A poisoned garland of 14 uncollected stories from the nerve center of American noir.
Woolrich (1903–68) memorialized modern American anxiety in a series of oft-filmed big-city thrillers from The Bride Wore Black (1940) to Rendezvous in Black (1948). Yet most of his writing was poured into such pulp formulas as the corrupt cop who’ll do anything to get his man and the innocent flower who stakes herself as bait for a serial killer. In his trenchant introductory review of the author’s life and work, Woolrich’s biographer (Leap Day, 2003, etc.) properly notes the literary sins (reliance on wild coincidences and indiscriminately gloomy stylistic effects) that he inherited from his literary godfather Poe, sins that have limited his readership to a genre audience. When Nevins comments on individual stories, however—all but one of them from 1936 to 1943—they all sound like gems and classics. They’re not, though Woolrich has a gift for creating arresting openings (one cop who spots a wanted man in a darkened movie theater, another who devotes his life to following a killer the law won’t touch) in addition to his well-known knack of ratcheting up the thrills. The final story, the virtually plotless “New York Blues” (1970), shows how closely connected Woolrich’s weaknesses were to his truly evocative strengths.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in this ragged but provocative collection is the deep sentimentality at the roots of noir. Scholars, please note.