My Book Notes: Darkness at Dawn: Early Suspense Classics (1985) a collection of s.s., by Cornell Woolrich

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Peter Bedrick Books, 1988. Book Format: Trade Paperback. Number of pages: 297. ISBN:‎‎ 978-0872262041. Reprint Originally published by Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1985. Edited by Francis M. Nevis, Jr. & Martin H. Greenberg.  With an Introduction by Francis M. Nevins, Jr.

Darkness at dawn

Darkness at Dawn collects thirteen short stories by Cornell Woolrich published in pulp magazines between 1934 and 1935, the time when he became a mystery and suspense writer. If only for this reason it’s worth reading. The selection was recollected seventeen years after Woolrich’s death by Francis M Nevis Jr in 1985 although some of the stories were published in previous compilations. Together they provide a unique opportunity to access in one book his first foray into the genre. In these stories there are already present the themes that will shape his imaginary in his later work such as a race against time and the figure of the guilty innocent, all wrapped up in a peculiar sense of black humour. As in any selection not all the stories have the same quality, some are better than others, but in any case I’m pretty sure that their interest will more than offset some shortcomings such as a certain naivety in its plots, an excess of coincidences and, occasionally, some incoherencies.

“Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair” (aka “Hurting Much?”) (Detective Fiction Weekly, August 4, 1934) was Cornell Woolrich’s first mystery tale. A dentist is charged of having poisoned a patient. A journalist in the waiting room, who happens to be a personal friend of the dentist, is convinced of his innocence and will do as much as possible to prove his innocence, even at the risk of his own life.

“Walls That Hear You” (Detective Fiction Weekly, August 18, 1934). When the police come to the door and ask if Eddie Mason lives there, his brother fears something terrible could have happened to him. In fact, he had been abandoned on a deserted road with his fingers cut off and his tongue severed. With nothing in his life  that could serve to explain it, it can only be assumed that he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that he was mistaken for another person. Either way, the cops are unable to communicate with him and decide to give up the investigation. Under such circumstances, his brother takes up the investigation at his own risk. 

“Preview of Death” (revised into “Murder Before the Camera” aka “Screen Test”) (Dime Detective Magazine, 15 November 1934). This story was inspired by a real case, the death in 1923 of silent film actress Martha Mansfield. In the tale, a young and promising actress becomes a human torch and dies during a shooting of a film when her skirt catches on fire. The detective assigned to protect her will have to investigate whether it was an accident or a premeditated murder.

“Murder in Wax” (Dime Detective Magazine, March 1, 1935). An unfaithful husband is accused of slaying his mistress, with whom he intended to elope the same night in which she was found murdered. Sentenced to the electric chair, his devoted wife goes to great lengths to save him from execution, even when all the odds are against him. A powerful tale narrated in the first person by the wife herself that was later expanded by Woolrich into his 1943 novel, The Black Angel.

“The Body Upstairs” (Dime Detective Magazine, April 1, 1935). While investigating a leaky roof, an off duty detective discovers a crime. The woman on the floor above had been murdered and her corpse was placed in the bathtub. The cops assigned to investigate the case torture the victim’s husband in a desperate attempt to force him confess a crime he has not committed. The detective who uncovered the crime refuses to accept a simple solution as that, he’s convinced of the innocence of the husband and sets out to uncover the truth on his own.

“Kiss of the Cobra” (Dime Detective Magazine, May 1, 1935). The story begins When Detective Charlie Lawson’s father-in-law returns from India with his new wife Veda, and she will break havoc as soon as she sets foot inside the house. Although the story has some supernatural elements the solution  ends up having a rational explanation. Woolrich originally submitted the story under the title “Three Cigarettes in the Dark”.

“Red Liberty” (aka “Mystery in the Stature of Liberty” and “The Corpse in the Statue”) (Dime Detective Magazine, July 1, 1935). During a sightseeing tour of the Statue of Liberty, an off duty detective observes an overweight man having difficulties to climb the stairs, but he doesn’t catch sight of him descending neither taking the last ferry. He starts wondering what could had happened to him? His concern increases when at the ferry’s terminal no one reports him missing, even though he’s quite convinced that, on his arrival, he wasn’t alone.

