in New York City. The train's route in the story, and the streets it crosses on its route, are all real parts of New York City.

At the tale's end the policeman hero reasons out who committed the crime. This is "reasoning from evidence": always a good way to proceed in detective work.

SPOILERS in the rest of this section. The best part of the mystery plot comes earlier. What the detective thinks he has witnessed, turns out to be something else altogether. This is a plot approach that would later be regularly used by Edward D. Hoch. I've dubbed this approach the visual pun. In it, what a witness and the reader thank they are seeing, turns out to be completely different from the actual events. The supposed events and the real events make a sort of "pun", two things that look alike but which actually very different.

"Death in the Air" actually has four such "visual puns". Each relates to a different aspect of what the hero witnesses. This is richly inventive.

Although I've used the term "visual", one of the four puns actually refers to sound, rather than visual appearances (the buzzing insect). Hoch's "Leopold Undercover" (2007) also contains a sound-based "pun".

"Death in the Air" uses one of the "puns" (the bug on the newspaper) to create an apparent impossibility. This is almost immediately explained. Still, it is another example of a skillful impossibility in the mystery of Woolrich.

The Series. Both "Subway" and "Death in the Air" are part of a series of stories Woolrich wrote in which a crime is choreographed around some architectural construction. These include the story known as "Red Liberty" or "The Corpse in the Statue of Liberty" (1935), which is the best of Woolrich's very early, pre 1936 tales; and "Double Feature" / "The Most Exciting Show in Town" (1936), which is a thriller set in a movie theater. When Ellery Queen reprinted "The Body in Grant's Tomb" (1943) in the December 1948 EQMM, he reported that these tales had been conceived by Woolrich consciously as a series, and that Woolrich hoped to publish them as a collection in 1949. Unfortunately, no such story collection ever appeared.

The Later Detective Tales: A Series About Proving the Hero's Innocence

From 1939 to 1943 Woolrich wrote a series of stories with a common framework. An innocent man is suspected of a crime. Sometimes, the crime is quite personally related to the man, and torments him greatly. Often times he has blacked out his memory, due to drinking, drugs or some other problem, and he even suspects himself of the crime, being unable to remember the night in question. (These stories are deeply condemnatory of the use of alcohol or drugs.) The police go after him, but one cop, a tough but fair man, gives him the benefit of the doubt, and aids him with his professional skill in tracking down the real killer. A close personal relationship develops between the cop and the protagonist. Eventually, after a heroic, all encompassing effort, the hero manages to track down the real killer, and get some semblance of his original life back.

Woolrich used this framework over and over during these years, with a repetitiveness that bordered on the obsessive. Admittedly, it is a good working framework for a detective story, but it can be hard to take in quantity. It works best in the earliest of the tales, the remarkable long novella "You'll Never See Me Again" (1939), where it is fresh and original, and in the last tale in the series, "If the Shoe Fits" (1943). By contrast, "C-Jag" (1940) is mediocre, and "I Won't Take a Minute" (1940) rather labored. The relationship of the cop and the hero shows great variety. In "If the Shoe Fits", the detective saves the protagonist. It is ultimately joyous and upbeat, two qualities we do not always associate with Woolrich. On the other extreme, in "Nightmare" (1941), the relationship has degenerated to a masochistic fantasy, in which the cop torments the hero, and nearly destroys him.

A precursor to these tales in Woolrich's writing is "Shooting Going On" (1937). In this story, set in Hollywood, the hero is helped out, not by a policeman, but by a movie director. The director is a powerful authority figure, just like the later cops, and comes to the hero's aid with real selflessness. This tale, like Woolrich's "Screen-Test" (1934), has a Hollywood sound stage setting, and perhaps influenced Karl W. Detzer's "Murder in the Movies" (1937).

"All at Once, No Alice" (1940) is linked to the above tales. It has an innocent hero who no one believes, except for one tough cop who might possibly help him. However, unlike the above series, people do not think the hero is guilty of a crime; they think he is crazy and imagining things.

Nightmare. "Nightmare" is a story about which I have mixed feelings:

"Nightmare" was filmed officially twice, and many more times on TV without attribution to Woolrich. It is one of his most plagiarized plots: uncredited versions of the story are still being made on TV cop shows.

If the Shoe Fits. "If the Shoe Fits" differs from most other tales in the series, in that its detective is a private eye, rather than a policeman. It also differs in that it opens with the hero in trouble - but not accused of a crime.

The characters move back and forth, along the road containing the house. Such back-and-forth motion is a Woolrich tradition.

"If the Shoe Fits" can be read as a gay love story, with the detective and the hero. The two wind up sleeping in the same double bed, although nothing happens but sleeping. Another tale of gay love in Woolrich is "The Blue Ribbon" (1949). "The Blue Ribbon" is a sports story, not a mystery, and it shows a boxer's manager as feeling deep affection for him.

The closet contains one of those wardrobes full of Men's Dressy Clothes in 1940's American Mysteries. It is less elaborate than those in some mysteries of the era, however. As usual, any on-lookers (such as this tale's detective) seem to admire such a wardrobe. We learn more about the hero's reaction to this wardrobe, at the tale's end. What the hero does anticipates similar events in the film Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945).

SPOILERS. There are clever plot ideas about the Draft Board. The Draft Board is a bit similar to the "communication infrastructures" that play a role in other Woolrich tales.

Hard-Boiled Tales With Women Heroines

"Face Work" (1937) is one of several stories Woolrich wrote, largely for Black Mask, that deal with young women who serve as amateur detectives. Usually these women are in hard-boiled professions (the heroine of "The Dancing Detective" is a taxi-dancer) and they get into tough situations where they have to protect a naive younger brother or sister. These stories evoke the Depression and a very tough world. These heroines might be hard-boiled, but they are also immensely kind-hearted and resourceful. The suspense element in these tales, such as "Meet Me by the Mannequin", is strong.

Among Woolrich's 1940's story collections, The Dancing Detective is unusual in that it contains a large number of pure detective stories. These tend to take place against hard-boiled environments, the title story in a taxi dance hall, "Leg Man" in cheap bars getting mob supplied whiskey. None of these tales is at the very first rank of Woolrich's achievement, but they add to the list of pleasant stories written by the author.

The degree to which Woolrich's stories can be described as "hard-boiled" varies. These stories for Black Mask are the most hard-boiled Woolrich ever wrote. This is not surprising; Black Mask was the center of the hard-boiled style, and Woolrich clearly was making a conscious effort to follow in Black Mask tradition.

Blind Date with Death

"Blind Date with Death" (1937) is one of Woolrich's best little suspense tales, and is unusual that it has a male instead of a female protagonist, which was more typical when Woolrich wrote this sort of combination detective story-suspense tale. "The Dog with the Wooden Leg" (1939) is another male hero Woolrich story which mixes a little mystery, some plot ingenuity, and suspense.

