Much of Cornell Woolrich’s best suspense writing comes from his deep well of short stories and novellas. Numerous collections were published during his lifetime, most using the William Irish pseudonym, even though the stories first appeared in magazines under Woolrich’s name.
One of the most successful of these collections is After-Dinner Story, published by Lippincott in October 1944 when Woolrich’s popularity was rising because of the success of Phantom Lady. It went through numerous paperback editions after the initial hardcover release, sometimes with the alternate title Six Times Death. It was included in Lippincott’s 1960 hardcover omnibus The Best of William Irish along with Phantom Lady and Deadline at Dawn.
After-Dinner Story contains six stories, one never previously published: the title story (Black Mask, January 1938), “The Night Reveals” (Story, April 1936), “An Apple a Day” (first publication), “Marihuana” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 3 May 1941), “Murder Story” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 11 September 1937), and the first appearance of the story originally published as “It Had to Be Murder” (Dime Detective, February 1942) under its forever title “Rear Window.” Yes, that one.
This is a superb collection of short fiction, containing three stories I consider among Woolrich’s finest and two deserving high praise. There is one letdown—more a bunt than strike-out—but editors can’t get it right a hundred percent of the time.
Tackling the collection from the top of the table of contents:
Although never adapted as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock’s television program, “After-Dinner Story” is the ideal example of the suspense thrillers with great twists the show was known for. The premise is high-concept genius: Six men get into an elevator, starting on unlucky floor thirteen. The elevator loses control and crashes, killing the operator immediately. The fire department rescues the remaining five, then discovers one of the men, Hardecker, died during the noisy rescue—not of injuries, but from a gunshot wound to the heart. The police rule it a suicide, as it was Hardecker’s own gun and the powder burns are on his hands. The survivors go about their lives.
A year later, each man receives a summons from Hardecker’s wealthy father to attend a dinner at his home. Mackenzie, the character who serves as the readers’ POV, assumes the old man must have a plan to distribute his son’s inheritance among the crash survivors. But what the senior Hardecker really wants is a plate of cold vengeance. After serving dinner to the guests, Mr. Hardecker announces that he knows his son’s death was not an accident but a murder, and one of the five men is guilty. He claims to know the identity of the killer but cannot prove it, so he has poisoned that man’s dinner. The poisoned man has half an hour to reach for the antidote Hardecker puts into the center of the table to save himself—and also reveal his guilt.
Of course, readers immediately have the same thought as the men around the table: what if the crazy, grief-stricken father got it wrong? Do they hope that he didn’t poison them or reach for the antidote to make sure? The story draws all the suspense readers could want from the insane situation. Each man begins to detect signs of illness, making him wonder if he’s been poisoned. Will the killer reveal himself? Will an innocent man panic and seize the cure? Or is Hardecker wrong and no one is guilty? The finale is as good as it can be.
“After-Dinner Story” is in the top rank of Woolrich’s short fiction, and it’s a piece I would use to introduce readers to his writing and his specific skills. It’s compact, accessible, has a fantastic hook, and nails the delivery. Each character is sketched in vivid detail in a brief space, and the elevator crash and the tense waiting for rescue is an excellent suspense set-piece on its own. “After-Dinner Story” is a gateway drug to usher readers into the rest of Woolrich’s world of unexpected tragedy, moral dilemmas, and how the sour taste of regret changes into vengeance.
The Night Reveals
Woolrich made two sales to Story, a low-paying but prestigious literary magazine that published many mainstream authors. Like his other story to appear in the magazine, “Goodbye, New York,” Woolrich seems to have placed extra effort into “The Night Reveals”; his considerable talents are at their finest here. This is my pick for the collection’s best work.
The premise is similar to Woolrich’s “oscillation” stories of a person who comes to suspect someone near to them may have committed a crime. Examples include “Endicott’s Girl,” “The Red Tide,” and, of course, “Rear Window.” In “The Night Reveals,” a fire insurance investigator suspects his wife is an arsonist setting fire to tenements in the area. The story doesn’t hang on the “did-she/didn’t-she” hook the whole way, and makes a shift to a different type of tension. The story wrestles not only with the suspense of whether Harry Jordan’s wife is a killer, but also the “why” behind it. If his wife is guilty, is it the fault of a mental illness brought on by a head injury five years before? Or is she a cold-blooded psychopath? There is a surprising amount of tight and logical detective work at the start before Woolirch switches to a portrait of a man losing himself to the pull of multiple instincts: love of his wife, love of his child, self-preservation, and finally ugly rage.
I don’t want to say much else about “The Night Reveals” or hint at the turns it takes. The finale and coda are among the strongest in Woolrich’s canon. Even when he at last releases the tension, he doesn’t let readers off the emotional hook.
An Apple a Day
The story making its print debut is one of Woolrich’s best studies of the impoverished, hopeless people of the city. The plot device used to visit people barely clinging to life over the abyss is one Woolrich also used in “Cigarette” (1936) and “Dipped in Blood” (a.k.a. “Fountain Pen,” 1945): an object containing a secret is passed unknowingly from one person to the other as the reader waits tensely to see who, if anyone, will discover it. But the mendicant object in those two other stories holds death. In an “Apple a Day,” it holds riches and an escape from life’s prison—which makes the people who encounter it without finding what it contains even more pitiable.
The object is an apple; inside is a gem worth $50,000. Two thieves try to smuggle the jewel by slipping it into a hollowed-out compartment in an apple, but the apple falls into a passing baby carriage and begins its journey through the night. The sequence with a man facing imminent arrest for embezzling from his employer and a homeless drunk who wants just once in his miserable life for something to belong to him, even a tie, are aching and painful to read. The prose burrows right into the dread of the first, the hopelessness of the second. Woolrich had immense empathy for these people, since he was one among them during the early ‘30s. He can summon the demons of want and fear like a Dickens of the Great Depression.