“Dark Melody of Madness” (aka “Papa Benjamin” and “Music from the Dark”) (Dime Mystery, July 1935). Eddie Bloch, a famous jazz composer and bandleader, voluntarily presents himself to the New Orleans police to confess he has shot an African American man to death. But this is the South in the mid thirties and the police instantly begins to exonerate him until he is let to tell them the whole story from the beginning. Thus, we will find out he killed Papa Benjamin to free himself from the curse he had cast on him for having steal the African rhythms that gave him fame and money.

“The Corpse and the Kid” (aka “Blind Date” and “Boy with Body”) (Dime Detective Magazine, September 1935). A young man sets in motion a desperate attempt for covering up his beloved father for having murdered his stepmother in a jealous rage. In order to get rid of her body, he wraps up her corpse in a rug and carries it on his back through New Jersey to a date where her lover waits, to frame him for the crime.

“Dead On Her Feet” (Dime Detective Magazine, December 1935). A police detective sent to break up a dancing marathon finds out that one of the last contestants, an underage woman, is actually dead in her partner’s arms while keeping the music playing. The story was published the same year as Horace McCoy’s similar-theme novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

“The Death of Me” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 7 December 1935). A man, drowned in debt and jobless, tries to kill himself and let his wife collect his life insurance but fails in his attempt. Wandering aimlessly, he comes across the body of a man hit by a train at a railway crossing. The body has its head disfigured and is of a similar size to his own. Consequently, he grabs this as an opportunity to exchange their identities. At the dead man’s hotel he discovers a bag full of money that makes him believe he’ll be able to bury his past and start afresh. But he’ll end up wishing he hadn’t.

“The Showboat Murders” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 14 December 1935), is a fast-action short tale in which an off-duty policeman who happens to be at a showboat with his fiancée, witnesses a murder and is caught up in a frantic chase to stop the killer.

“Hot Water” (Argosy, 28 December 1935). “Hot Water”, “Agua Caliente” in Spanish, is the name given to a gambling resort located south of the border, a place where movie stars at that time might hide out for a little rest and relaxation. The narrator of the story, Shad, works as a bodyguard to superstar Fay North who, during an unscheduled trip to “Agua Caliente”, is kidnapped and taken to the desert. Shad quickly sets off in her pursuit. A great action packed short story with which Woolrich puts an end to the year 1935.

My Take: Perhaps the best word to define this selection could be interesting. It is a rather uneven collection, with some stories that I found worth reading as: “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair” (1934), “Preview of Death” (1934), “Murder in Wax” (1935), “Red Liberty” (1935), “The Corpse and the Kid” (1935) the best IMO, and “Hot Water” (1935), although only few live up to the expectations set in:  “All at Once, No Alice” (1940), “It Had to be Murder” (1942), “The Penny-a-Worder” (1958), “Murder at the Automat” (1937) and “Mystery in Room 913” (1938). 

In any event I’d like to make my own Jim Noy’s words: “Certain phrases from this collection — heavy breathing sounding “like sandpaper on concrete”, or a rented room so small that “I didn’t even smoke; there wasn’t room enough for two kinds of air in the place” — really hit the mark, and discovering just how damn fine a stylist Woolrich can be is a real delight. He’s always written well even in the small coverage I’ve managed to date, but to see story after story turn up striking images, palpable emotions, and tellingly limned characters is a real delight.”

Darkness at Dawn has been reviewed, among others, by Jim Noy at The Invisible Event. You could also find at Curtis Evans’ blog The Passing Tramp, reviews of some of the above stories scattered in other collections.

About the Author: Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich (4 April 1903—25 September 1968) was an American novelist and short story writer who wrote under the names Cornell Woolrich, George Hopley and William Irish. His biographer Francis Nevins Jr. rated him the 4th best crime writer of his day behind Dashiell Hammett, Eric Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler. Like Chandler, little is known about his personal life. Woolrich was born in New York City and his parents separated when he was young. He lived for a time in Mexico with his father before returning to New York to live with his mother. Attending Columbia University, he dropped out his senior year when his first novel Cover Charge was published. He continued writing and living with his mother. After she died, he socialized on occasion in Manhattan bars with Mystery Writers of America colleagues and younger fans, but alcoholism, diabetes, and an amputated leg left him a recluse. Hopley-Woolrich throughout his writing career published 27 novels and 16 short story collections resulting in over 40 films and TV theatre episodes based on his stories. His most famous film adaptation is the movie Rear Window directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart, based on his story “It Had To Be Murder”. (Sources: The Passing Tramp; Wikipedia).