"Blind Date with Death" shows the hero dismayed when he is ordered to show up in a tuxedo. This is funny and a common trope. But one suspects that men actually enjoy getting dressed up in formal wear.

The hero's idea of a gigolo - a man with "vaseline hair" - seems about ten years out of date. It evokes the 1920's, and silent movie era lounge lizards. The alliterative Andrew Sarris called such men "brilliantined bravos". One thinks of Rudolph Valentino. Or Richard Barthelmess in The Patent Leather Kid (Alfred Santell, 1927). In that film the girlfriend is a "shimmy" dancer. And sure enough, Miss Van Dine in "Blind Date with Death" "shimmied". However, all of this 1920's imagery succeeds as story telling - it is visually vivid.

We never meet any of the real gigolos in "Blind Date with Death", to see what they are like.

SPOILERS. The hero has a clever idea at the end, giving a telephone number as an address. This is part of Woolrich's interest in the communications infrastructure of modern society.

Leg Man

"Leg Man" is an enjoyable tale with a rich plot.

The use of a reporter-sleuth hero, and the finding of a clue in a photo, recall the work of George Harmon Coxe. There is a bit of difference, in that Coxe's sleuths are news photographers, while Woolrich's is a print reporter. Coxe and Woolrich had parallel careers as mystery writers, staring out in the pulp magazines, then flourishing in books.

The newspaper copy boy in "Leg Man" recalls the young sidekicks that sometimes show up in Coxe. He is less prominent in the tale than such Coxe youngsters, however.

The slapstick with the body reminds one that Woolrich worked for a time in the silent movie industry in Hollywood. The first night club scene in "Blind Date with Death" has a nice dance that turns into slapstick.

The tavern windows and the photo flashes at the crime scene, show Woolrich's love of light-and-color.

The hero's day-dream imaginings at the tale's start, might be cognitive-psychologically similar to Woolrich's methods of writing fiction.

Solving the Mystery. SPOILERS. The two main clues to the mystery are both arithmetic based. Mathematical mysteries recall Ellery Queen, and before him, S. S. Van Dine.

SPOILERS. Math is also used to solve an early subplot mystery in "Leg Man". This mystery: Is aggrieved customer Chuck Hastings telling the truth?

SPOILERS. The evidence is sufficient to deduce whether Chuck Hastings is telling the truth. And in the main mystery, the two math clues allow the sleuth to deduce rigorously that the accused man is being framed. However, the math clues do not reveal the guilty party.

The reporter-sleuth has to use a different investigation to figure out who is guilty. His methods are ingenious. But not quite as rigorous as the other deductions in the tale.

Inverted Stories

"Collared" (1940) is a late contribution to the series of hard-boiled stories with tough women as detectives. It shows an unusual structure, somewhat analogous to the inverted detective story of Freeman. By contrast, "The Detective's Dilemma" involves European aristocrats, and is one of Woolrich's most outré tales. Like "Collared", it features an unusual, one of a kind variation on the inverted detective story format. Woolrich's work involves an unusually wide range of story backgrounds, and it is unclear how a man who was repeatedly described as a "recluse" got the real life experience to describe so many kinds of places and people so vividly.

"Death at the Burlesque" (1941) also flirts with the inverted tale in its second half, offering some unusual insights into the theory and practice of getting enough evidence to convict someone, and offering a case where that might be a theoretical impossibility. Its solution is completely preposterous, but the first half is one of Woolrich's most surreal murder stories.

"Death Between Dances" (1947) is also an unusual combination of the puzzle plot mystery and inverted tale. Written with Woolrich's gift for atmosphere and emotion, the scene in which the hero tries to cover up the crime to shield his girlfriend reminds one of the techniques used by protagonists of inverteds to conceal their own murders.

Woolrich wrote a number of pure, traditional inverted tales, as well; the best is the late story, "One Drop of Blood" (1962). Woolrich's earlier pure inverted tales, "Orphan Ice" (1942), and "Fur Jacket" (1943), suffer from depictions of police brutality.

Some of Woolrich's stories focus on police schemes to prove the protagonist guilty. These often include psychological warfare against the protagonist. Woolrich is part of an American tradition here, one that includes the police extravaganzas of Frederick Irving Anderson, the short police stories by William MacHarg collected in 1940 as The Affairs of O'Malley, and the inverted stories of David X Manners. Anderson and MacHarg appeared in the slick magazines, while Woolrich and Manners in the pulps, but all of their short stories seem to have elements in common.

Money Talks

The first half of the late story, "Money Talks" (1961) is an impossible crime tale; here it is not a person who disappears, but some money. The second half is like an inverted story, in which a scheme is used to make the criminal look innocent.

As in "Death at the Burlesque", science plays a role.

This story is much more light hearted and comic than most of Woolrich's work.

Although it was written in the affluent 1960's, the mood, setting and financial details recall the Depression.

Both Woolrich's earlier impossible crimes tale "Murder at the Automat" (1938) and "Money Talks" take place at establishments that sell fast food. In both cases the technological details of these play a role in the plot.


I much prefer Woolrich's mystery stories to his suspense tales, and his short stories (some of which are very long) to his novels. Woolrich's suspense work can seem virtually plotless, whereas his mystery tales are often well done examples of the genre, with both complex plots and elaborate detection. Woolrich and his publishers seem to prefer to include the suspense side of Woolrich's oeuvre in his 1940's collections, so Woolrich's mystery tales were at one point very little known. Many of the best tales had never been collected till Francis M. Nevins included them in Nightwebs. Others are still lurking uncollected in pulp magazines to this day. Woolrich's style seemed to change for the worse after his first suspense novel The Bride Wore Black, was published in 1940. This book and those that followed it seem unbelievably dreary to me, gloomy, static and arty. They were a completely different type of novel from the mystery story of the era, and seemed to greatly damp down Woolrich's interest in writing genuine mystery stories.

Several of Woolrich's suspense tales involve the supernatural. The Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1945) is a particularly depressing novel, Woolrich at his gloomiest and least enjoyable.

Mrs. Winterbourne

The recent film Mrs. Winterbourne (1996), directed by Richard Benjamin, is an adaptation of Woolrich's novel I Married a Dead Man (1948). The third film version of the book, it is filmed not in a noir style, but in a tone that emphasizes the romantic elements of Woolrich's work, and which adds considerable comedy. It is a very enjoyable movie. Woolrich's strong plot is preserved. It hurtles the characters through one bizarre, dream like situation after another. The viewer feels strongly for these sympathetic characters, and is pulling for them to emerge happily from their trials.

Woolrich and his Precursors

Jorge Luis Borges wrote an essay entitled "Kafka and his Precursors" (1951), in which he assembled a group of stories by other writers, each of which anticipated in some way Kafka's style. These writers did not have much in common with each other, except for their influence on Kafka. I've assembled a similar list of miscellaneous authors, all of whose work today seems Woolrichian.

