Cornell Woolrich, the forgotten master of noir fiction

Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are the two most prominent images in the pantheon 20th century American detective and crime fiction. Earle Stanley Gardner is also a consensus pick to be among the greats.

But who comes after these writers? James Cain, Ross MacDonald, and John McDonald certainly have their fans who could argue articulately for their inclusion.

One name that is rarely included in any of these arguments is that of Cornell Woolrich. And when you look at his record – what he wrote and published and what Hollywood did with it – the case for Wooldridge being listed among the greats is certainly a strong one.

In fact, it could be said that no rider in history has commanded more love from Hollywood than Cornell Woolrich.

Woolrich was born in New York City in 1903, and he lived a difficult and ultimately sad life. But he could write, and write he did. Woolrich enrolled in Columbia University in 1921, but after about a year he had to drop out because of illness oh., and he was bedridden for a number of weeks. It was then that he started writing. Woolrich had read the work of F Scott Fitzgerald, and that inspired him to produce his first novel, cover charge, which was published in 1926.

A short story of his, children of the Ritz, won him a $10,000 prize and a chance it being a screenwriter. Well in Hollywood, Aldrich engaged in numerous homosexual affairs, and he also got married. But neither his screenwriting career nor his marriage were successful.

He published six novels between 1926 and 1932, but increasingly the novels he wrote, which featured Jazz Age characters, waned in interest from both the public and from publishers.

It was at that point that he started writing short stories for pulp fiction magazines.

During the next 30 years, Woolrich rote more than 20 novels and dozens of short stories. He was so prolific in his writing for magazines that he had to use numerous nom de plumes, such as William Irish and George Hopley his short story in 1942 titled “It Had to be Murder” was picked up by director Alfred Hitchcock handmade into the famous movie Rear Window.

Wallace Stroby writing about Woolrich’s novel Waltz into Darkness in a recent article in CrimeReads.com says:

His sturdy suspense-filled plots and visual writing made his work a natural for adaptation to radio, film, and eventually TV. From 1940 to 1954 alone, there were eighteen films based on Woolrich properties. These included high-profile Hollywood fare such as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window (based on Woolrich’s 1942 novelette “It Had to Be Murder”) and B-movie sleepers such as 1949’s The Window (from the short story “The Boy Cried Murder”) and Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man (based on the novel Black Alibi). To date, more than a hundred films and TV shows have been made from his work in a half-dozen languages. Source: The Noir Poetry and Doomed Romanticism of Cornell Woolrich ‹ CrimeReads

François Truffaut was another Hollywood director that loved Woolrich’s work. He produced two movies, The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid, that were based on Woolrich stories.

Woolrich did much of his writing from New York City where he lived in seedy hotels with his mother until her death in 1957. Plagued by illness, depression, and alcoholism, Woolrich lived the rest of his life mostly alone with so few friends that he rarely put a dedication in any of his books. The one time he did, he dedicated the book to his Remington portable typewriter. He died in 1968, leaving a partially written novel that was later finished by mystery writer Lawrence Block.

His legacy lives on, however, through several biographies, numerous fans, film adaptations, and mostly his large body of novels and short stories. Many believe him to be one of the founding fathers of the noir genré.

 

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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