Bibliography: Cornell Woolrich’s novels written between 1940 to 1948 are considered his principal legacy. During this time, he definitively became an author of novel-length crime fiction which stand apart from his first six works, written under the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Woolrich’s best known novels are: The Bride Wore Black as William Irish (Simon and Schuster, 1940) aka Beware the Lady, Phantom Lady as William Irish (Lippincott, 1942), Black Alibi (Simon and Schuster, 1942), The Black Angel (Doubleday, 1943), Deadline at Dawn as William Irish (Lippincott, 1944), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (as George Hopley) (Farrar & Rinehart, 1945), Rendezvous in Black (Rinehart, 1948) and I Married a Dead Man (as William Irish) (Lippincott, 1948).

Short story collections: Nightwebs (1971), Darkness at Dawn (1988)

Individual stories/novellas: “Murder at the Automat” (1937), “Mystery in Room 913” aka “The Room with Something Wrong” (1938), “All at Once, No Alice” (1940), “It Had to be Murder” aka “Rear Window” (1942) and “The Penny-a-Worder” (1958).

A Cornell Woolrich bibliography can be found here.

Recommended Reading: Francis M. Nevins’ Cornell Woolrich: 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. (Source: Mike Grost at A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection)

“Who Was Cornell Woolrich?” by Richard Dooling

“Do People Really Know What They Think They Know About Woolridge?” by Curtis Evans

Cornell Woolrich is also covered by Marin Edwards in his book The Life of Crime (Chapter 30 Waking Nightmares Noir Fiction)

Darkness at Dawn: Early Suspense Classics, una colección de relatos de Cornell Woolrich

Darkness at Dawn recopila trece cuentos de Cornell Woolrich publicados en revistas “pulp” entre 1934 y 1935, época en la que se convirtió en escritor de misterio y suspense. Aunque solo sea por esta razón, vale la pena leerlo. La selección fue recopilada diecisiete años después de la muerte de Woolrich por Francis M Nevis Jr en 1985, aunque algunas de las historias se publicaron en compilaciones anteriores. Juntos brindan una oportunidad única de acceder en un solo libro a su primera incursión en el género. En estas historias ya están presentes los temas que configurarán su imaginario en su obra posterior como la carrera contrarreloj y la figura del inocente culpable, todo ello envuelto en un peculiar sentido del humor negro. Como en toda selección no todas las historias tienen la misma calidad, unas son mejores que otras, pero en cualquier caso estoy bastante seguro de que su interés compensará con creces algunas carencias como cierta ingenuidad en sus tramas, un exceso de coincidencias y, ocasionalmente, algunas incoherencias.

“Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair” (aka “Hurting Much?”) (Detective Fiction Weekly, 4 de agosto de 1934) fue el primer cuento de misterio de Cornell Woolrich. Un dentista es acusado de haber envenenado a un paciente. Un periodista en la sala de espera, que resulta ser amigo personal del dentista, está convencido de su inocencia y hará todo lo posible para demostrar su inocencia, incluso a riesgo de su propia vida.

“Walls That Hear You” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 18 de agosto de 1934). Cuando la policía llama a la puerta y pregunta si Eddie Mason vive allí, su hermano teme que le haya pasado algo terrible. De hecho, lo habían abandonado en una carretera desierta con los dedos cortados y la lengua amputada. Sin nada en su vida que pueda servir para explicarlo, solo se puede suponer que estuvo en el lugar equivocado en el momento equivocado, o que lo confundieron con otra persona. De cualquier manera, los policías no pueden comunicarse con él y deciden abandonar la investigación. En tales circunstancias, su hermano emprende la investigación por su cuenta y riesgo.