Woolrich's style had ancestors in the pulps: the thrillers of MacKinlay Kantor, and the pulp style known as Weird Menace, that mixed impossible crimes with apparently supernatural events. Woolrich's fiction is basically suspense oriented in tone, and it seems much closer in approach to the Weird Menace writers in the pulps than to the hard-boiled school of Black Mask. One suspects that Woolrich was directly influenced by both Kantor and weird menace writer G.T. Fleming-Roberts. The articles cited explain in detail similarities between Woolrich and these writers' work.

I've recently read Isabel Ostrander's The Clue in the Air (1917), a mystery novel published when Woolrich was a teenager, and am struck by the numerous similarities in architectural imagery to Woolrich's work:

Other similarities: Ostrander's tone is Golden Age, or an Early American approximation thereof, and is far from Woolrichian suspense. But still there are many common plot threads among the two writers.

Another writer of the teens whose work recalls Woolrich is Jack Boyle. Boyle created the thief Boston Blackie; Chapter 4 of the 1919 story collection Boston Blackie seems distinctly Woolrichian. In it a young woman whose thief boyfriend is soon to be executed for a crime he didn't commit comes to Blackie for help. This countdown to an execution is a familiar Woolrich theme; so is a female lover or relative trying desperately to help. Even Boyle's phrasing anticipates Woolrich: she hopes Blackie can "wrest her lover from the hands of the law". The chapter is full of intense passages describing the agony of a death house countdown. The heroine also utters a heart felt prayer, anticipating the many prayer scenes in Woolrich, such as in Deadline At Dawn (1944). Also very Woolrichian is the way the heroine has been financially supporting her boyfriend's legal appeals: she has been working as a dance hall girl. The descriptions of dancing work remind one of Woolrich's "The Dancing Detective".

Recommended Reading

Francis M. Nevins' First You Dream, Then You Die is an enormous, in depth biography and critical study on Woolrich and his work. It is a very detailed look at Woolrich's world. Nevins also edited the best of all Woolrich collections, Nightwebs, which contains important essays and bibliographies as well. It also contains Woolrich's autobiographical story, "The Penny-a-Worder" (1958), which is a gentle self portrait of a pulp writer.

A large amount of material on Woolrich, much of it by Nevins, is at Mystery*File.

H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft is a science fiction writer, not a mystery writer in the conventional sense, and yet he has many relationships with the mystery story proper. Lovecraft set the tone for the horror pulp magazine Weird Tales in the 1920's, just as Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett did for Black Mask. Without the successful horror pulp Weird Tales, would there have been a market for the horror tale's mystery cousin, the weird menace story, and the many pulps that featured it? One wonders.

Lovecraft's influence also crosses genre boundaries in the rise of "noir" writing. This style of suspenseful, paranoia filled storytelling found its greatest prose exemplars in Lovecraft, a science fiction writer, and Cornell Woolrich, a mystery writer. Lovecraft and Woolrich are parallel writers in many ways. Both were night oriented recluses who worked for the pulp magazines. Both had architectural imaginations, where their literary creativity was turned on by descriptions of elaborate, unusual buildings, cities, train tracks, and other architectural constructions. Both were creative prose stylists. Both became immensely influential writers.

Both writers were probably also gay, a fact that is directly related to the tone of noir fiction. The sense of a universe that is persecuting one, where a hideous fate is lurking around every dark corner, is a direct translation into fiction of the daily fate of gays of their era. Later, noir would be taken up as a style of Hollywood filmmaking, one especially practiced by such refugee Jewish directors as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. The origins of noir from the creative talents of Jews and gays, two groups persecuted by the society around them, is significant. Noir is not related to the confident, anything goes style of WASP writers of its era. Nor is noir just a piece of abstract stylization of literature. Rather it comes out of a realistic conviction of minority artists of its era that the universe is a hostile place, waiting to destroy them.

Neither Lovecraft nor Woolrich wrote much about gay relationships; Woolrich probably came closest in his story "If The Shoe Fits" (1943), which can be read as a gay love story. Some of Lovecraft's best stories can be read as gay allegories, especially "The Loved Dead" and "The Shadow over Innsmouth".

Architecture and Cities

Some of Lovecraft's best stories involve the same plot: a man exploring an underground passage, one that leads to a lost civilization or its ruins. There is a great deal of architectural detail in these works, which include "The Nameless City" (1921), "The Outsider" (1921), "Under the Pyramids" (1924), and the underground finale (Chapter 5) which forms the best part of the novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927).

Another good story heavily influenced by architecture is "The Doom That Came To Sarnath" (1919).

In 1931 he wrote two long stories about entire cities, At The Mountains of Madness, which deals with a futuristic, science fictional city discovered in Antarctica, and his best story, "The Shadow over Innsmouth", which looks at a fictional, eerie, but fairly realistic, New England city, one inspired by the Massachusetts town of Marblehead. Both of these works were written shortly after he completed his guidebook to the historic city of Québec, and presumably his imagination was full of thinking about cities.


Lovecraft included alien beings in several of his tales. His ways of describing their bodies as composites of several strange parts, and the emphasis on 5-fold symmetry, and other numerical plans, seems influenced by the aliens in the 1920's tales of galactic exploration written by his fellow Weird Tales author, Edmond Hamilton. Hamilton's idealistic works, in which humans and aliens form democratic alliances to explore the galaxy in space ships, seem today like the archetype of much subsequent science fiction, including Star Trek. Lovecraft was probably the first writer to be influenced by Hamilton.

Lovecraft did not always give alien presences animal-like bodies; his tale of cosmic otherness coming to Earth, "The Color Out of Space" (1928), is one of his best sustained pieces of storytelling. It has the artistic unity and storytelling logic of his early short tales, but is longer and more elaborate.

Fredric Brown

Fredric Brown began as a writer of short stories for the pulps. He moved on, to become mainly a writer of novels in his later years. In general, I think several of his pulp short stories show plot imagination, while his novels tend to be bland and uncreative.

Commentary on Fredric Brown:

An Influence from Cornell Woolrich

Fredric Brown wrote fiction in the Cornell Woolrich tradition. He produced a sizable number of suspense novels in the late 1940's and 50's. Brown's fiction has several other links to Woolrich other than "dark suspense" elements, however.

A tale like "The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches" (1950) is straight out of Woolrich's tradition of detective fiction, as opposed to suspense. Brown's novella resembles such Woolrich stories as "You'll Never See Me Again", "C-Jag", "Nightmare", and Phantom Lady. Like Woolrich, his protagonist is inveigled into a frame up while drunk. His fiancee then tries to track down the real killer, after the framed man is tried and sent to prison. A sympathetic, tough and realistic policeman is drawn into the case and helps out. They get involved in some genuine and well done detective work, tracking down the real killers. All of this is pleasantly reminiscent of Woolrich. Even the actual detection in the story reminds one of Woolrich's style.