The finale is a purposeful anti-climax: in this story, only the pathetic rather than the climactic can drop the curtain. It’s a suspense story, it’s a crime story, but if Woolrich never attempted to sell “An Apple a Day” to one of his standard pulp markets, it makes sense. The only genre it fits easily is “Cornell Woolrich tale.”
I’m going to need us all to be adults about this: the effects of marijuana depicted in “Marihuana” come from the moral panic of the time, when the popular conception of the drug was that it altered users into violent paranoid lunatics. This is the Reefer Madness vision of weed held by people who knew nothing about it. Woolrich probably did know better. His vivid description of a weed-smoking get-together and his familiarity with drug lingo makes me certain he lit up a few times in his college days of the ‘20s. But as a writer of anxiety-riddled crime drama, how could he resist the exploitation angle of cannabis? A little paranoia goes a long way in Woolrich stories, and this is a terrific suspense piece with a corker of a finale.
“Marihuana” is the second of Woolrich’s three classic “momentum” tales, falling between “Dusk to Dawn” (1937) and “Murder Always Gathers Momentum” (a.k.a. “Momentum,” 1940). These stories follow ordinary people turned into killing machines by outside circumstances. Psychological triggers from poverty and desperation are behind the kill-sprees in the other stories. “Marihuana” has an artificial agent—devil weed!—sending its protagonist into the night, so it doesn’t have the same emotional torment. But the tension and action are as nerve-wracking fun as Woolrich gets.
The hero/loser of the story is King Turner, recently separated from his wife Eleanor and pining for her. A few pushy self-professed friends force him to a ganja party at a railway apartment. A few draws on a cig hurls Turner into a palsied state. He accidentally stabs a girl in the crowd, hallucinating that she’s Eleanor. Turner then charges into the night, absconding with a gun, and lets paranoia and his new willingness to murder drive him across the city to a tense showdown with a poor woman who hopes sanity will prevail.
As loony as the marijuana gimmick is, it makes a good “death unleashed” metaphor: “[H]e’s roaming the streets now, a menace, a living death, to anyone that happens to cross his path. For all practical purposes he’s a maniac …” No, weed doesn’t do this to you. Cornell Woolrich’s cruel universe does this to you.
Thanks to the iconic 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film, “Rear Window” is Woolrich’s most famous work. The story puts the lie to the old saw that Hitchcock built his career on transforming shoddy second-rate books and stories into great art. Much of what works in the film comes straight from the page: the intensity and build of suspense, the perspective isolated to the view from a single room, the observations of life spotted on small screens playing from the view of a window, the mentality of a man with only observation of others as an outlet on life.
The film expanded the story to feature length with a supporting cast around Hal (or L. B.) Jeffries. Woolrich’s Hal Jeffries—whatever his profession—is almost on his own. There’s no room in the Woolrich universe for a Grace Kelly. Jeffries has only a houseman, Sam (a non-stereotypically drawn African-American character), and a link to a police detective who, for unknown reasons, gives considerable attention to Jeffries’s unsupported claims that one of his rear window neighbors did away with his wife.
Although “Rear Window” lacks the emotional depth of some of Woolrich’s other classics—with the exception of the sorrowing single mother seen through one of windows—it otherwise typifies what made him a riveting suspense author. The focus on the first-person narration’s eye for the slightest detail creates a vividness few writers would dare: you live inside Jeffries’s head and see through his eyes for the length of the story, and his eyes rarely miss anything, even if the “delayed reaction” in his thoughts keeps him from making important connections until it’s almost too late.
Although Jeffries claims he never reads (the volumes on his shelves came from the previous tenant) his fascination with detail and analysis of people’s personalities based on minutiae makes him sound like a writer. There’s a significant chunk of Woolrich put into Jeffries: a man trapped in an apartment, unable to leave, whose only contact with the external world comes through the fiction he crafts around what he can spy from his window. He sees humans, he understands them at a deep level, but he never interacts with them.
Last and least … although “Murder Story” (first published without the hyphen) isn’t terrible. In fact, it’s fine. An acceptable mystery story like numerous others published in Detective Fiction Weekly. That’s still below the standards for the rest of the collection and represents the author at his most middling. This is what Woolrich wrote when he needed to get something out of his typewriter and on the desk of an editor. I know this because the story is about a pulp writer trying to pound out a mystery story fast and get it on the desk of an editor. Unlike Woolrich, the pulpster of “Murder Story” didn’t type out fiction, but instead a detailed account of an actual murder he committed the night before with the names changed.
Pulp writer William S. Tucker poisons another writer for whom he used to ghostwrite because he believes his former client cheated him of success during a recent movie deal. Tucker then types his thinly disguised account of the crime and mails it to a magazine editor. Police detectives come to question Tucker, and readers wait patiently for a trick to occur. Nothing spectacular happens except for a mildly amusing punchline. It’s no “Tell-Tale Heart.”
As a suspense piece, “Murder Story” doesn’t offer much. The milieu salvages an otherwise routine pulp tale: Woolrich gives us a look into his average day as a busy key-pounder racing to meet deadlines, scrounging for inspiration, and dealing with the mundanities of carbon copies and buying new typewriter ribbons. If you want to soak up the world of a 1930s pulp writer for a half-hour and enjoy some breezy prose, “Murder Story” isn’t the worst way to close out an otherwise superlative collection.
After-Dinner Story is out of print and expensive to find today, but most of the individual stories are easy to locate in recent anthologies. “Rear Window” is everywhere, and “The Night Reveals,” “Marihuana,” and “After-Dinner Story” are available in current digital Woolrich collections. “Murder-Story” remains the illusive one. It hasn’t appeared in any anthology since this one.