“Preview of Death” (revisada en “Murder Before the Camera”) (Dime Detective Magazine, 15 de noviembre de 1934). Esta historia está inspirada en un caso real, la muerte en 1923 de la actriz de cine mudo Martha Mansfield. En el cuento, una joven y prometedora actriz se convierte en una antorcha humana y muere durante el rodaje de una película cuando su falda se incendia. El detective asignado para protegerla deberá investigar si se trató de un accidente o de un asesinato premeditado.

“Murder in Wax” (Dime Detective Magazine, 1 de marzo de 1935). Un marido infiel es acusado de asesinar a su amante, con quien pretendía fugarse la misma noche en que fue hallada asesinada. Condenado a la silla eléctrica, su devota esposa hace todo lo posible para salvarlo de la ejecución, incluso cuando todas las probabilidades están en su contra. Una poderosa historia narrada en primera persona por la propia esposa que luego fue ampliada por Woolrich en su novela de 1943, The Black Angel.


“The Body Upstairs”
(Dime Detective Magazine, 1 de abril de 1935). Mientras investiga un techo con goteras, un detective fuera de servicio descubre un crimen. La mujer del piso de arriba había sido asesinada y su cadáver fue colocado en la bañera. Los policías encargados de investigar el caso torturan al marido de la víctima en un intento desesperado por obligarlo a confesar un delito que no ha cometido. El detective que descubrió el crimen se niega a aceptar una solución tan simple como esa, está convencido de la inocencia del marido y se propone descubrir la verdad por su cuenta.

“Kiss of the Cobra” (Dime Detective Magazine, 1 de mayo de 1935). La historia comienza cuando el suegro del detective Charlie Lawson regresa de la India con su nueva esposa, Veda. ella causará estragos tan pronto como ponga un pie dentro de la casa. Aunque la historia tiene algunos elementos sobrenaturales, la solución termina teniendo una explicación racional. Woolrich presentó originalmente la historia bajo el título “Three Cigarettes in the Dark”. 

“Red Liberty” (aka “Mystery in the Stature of Liberty” y “The Corpse in the Statue”) (Dime Detective Magazine, 1 de julio de 1935). Durante un recorrido turístico por la Estatua de la Libertad, un detective fuera de servicio observa a un hombre con sobrepeso que tiene dificultades para subir las escaleras, pero no lo ve descendiendo ni tomando el último ferry. Empieza a preguntarse qué le habrá pasado. Su preocupación aumenta cuando en la terminal del ferry nadie denuncia su desaparición, aunque está bastante convencido de que, a su llegada, no estaba solo.


“Dark Melody of Madness”
(aka “Papa Benjamin” and “Music from the Dark”) (Dime Mystery, julio de 1935). Eddie Bloch, un famoso compositor y director de orquesta de jazz, se presenta voluntariamente ante la policía de Nueva Orleans para confesar que ha matado a tiros a un afroamericano. Pero esto es el Sur a mediados de los años treinta y la policía inmediatamente comienza a exonerarlo hasta que le permiten contarles toda la historia desde el principio. Así, nos enteraremos que mató a Papa Benjamin para liberarse del hechizo que le hizo por haberle robado los ritmos africanos que le dieron fama y dinero.

“The Corpse and the Kid” (aka “Blind Date” y “Boy with Body”) (Dime Detective Magazine, septiembre de 1935). Un joven pone en marcha un intento desesperado por encubrir a su amado padre por haber asesinado a su madrastra en un ataque de celos. Para deshacerse de su cuerpo, envuelve su cadáver en una alfombra y lo lleva a la espalda por Nueva Jersey hasta una cita donde la espera su amante, para incriminarlo por el crimen.

“Dead On Her Feet” (Dime Detective Magazine, diciembre de 1935). Un detective de la policía enviado para disolver un maratón de baile descubre que uno de los últimos concursantes, una mujer menor de edad, está realmente muerta en brazos de su compañero mientras sigue sonando la música. La historia se publicó el mismo año que la novela de tema similar de Horace McCoy They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

“The Death of Me” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 7 de diciembre de 1935). Un hombre, ahogado en deudas y sin trabajo, intenta suicidarse y dejar que su esposa cobre su seguro de vida pero fracasa en su intento. Deambulando sin rumbo, se encuentra con el cuerpo de un hombre atropellado por un tren en un cruce ferroviario. El cuerpo tiene la cabeza desfigurada y es de un tamaño similar al suyo. En consecuencia, aprovecha esto como una oportunidad para intercambiar sus identidades. En el hotel del muerto descubre una bolsa llena de dinero que le hace creer que podrá enterrar su pasado y empezar de nuevo. Pero terminará deseando no haberlo hecho.