"A Cat Walks" (1942) is a suspense tale a la Woolrich. As in Woolrich, we have "ordinary" people, who gradually get caught up in a dangerous situation, after stumbling onto a crime scheme. They serve as amateur detectives.

"Fugitive Imposter" (1941) also has an "ordinary" protagonist thrust into a suspense situation - here in danger from gangsters, a Woolrich standard. The story builds up to a twist ending, which recalls inverted stories in which a crook's "perfect" crime is inadvertantly tripped up by a mistake. Here, however, it is the "ordinary" hero who cleverly creates the "mistake".

Impossible Crime short stories

Like others in the Woolrich school, Brown wrote a number of impossible crime stories in the 1940's. Two feature his mild mannered insurance agent Mr. Henry Smith, who appeared in a series of six tales from 1941-1946. They differ from the great run of impossible crime stories in that they are gently comic in tone. Even the solutions, while fair play and ingenious, often contain good natured elements of comedy, even burlesque. Smith's gifts at deduction anticipate Jack Ritchie's Henry Turnbuckle. My favorite so far is "Whistler's Murder" (1946) (also published as "Mr. Smith Protects A Client"), the final work in the series.

A non-Smith impossible crime story that is also charming and light hearted is "The Djinn Murder" (1943), my other favorite so far among Brown's work.

Among Brown's lesser impossible crime tales, "The Spherical Ghoul" (1943) has too much horror in its plot, but it does show some originality in its way out impossible crime ideas. This story is much closer to the Weird Menace tradition of the pulps than are the Mr. Smith stories. "The Laughing Butcher" (1948) has a clever impossible crime scheme, but isn't much as a work of fiction. Apart from his impossible crime ideas, most of Brown's detective fiction seems pretty labored and uninspired.

Brown's story "Madman's Holiday" (1943) was filmed as The Crack-Up (1946). This movie is one of Hollywood's few excursions into the world of impossible crime. Art expert Pat O'Brien stumbles into a museum with a wild and on the face of it, improbable story; eventually he finds out how it all actually happened. The story is more "borderline impossible" than a classical impossible tale; it involves more unraveling the surreal and bizarre than a John Dickson Carr type impossibility. There is terrific cinematography by Robert De Grasse.

"Madman's Holiday" is one of several borderline impossible crime tales Brown wrote about strange "hallucinations". In these tales, characters see and/or hear things that are impossible, apparently supernatural, or absurd. Eventually, Brown provides a full rational explanation. These stories include the first Mr. Smith tale, "The Incredible Bomber" (1942), and "A Date to Die" (1942).

The inventive "A Date to Die" also has another impossible crime subplot, involving one of Brown's ingenious alibi ideas. Similar alibi concepts would later be used in the crime film 711 Ocean Drive (Joseph M. Newman, 1950).

Van Dine school Whodunits

Brown wrote some short stories that are full-fledged whodunits. These tales, although they appeared in the pulps, follow whodunit traditions found in prestigious mystery novels of the day. They have a murder, a set of suspects, and finally a more-or-less ingenious solution about a killer's alibi, that hopefully gives a surprise ending. They also follow the Van Dine whodunit tradition, with a background among a group of the intelligentsia: Brown clearly tried hard with these tales. But they don't really succeed. Their storytelling is flat. And their would-be-ingenious endings are not quite at Christie or Carr level. Still, Brown's alibi ideas have merit. Both stories have some good story elements, too: "Handbook for Homicide" has a non-stereotyped Native American character with some good biographical detail, and "Death of a Vampire" has an intriguing look at an era in show business and a theater that specializes in macabre fantasy.

A later whodunit "Witness in the Dark" (1953) is more successful in its mystery plotting. It takes place, not among intellectuals, but among a group of middle class auditors, accountants and bookkeepers. The story has some nice Scientific Detection elements, more in the crime itself, than in techniques used to solve the case.

Murder Can Be Fun

Murder Can Be Fun (1948) is a great title, but the book is a failure. The novel has trouble sustaining its would be comedy. And has other problems too. This is an escapist mystery tale, with a background in radio. Best parts: Chapters 1, 2, 3, 14.

The novel has some Van Dine School elements:

The book's opening has some good accomplishments: Unfortunately, after its decent opening the novel develops serious problems: Contemporary reviewers are also understandably upset by all the alcohol the protagonist drinks.

Prevent-a-crime short stories

Brown's "Obit for Obie" (1946) and "Before She Kills" (1961) mix suspense with elements of mystery. Both are thrillers in which the detective-narrator watches and tries to prevent what he suspects will be a murder about to be committed by a sinister figure. But both situations also involve him with investigating hidden aspects of the crime, which he has to unravel and bring to light. The mixture of suspense and mystery is in the Woolrich tradition, although I do not recall any Woolrich tales in which the two elements are combined in exactly this way. Both Brown tales take place among settings of post World War II affluence. In both, the central characters are leading apparently enviable lives. They are people who have won the jackpot in the American way of life, people who seemingly have everything. But their lives are also full of sinister events. Brown describes their personal lives in huge and often fascinating detail, making such a description be the backbone of his story. His narrator, and perhaps Brown himself, regards his privileged characters with a mix of envy and satire. I have somewhat mixed feelings about these tales, and am unsure whether to recommend them or not. In both, the elements of mystery are not substantial enough to really impress. But both make entertaining reading, with Brown showing good storytelling.

"Before She Kills" (1961) is one of two short stories Brown wrote about his series private eyes, Ed and Am Hunter, who mainly appeared in novels. The other short, "The Missing Actor" (1963), completely lacks any sparkle. It moves towards a surprise solution, that had already appeared in G. K. Chesterton's "The Worst Crime in the World", where it wasn't all that brilliant, either! "The Missing Actor" is of mild sociological interest, showing Brown dealing with the Beat scene of the era, including some interracial romance.

The Fabulous Clipjoint

The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947) is the first of seven hard-boiled novels Brown wrote, about the detective team of Ed and Am Hunter. Many people seem to admire this book - but I don't like it at all.

The first half is an account of the mugging-murder of Ed Hunter's father. The account is certainly "realistic", as numerous critics have pointed out. But there is nothing revelatory or informative about it. If you asked your unimaginative cousin Joe to write a novel about what a routine mugging might be like, he'd produce something like The Fabulous Clipjoint. I don't see why this is interesting, or why we should admire it, just because it is "realistic".

The Fabulous Clipjoint goes on to be despairing about the possibilities of life. It produces a negative account of the careers, emotions, behavior and ultimate fate of its characters. This makes for extremely depressing reading. Brown would later write a novella, "Murder Set to Music" (1957), which would offer a similar negative depiction of the limitations of working class life, and people's worthless, nasty and sometimes downright vicious negative response to its problems.

