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Nevins has been editing Woolrich collections and reissues, and writing about the reclusive author (1903-1968), for some time. So his long critical biography is a promising, imposing arrival. Unfortunately, however, this turns out to be an obsessive fan's book for better and--largely--for worse: exhaustive, vigorously researched, but plodding, unselectively detailed, and lacking in perspective. Woolrich's grim personal history--""the most wretched life of any American writer since Poe""--gets relatively little space in the 624 pp. here. Working partly from an unpublished (and admittedly unreliable) autobiography, Nevins sketches in the broken-home background: a vagabond-ish, Latin/British ""macho man"" of a father; a smothering, abandoned mother from a well-to-do, part-Jewish N.Y.C. family. As a Columbia undergrad, Woolrich began writing Fitzgerald-manquÉ novels and stories; a stint in Hollywood followed, along with a brief, never-consummated marriage--after which he settled down with his mother in a Manhattan hotel. And in the early 1930's he switched to suspense fiction, writing prolifically and profitably for 15 years, but spending his last two decades in increasingly bitter, boozy, unproductive isolation. (Several suspense-writers contribute sad anecdotes.) Nevins' treatment of Woolrich's apparent homosexuality is spotty and confused, devoid of psychological sophistication. He leans heavily instead on fuzzy references to ""private demons""--and unconvincingly links the morbid intensity of the Woolrich canon to his preteen perceptions (supposedly unique, actually commonplace) of mortality. The book's bulk, then, is devoted to Nevins' story-by-story, book-by-book rundown of everything Woolrich ever wrote. Even the most minor or dreadful potboilers are tediously summarized, sometimes at great length. Recurring plots and themes (especially ""the divided self"") are doggedly noted. Yet, though Nevins acknowledges the serious flaws (gross implausibility, purple prose, etc.) in Woolrich's fiction and is critical of some major works (The Bride Wore Black is a ""frustrating misfire""), most of his repetitious evaluation is gushy hyperbole. The words ""gem"" and ""classic"" are used indiscriminately, on page after page; there are unpersuasive tributes to Woolrich's ""unique"" and ""uncanny word magic."" Parallels with Fitzgerald and Hitchcock are exaggerated. (""Truly they""--Hitch and CW--""were the Laurel and Hardy of suspense."") Fatuously hailing Woolrich as ""the greatest writer of suspense fiction that ever lived,"" Nevins fails to place him in the proper literary/genre context, which would include all the other writers who contributed to what is now known as ""noir."" Still, if unreadable as biography and untrustworthy as a critical assessment, this is valuable nonetheless as a source book: Nevins also discusses the many film/radio/TV adapations of Woolrich's work and provides a wealth of checklists (bibliographic, filmographic, etc.). All the material is here; the requisite shaping and analysis will have to come from a more dispassionate, less tunnel-visioned commentator.

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 1988
Publisher: Mysterious Press--dist. by Ballantine