“The Showboat Murders” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 14 de diciembre de 1935), es un cuento de acción rápida en el que un policía fuera de servicio que se encuentra en un showboat con su prometida, es testigo de un asesinato y se ve envuelto en una frenética persecución para detener al asesino.

“Hot Water” (Argosy, 28 de diciembre de 1935). “Hot Water”, “Agua Caliente” en español, es el nombre que se le da a un complejo de juegos de azar ubicado al sur de la frontera, un lugar donde las estrellas de cine en ese momento se escondían para descansar un poco y relajarse. El narrador de la historia, Shad, trabaja como guardaespaldas de la superestrella Fay North, quien, durante un viaje no programado a “Agua Caliente”, es secuestrada y llevada al desierto. Shad rápidamente se pone en marcha en su persecución. Una gran historia corta llena de acción con la que Woolrich pone fin al año 1935.

Mi opinión: Quizás la mejor palabra para definir esta selección podría ser interesante. Es una colección bastante irregular, con algunos relatos que encontré dignos de leer como: “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair” (1934), “Preview of Death” (1934), “Murder in Wax” (1935), “Red Liberty” (1935), “The Corpse and the Kid” (1935) el mejor en mi opinión, y “Hot Water” (1935), aunque pocos están a la altura de las expectativas puestas en: “All at Once, No Alice” (1940), “It Had to be Murder” (1942), “The Penny-a-Worder” (1958), “Murder at the Automat” (1937) y “Mystery in Room 913” (1938).

En cualquier caso, me gustaría hacer mías las palabras de Jim Noy: “Ciertas frases de esta colección: [una] respiración pesada que suena “como el papel de lija sobre el cemento”, o una habitación alquilada tan pequeña que “ni siquiera fumaba; no había suficiente espacio para dos tipos diferentes de aire en ese sitio”, realmente dan en el blanco, y descubren lo excelente que Woolrich puede ser como estilista, son una verdadera delicia. Siempre ha escrito bien, incluso en los poco relatos que he logrado leer hasta la fecha, pero ver historia tras historia cómo presenta imágenes sorprendentes, emociones palpables y personajes elocuentemente dibujados es una verdadera delicia”. (Mi traducción libre)

Darkness at Dawn ha sido reseñado, entre otros, por Jim Noy en The Invisible Event. También pueden encontrar en el blog de Curtis Evans The Passing Tramp, reseñas de algunas de las historias anteriores dispersas en otras colecciones.

Sobre el autor: Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich (4 de abril de 1903 – 25 de septiembre de 1968) fue un escritor de novelas y relatos estadounidense que escribió bajo los nombres de Cornell Woolrich, George Hopley y William Irish. Su biógrafo Francis Nevins Jr. lo calificó como el cuarto mejor escritor de crímenes de su época detrás de Dashiell Hammett, Eric Stanley Gardner y Raymond Chandler. Al igual que Chandler, se sabe poco sobre su vida personal. Woolrich nació en la ciudad de Nueva York y sus padres se separaron cuando él era joven. Vivió un tiempo en México con su padre antes de regresar a Nueva York para vivir con su madre. Asistiendo a la Universidad de Columbia, abandonó su último año cuando se publicó su primera novela Cover Charge. Continuó escribiendo y viviendo con su madre. Después de que ella muriera, socializó en bares de Manhattan con colegas de Mystery Writers of America y fanáticos más jóvenes, pero el alcoholismo, la diabetes y una pierna amputada lo dejaron recluido. Hopley-Woolrich a lo largo de su carrera como escritor publicó 27 novelas y 16 colecciones de cuentos que dieron como resultado más de 40 películas y episodios teatralizados para la televisivo basados ​​en sus historias. Su adaptación cinematográfica más famosa es la película Rear Window dirigida por Alfred Hitchcock y protagonizada por James Stewart, basada en su historia “It Had To Be Murder”. (Fuentes:  The Passing Tramp; Wikipedia).

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