Even in 1947, working class Americans had more options than what seem to be available to the characters in The Fabulous Clipjoint. Their problems are made much worse by their alcoholism: something which drains their financial resources, and limits their chances to cope. Brown is frank and clear about how negative their drinking is. But The Fabulous Clipjoint also confuses the limited options open to drinkers, with an account of the alleged limitations of life itself.

The Fabulous Clipjoint is at its best in an episode, in which Ed and Am go after a crooked barkeeper (Chapters 6-7). This is probably based on a similar incident in Woolrich's Phantom Lady (1942), in which the heroine stalks a witness. The episode adds a little hard-boiled fun, to what is otherwise an exceptionally dreary novel.

Are All Hard-Boiled Novels Alike?

There are many novels with a private eye protagonist and a "tough" milieu. Such books are labelled "hard-boiled" private eye tales. Are all these books mainly pretty similar to each other? Or are they drastically different from each other? In my judgment such books tend to be highly different from each other. And therefore each has to be judged individually. It is possible to like one such book, and not like another book in the same hard-boiled category.

Red Harvest (1927) by Dashiell Hammett, The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler, and The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947) by Fredric Brown are all examples of such private eye novels. Despite all starring tough private investigators in tough societies, these books are actually very different. I like Red Harvest and don't like The Fabulous Clipjoint.

Night of the Jabberwock

Night of the Jabberwock (1950) is one of Brown's most admired novels. However, I just don't get what other people see in it. A series of loosely connected vignettes dealing with a small town newspaperman, the book seems pretty bland. Its mystery elements seem skimpy. And little in the book is as surrealist as the title implies.

Other Movie and TV Adaptations

I very much enjoyed Gerd Oswald's 1957 film version of The Screaming Mimi (1949). It has good camera movements.

For the historical record, while channel surfing I also stumbled across the finale of an hour long TV adaptation of Knock Three-One-Two (1959), done on the TV drama anthology Thriller in 1960. About all I can remember is that the psycho killer was a handsome young man in a black leather jacket. The filmmakers seem to have glamorized him as much as possible.

Thomas Walsh

Thomas Walsh was an author of suspense stories contemporaneous with Cornell Woolrich, but much less remembered today. Walsh's work seems not so much to be influenced by Woolrich, as to form a parallel tradition. Abduction and people held captive are repeated elements in his tales. Several stories concern threats to marital love, with a husband forcibly separated from his wife. His stories tend to involve the police prominently; the cops are usually honest and treated sympathetically.

Walsh's career began in pulp magazines, such as Black Mask, in the early 1930's, and progressed to the slicks, in the later 1930's. He also worked as a newspaper reporter. He turned to novels in 1949, and also published late short stories in EQMM. Much of Walsh's short story material is hard to find today.

Bibliography on Thomas Walsh:

Nightmare in Manhattan

I didn't enjoy Walsh's best known work, his first novel Nightmare in Manhattan (1949 in The Saturday Evening Post, 1950 in book form). Its kidnapping subject matter is too brutal and distasteful. It also suffers from the insubstantial plotting that mars Walsh's lesser works.

Short Stories

"Double Check" (1933) has a puzzle plot, about mysterious, apparently pointless threats. It weaves them inside an action-packed tale in the pulp manner. It has police protagonists, in the Walsh tradition, but it is not mainly a suspense tale, unlike a lot of other Walsh. The puzzle plot has some affinities with that of Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1908), although it also shows new, original features. "Double Check" is reprinted in the anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (2007).

"Best Man" (1934) has been much reprinted in anthologies, likely because it has that tough Black Mask atmosphere. It also has some decent descriptions of settings. Unfortunately, "Best Man" suffers from stereotyped depictions of minorities, including a disabled villain and a Swedish boatman. Not recommended.

"The Night Calhoun Was Off Duty" (1938) takes the opposite approach to "Best Man". It includes a young intern who is clearly a member of the USA's upper class elite (he even has blond hair), and shows his prejudice against both the lower classes and ethnic Irish and Italians. Then it proceeds to show the very dark side of his attitudes, excoriating the character and his beliefs. It is a disturbing tale, and upsetting to read. But it does make its point.

"The Night Calhoun Was Off Duty" has suspense, police and crime elements, but no mystery.

"Danger in the Shadows" (1941) is sensitive and emotionally involving. Walsh's use of the male in jeopardy and the female who tracks him down here is unusual, although it has analogues in the Woolrich series of female protagonist stories that began with "Face Work" (1937). Woolrich's women are usually trying to free an unjustly convicted relative, however, whereas here the husband is in actual physical danger.

"Sentence of Death" (1948) has both a mystery plot, and plenty of suspense and drama. It is one of Walsh's best-constructed stories.

Such genuine detective stories by Walsh as "Sentence of Death" and "The Stillness at 3:25" make it look as if one person is guilty, with strong evidence pointing to their culpability. Then the ending reveals the truth to be very different. The stories underscore the difference between apparent truth and reality - a lesson applicable to wide range of real life situations. They urge us to investigate further, and not settle for "obvious" but wrong ideas.

The least interesting part of "Sentence of Death" is the discussion of what other writers call "providence". The characters debate if there is some force in the universe looking out for and protecting the innocent. Walsh's ideas seem superficial and sentimental.

"Lady Cop" (1959) shows a policewoman. But it is not quite what one might expect. Today we would likely see one of the policewoman's investigations. "Lady Cop" instead features the personal life of the heroine. Another aspect that takes adjustment: the sexual repression shown by young adults. This is believable for 1959 - but today it seems almost science fictional.

"Lady Cop" does have a well-constructed mystery plot. SPOILER: Walsh's theme of framing innocent suspects plays a role in the mystery puzzle. There are two separate frame-ups in "Lady Cop", both of the same person, that interact with each other.

"Dangerous Bluff" (1960) has characters which fall into Walsh's familiar categories of tough male cop and gutsy woman civilian. Both are typically Everyman-like, ordinary people. However, it shows his lighter side, in a tale with as much romance and even comedy as crime. Like "Lady Cop", "Dangerous Bluff" is set among Irish-Americans in Manhattan, working class, respectable, in their 20's, and just starting out on modest careers. These young people are adult and mature in the way they handle their jobs, but are finding it difficult to get started at getting engaged or married. Like the couple in "Lady Cop", the hero of "Dangerous Bluff" causes trouble by not being good at romance in a way that impresses women.

"Dangerous Bluff" lacks a mystery or puzzle plot. Its initial crime premise is mainly an excuse to get its male cop and heroine together. This crime premise is actually an old one: it had been used as a mystery puzzle plot in Frederick Nebel's "Ghost of a Chance" (1935), for example. "Dangerous Bluff" was reprinted in Brett Halliday's anthology Best Detective Stories Of The Year 16th Annual Collection (1961).

"The Stillness at 3:25" (1979) is a genuine detective story, complete with a puzzle plot. Like many of Walsh's laterworks, it centers on police heroes, here, a retired cop. EQMM liked to publish tales about older people who battle crooks, and Walsh's story is one of the more plausible such works in the magazine.

"A Hell of a Cop" (1979) is a detective story - its police detective hero works to solve a mysterious murder - but it is hardly a fair play, puzzle plot mystery story.


"Dangerous Bluff" takes place in an apartment building. Walsh likes settings with multiple tenants, such as the office building in "Best Man" and the motel in "The Stillness at 3:25".

Nightmare in Manhattan is set in a fictionalized version of Grand Central Station. There are hints that the office building in "Best Man" is over or near the Station.

"The Stillness at 3:25" takes place in a resort area in upstate New York, a type of locale Walsh sometimes employed. "Best Man" takes place in a deserted resort island in the winter in Long Island Sound. This "Gibson Island" setting of "Best Man" seems to be fictitious.

"The Night Calhoun Was Off Duty" has a somewhat similar structure as "Best Man":

"A Hell of a Cop" (1979) recreates the style of 1930's pulp police adventures. It even shows elevators in New York as being manned by operators, surely an anachronism by 1979. It reminds one of the office building in "Best Man" (1934), with it elevator operator. "The Stillness at 3:25" (1979) has a young man living in a rooming house - also more typical of the 1930's than of 1979.

Movie and TV Adaptations

"Sentence of Death" is a 1953 TV show, part of the live drama series Studio One. It is based on the short story (1948) of the same name by Walsh. This episode is available on DVD, probably because it co-stars a young James Dean. This TV version of "Sentence of Death" is gripping and emotionally involving. It sticks closely to the well-constructed mystery plot of Walsh's story. But the characters are greatly augmented in the dramatized version, giving them richer and more developed personalities. It also includes more social criticism of the police and government.

"Sentence of Death" was also adapted for other TV series of the era: in 1950 for The Trap, in 1951 for Manhunt, in 1952 for The Web, in 1955 for Schlitz Playhouse.

I didn't like Union Station, the film version of Nightmare in Manhattan.

Bruno Fischer

Bruno Fischer was a prolific pulp short story writer and 1950's paperback novelist. Some of his books involve series sleuth Ben Helm, a low-key private eye whose gimmick is being a folksy uncle-type to whom people like to talk. The majority of Fischer's books are non-series crime novels. These include a novel I did not think was very good, The Spider Lily (1946).

Steve Lewis reviewed several Bruno Fischer books at Mystery*File:

A mystery novel bibliography is at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki.

I'll Slay You in My Dreams: a short story

"I'll Slay You in My Dreams" (1944) is a terrific mystery-suspense short story, somewhat in the tradition of the series of later Woolrich tales that began with "You'll Never See Me Again" (1939). The protagonist's situation is genuinely mystifying, and full of unexpected twists and turns. The treatment of the police in this story is especially Woolrich-like. It also reflects Fischer's left wing politics: the sympathetic cop Sgt. Donlin is working class, while the higher ranking officials refuse to believe the hero.

"I'll Slay You in My Dreams" also offers a variation on private eye novels like Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (1940), in which the private eye is lured into a routine seeming case, that turns out to be full of hidden pitfalls and surprises. In "I'll Slay You in My Dreams", the hero is an ordinary guy, not a private eye, but the effect is otherwise the same.

Fischer unravels the mystifying situation in layers. Several of the layers of revelation seem to make the situation even more baffling. This is the kind of mystery, in which the hero, and the reader, are presented with a situation that just does not seem to make sense. The puzzle is first, to come up with some back-story that will make the events a rational narrative. Second, it is to find out who is behind these events.

"I'll Slay You in My Dreams" has a fair play solution to the problem of whodunit, with two clues pointing to the guilty party. One clue involves the "flow of information": a type of clue that will return in The Angels Fell.

Bewildering, hard-to-explain-logically events sometimes show up in Ellery Queen tales, such as "The Seven Black Cats" (1934). Queen often mixes in surrealistic imagery, although Fischer's work uses this less. Fischer does compare the events to a dream.

"I'll Slay You in My Dreams" shares a kind of mini-mystery with such pulp short stories as T. T. Flynn's "The Letters and the Law" (1936) and Roland Phillips "Death Lies Waiting". In all of these, the hero finds himself in a mysterious new locale, after awakening after losing consciousness.

"I'll Slay You in My Dreams" is reprinted in Robert E. Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg's anthology Hard-Boiled Detectives (1992).

Other Short Stories

Among Fischer's other tales, "The Dog Died First" (1949) has something of the same approach, but is more conventional and less creative. It is unusual in that it has a woman who is framed for the crime, something Woolrich didn't do in his series. It also has the domestic, couples in the suburbs setting that became popular in the 1940's.

"My Aunt Celia" (1946) shows some nice plotting and light hearted characterizations.

Quoth the Raven

Quoth the Raven (1944) is detective thriller novel. It is a fairly minor book. It has some structural similarities to a later and better book by Fischer, The Angels Fell: SPOILER: The choice of killer in Quoth the Raven is surprising. Both it, and the "hidden object" subplot, reflect Ellery Queen traditions.

The way the wife in Quoth the Raven has Big Secrets, and lies about them to everybody, including her husband, recalls a bit Mary Roberts Rinehart and her Had I But Known followers. The wife is a two-bit spouse of a Queens, NY grocer, not a society woman like Rinehart's characters. But she has something of their arrogance and sense of entitlement, that it is perfectly OK for a woman to lie if her personal life can be benefitted. These women feel they are a law to themselves, and have no civic duty to speak up during a crime investigation. To be fair, there is also a sense that women are powerless in society, and that such lying and concealment of truth is one of their few weapons.

Quoth the Raven has a left-wing sensibility. There is much about how rotten the rich are, and how badly they treat working people (Chapters 1, 5, 8). The hero explicitly declares himself an anarchist, rather than a socialist (Chapter 8), something fairly unusual in detective fiction. He expresses his hatred of "bosses", whether the rich, or "the state". The hero runs and owns a small business (a grocery store), so he can avoid being bossed by others.

The Angels Fell

The Angels Fell (1950) is a medium-boiled detective thriller novel. The hero is a former newspaper man, now working as a manager in a small trucking firm. His femme fatale ex-wife, who dumped him so she could marry a more successful man, calls him up, and says she's in trouble. She is - and she soon has the innocent hero up to his neck in a murder frame, a disappearance, dirty politics, hoodlums, cops, private eyes, and a briefcase that seems to be wanted by all of them. The lead, with a small son, and an ex-wife who has married up and who gets him involved in sinister events, are characters that recall Wade Miller's Guilty Bystander (1947). Both of these books have some sociological interest, as time capsule portraits of life in post WW II America.

The Angels Fell is no masterpiece. One would give it a "B" as a grade. But it does have some surprising virtues. For one thing, embedded in all this tough melodrama is a genuine detective story. When the killer is revealed towards the end of the story, there are no less than four genuine clues to the killer's identity. All of which I missed when reading the story - fairly fooled by the author. Not only is the case solidly clued, but the choice of killer and the clues to the killer's involvement all complete the story, making the plot of the book make more sense. So this is a logically constructed detective novel. Although embedded in a tough melodrama about civic corruption, not a Golden Age style murder at a country house. Some of the clues involve the flow of knowledge, a type of plot one associates with Ellery Queen.

The subplot about the briefcase also leads to a fair play finale. It is part of a long detective tradition about searches for objects, a kind of story which is more often written by Golden Age style detective writers like Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer.

Much of the novel takes place at the hero's apartment. This building shows the Golden Age interest in architecture - also a bit atypical of this sort of tough private eye tale. The connection in a basement coal cellar recalls Chapter 6 of Cornell Woolrich's The Black Curtain (1941). The body-in-a-basement-apartment recalls The Frightened Stiff (1942) by Kelly Roos.

In the second half, Fischer's series detective private eye Ben Helm shows up. He is hardly the protagonist of the novel, weaving in and out of the tale.

Charlotte Armstrong

Charlotte Armstrong's "The Hedge Between" (1953) displays a Rashomon-like complexity in its reconstruction of a past crime. Although Armstrong has a reputation as a pure suspense writer, here she delivers a tale of real mystery. It shows similarity with her "The Enemy" (1951). Both are detective short stories in which the detection is performed, in part, by children. Both take place in the yards of a typical middle class neighborhood. Both have the format of sifting through a large number of subtly contradictory stories, searching for the truth. There is an iterative quality to the detective work, as the characters get gradually closer to the truth.

A later Armstrong story with a teenager as detective is "The Cool Ones" (1967). This story, like the earlier "The Ring in the Fish", centers on codes and ciphers.

"The Enemy" (1951) reminds me a little bit of Ellery Queen's "The Gettysburg Bugle" (1951). Both have a tragic tone, a public setting involving many townspeople, deal with poisoning, and have somewhat similar characters in the two daughters of the respective tales.

Politics of "The Enemy" and related works

"The Enemy" is also one a large number of 1950's American crime stories that are constructed to double as political allegories. Plays like Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953) and A View From the Bridge (1955), William Carlos Williams' Tituba's Children (1950), films like Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954), Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront (1954), and mystery fiction like Ellery Queen's The Glass Village (1954) and Charlotte Armstrong's "The Enemy" (1951) were all part of this trend. These stories were commentaries on McCarthyism. Most of these works tend to show people operating as communities, often degenerating into mobs. Often the truth gets trampled in these works, as the mob makes up its mind who is guilty, and ignores all contrary evidence. The characters tend to be explicitly middle and working class, representing Average People. It is unclear where this terrible fear of mob hysteria comes from: McCarthyism, fear of the rise of a Hitler-like tyranny here, Communism, or what. One can also see certain elements in common among the authors of such tales. Aside from Ellery Queen (EQ), most are not puzzle plot genre specialists. Instead they tend to have "mainstream" labels. Despite this, most of these works have distinct elements of crime fiction about them, even if it is disguised by a setting in the old West, or Colonial America. At least some of these authors were acquainted with each other's works; Arthur Miller was EQ's neighbor in Connecticut, and EQ was the publisher of Armstrong's short stories.

Earlier than most of these McCarthyism stories are such works about lynching as Cornell Woolrich's "I'll Take You Home Kathleen" (1940) and "One Night in Barcelona" (1947), MacKinlay Kantor's "That Greek Dog" (1941), William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust (1948), and movies including Fritz Lang's Fury (1936), William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Clarence Brown's film version of Intruder in the Dust (1949), and Joseph Losey's The Lawless (1950). These works have much in common with the later McCarthyism stories, in their depiction of mob violence and the collapse of reason in searching for the real killer once the mob has settled on its victim. But they are not political allegories, in which the plot is a veiled portrait of some other topic. Instead, they are about their surface subject: lynching. The pre -1945 tales have white men as their victims, but after this date, their creators gather up their courage and show racial minorities as the victims, as was common in real life. These works seem to have an ancestral relationship to the 1950's McCarthy political tales. Armstrong's "The Enemy" can also be seen as being in this tradition; indeed, when EQ published it he added an afterword suggesting the story was about racial and religious tolerance. A mainstream tale, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (1948), is also relevant here; its meanings are obscure and much debated, but it is clearly related to both the lynching stories and the McCarthy tales of mob rule. Allan Dwan's The Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) is a film that is less political than many of the above works; it probably served as a model for Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954), which was made by the same studio one year later. One might also examine the remarkable film, The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson, 1955), which does not fit easily into any of the categories we have been discussing.

Parallel to the McCarthy works is a film Western tradition, which includes Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952), Alan Dwan's Silver Lode (1954), Joseph H. Lewis' A Lawless Street (1955), and Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959). Like the McCarthy tales, these works were political allegories. But they were not specifically about McCarthyism; instead, they were constructed more as general purpose civics lessons. They tended to focus on the rights and responsibilities of individuals to the community. We know from interviews with Hawks that Rio Bravo was explicitly constructed as a response and reply to High Noon, and the Dwan and Lewis films also seem like films that build on that earlier, much discussed work.

Political allegory was by no means confined to America - France had Camus' The Plague (1947), Anouilh's "Antigone" (1944), and Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" (1959), but most of these works do not involve mob rule in the American style.

Day Keene

Day Keene wrote both pulp magazine short stories, and 1950's novels. Keene is not to be confused with the woman mystery writer Faraday Keene.

Mystery*File has articles on Day Keene, and a bibliography by Steve Lewis.

Short Stories

Day Keene's puzzle plots often turn on identity. They also involve people in desperate emotional circumstances, often quite sympathetically.

"Remember the Night" (1949) is a borderline impossible crime tale - not in the sense a locked room or other physical but seemingly impossible crime takes place in it, but in that its protagonist is a carnival mind reader with apparent psychic powers. Off trail impossible crime tales were regularly written by both Cornell Woolrich and Fredric Brown. Its title was used for a 1940 film written by Preston Sturges, but it was probably freshly dreamed up again by Keene. "Night" has a great deal of sociological detail about the 1940's. It also has vivid characters and an emotionally involving plot. Keene's work has the concern for public corruption found in hard-boiled fiction of the era, but fortunately is lacking in the swaggering machismo and cynical alienation that often afflicts the protagonists of that genre.

Keene's "The Bloody Tide" (1950) is a very late Dime Detective story, that continues the hard-boiled tradition. The story is rich in Florida atmosphere, somewhat reminiscent of Lester Dent's Oscar Sail stories (1936). Its plot has a fair number of unexpected events along the way. This is a Keene tradition: the use of several superimposed mystery plots in one tale. There is a crime in the past, a crime in the present, an on-going illegal activity, and more crimes discovered by the hero at the end of the tale. No one could say that Keene short-changed his readers, when it came to sheer volume of plotting. Unfortunately, the solution to the mystery seems obvious.

The hero is married, and there is a post war emphasis on marriage and settling down with a family in the suburbs that seems extremely 1950ish. Like the also married hero of "Remember the Night" (1948), the protagonist here is a returning veteran. The hero is also pitted against the police in this tale, who are considerably more honest than those in "Remember the Night". Both stories teach the hero numerous moral lessons along the way, and look at a basically decent man who has stumbled into a life a crime, and who is trying to reform.

Wake Up to Murder

Keene wrote numerous novels in the 1950's, many paperback originals. Wake Up to Murder (1952) shows features of the Woolrich school: All of these are features found in Woolrich. Also like Woolrich, the book mixes genuine mystery in with its suspense.

Wake Up to Murder features a traditional, pleasant mystery story construction, in which we keep learning more and more about a mysterious situation as the story progresses. Keene keeps coming up with unexpected relationships between his characters. These and the many unexpected story twists show ingenuity.

Who Has Wilma Lathrop?

If Wake Up to Murder (1952) is Keene's version of Woolrich's "hero with a blackout" tales, then Who Has Wilma Lathrop? (1955) is Keene's take on another perennial Woolrich theme, the "disappearing woman". Unfortunately, this novel is so grim and nightmarish that it has little entertainment value. It is also sordid in its treatment of crimes inflicted on women by the male villains in the book. However, it can be argued that these sections gave visibility to problems that were only much later made into political issues by women's lib, and that Keene was ahead of his time in his concern for women's issues.

Helen Nielsen

Gold Coast Nocturne

Helen Nielsen's second novel, Gold Coast Nocturne (1951) has some features in common with Woolrich. The murder in the book takes place while the hero is in an alcoholic haze, and he has no memory of events during the crucial time period. He has to set out to solve the crime and try to prove his innocence. He does this as an amateur detective, in collaboration with two friendly women, and while he is hiding out and evading the police. All of this recalls such Woolrich tales as "C-Jag" and "Nightmare". In addition, the tale moves in Woolrich like fashion through a number of urban locales, everything from poverty stricken neighborhoods to the haunts of the rich. In Woolrich tales, the city is usually some version of New York City; in Gold Coast Nocturne, it is Nielsen's home town of Chicago. Woolrich's stories often depicted the grinding poverty of the Depression; Gold Coast Nocturne often refers back to the hero's Depression era childhood. Nielsen also has the vivid descriptive power found in Woolrich's prose. Both writers employ ornate similes and rich color imagery.

Gold Coast Nocturne was published in paperback as Dead on the Level, probably to make clear that it is a murder mystery. I could not see any signs in the paperback edition of it of Nielsen's series sleuth, lawyer Simon Drake, despite what some reference books say.

Gold Coast Nocturne has far fewer suspense passages than a typical Woolrich story, and is much less noir in feel. Instead, it emphasizes Nielsen's flood of brightly colored storytelling. She is always unrolling either the plot, or detective work, and this is all to the good. The opening (Chapters 1-5) is especially rich in invention. Nielsen also includes some good detective work and plotting in the middle of the story, especially in the Carter Groot subplot. Unfortunately, the last third of the tale (Chapters 15-20) is the weakest part of the novel. Nielsen includes one too many twists here, and risks the consistent portrayal of her characters. The solution also lacks puzzle plot brilliance, although it is solid and competent.


Detour (1953) is a thriller about a hitchhiker in the deserts of the American Southwest, and all the trouble he gets into. This makes it sound like Edgar G. Ulmer's film noir Detour (1945), which also can be summarized as "a thriller about a hitchhiker in the deserts of the American Southwest, and all the trouble he gets into". Despite this, the two stories have almost nothing in common, and it is not clear that there is the slightest influence of one upon the other.

I did not like Nielsen's Detour very much. The backwater of the novel seems a lot less interesting than the urban landscapes of Gold Coast Nocturne, and all the characters are unlikeable.

William O'Farrell

William O'Farrell wrote novels, short stories and a few TV scripts. Much of this can be described as suspense fiction.

Commentary on William O'Farrell:

A Paper for Mr. Wurley: a short story

"A Paper for Mr. Wurley" (1963) combines suspense with mystery. It appeared in EQMM, July 1963.

It is compactly written and full of plot. While there is mystery and danger, many of the events are fairly light-hearted and escapist.

The protagonist is a likable high school senior. His depiction follows a long tradition in popular culture, of "Teenage males who are awkward but sympathetic, getting involved in comic misadventures". See such characters as Andy Hardy, Henry Aldrich, and the comic book tales of Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen.

The tale shows the interest in landscape and architecture, often found in traditional mystery fiction.

James A. Kirch

Murder For Two: a short story

James A. Kirch's "Murder For Two" (1949) is a superior suspense story. It is one of several late 1940's tales about diner workers who are menaced by mobsters. These mob guys are always walking into diners as customers, and threatening, abducting or murdering the help: All three of these authors, Kirch, Ketchum, Spain, are now obscure pulp writers. (The other Ketchum story I have read, "The Third Ladder" (1944) with private eye Sam Garfield, is a painfully routine imitation of Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939); his adventure story in the diner is better.)

Kirch's plotting style here does not include mysteries or puzzle plots, but the story is unusually plot oriented for a suspense tale, and it has the feel more of a mystery tale than of a suspense work. Kirch is always posing the question: how are his characters going to cope with or evade the mob? The answers to this question give the feeling of a riddle or a puzzle being answered.

Till Death Do Us Part: a short story

"Till Death Do Us Part" (1952) is a puzzle plot mystery tale. Once again, it shows ordinary people confronting the mob: here Kirch constructs elements of his story line out of this. This sort of mob element, while fairly common in suspense tales and thrillers, is more unusual in puzzle plot tales. It allows Kirch to develop original ideas in both his basic story, and in his solution.

Zenith Gray

You Can't Get Rich Jerking Sodas: a short story

"You Can't Get Rich Jerking Sodas" (1943) appeared as a text piece in Zip Comics #39 (August 1943). "You Can't Get Rich Jerking Sodas" is a nice little suspense tale involving a soda jerk and his customers.

Comic books published thousands of text pieces over the decades, usually as fillers. Some were non-fiction, others like this one, were miniature little stories. They mainly appeared because US Post office regulations required text for a periodical to be regarded as a "magazine", and hence eligible for special mailing privileges. The most famous writer today of comic book text stories is Mickey Spillane, some of whose pieces were collected as Primal Spillane (2003).

I have been unable to find any other pieces by Zenith Gray, either in comic books or pulp magazines. Comic books frequently published stories under house pseudonyms, so this tale might be the work of a better known writer.