A while back, I talked about how intimate living conditions in urban areas are, and how we all like to pretend that we do live in privacy. I was talking about my story “The Carriage House,” which was published in Mystery Tribune, but it really does apply to many other stories. One of the (ridiculously many) stories I have in progress now (“Condos for Sale or Rent”) is one of those stories; it’s also a quarantine story, which makes it even more claustrophobic–and of course, the ultimate urban lack of privacy crime story has to be Hitchcock’s film Rear Window, which also touches on the voyeuristic impulses so many of us have (to a lesser degree, that’s what Raymond Carver’s short story “Neighbors” is about as well). I wrote my own version of Rear Window years ago as an erotic short story called “Wrought Iron Lace”; which is a great title that I wish I’d saved for something more mainstream.
So, recently when I was looking into Cornell Woolrich, imagine my surprise to realize he had written the short story which the film was based on. WHo knew?
I read it yesterday, and it’s called “It Had to Be Murder.”
I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance. Yet I could have constructed a timetable of their comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me.
Sure, I suppose it was a little bit like prying, could even have been mistaken for the fevered concentration of a Peeping Tom. That wasn’t my fault, that wasn’t the idea. The idea was, my movements were strictly limited just around this time. I could get from the window to the bed, and from the bed to the window, and that was all. The bay window was about the best feature my rear bedroom had in the warm weather. It was unscreened, so I had to sit with the light out or I would have had every insect in the vicinity in on me. I couldn’t sleep, because I was used to getting plenty of exercise. I’d never acquired the habit of reading books to ward off boredom, so I hadn’t that to turn to. Well, what should I do, sit there with my eyes tightly shuttered?
Just to pick a few at random: Straight over, and the windows square, there was a young jitter-couple, kids in their teens, only just married. It would have killed them to stay home one night. They were always in such a hurry to go, wherever it was they went, they never remembered to turn out the lights. I don’t think it missed once in all the time I was watching. But they never forgot altogether, either. I was to learn to call this delayed action, as you will see. He’d always come skittering madly back in about five minutes, probably from all the way down in the street, and rush around killing the switches. Then fall over something in the dark on his way out. They gave me an inward chuckle, those two.
The next house down, the windows already narrowed a little with perspective. There was a certain light in that one that always went out each night too. Something about it, it used to make me a little sad. There was a woman living there with her child, a young widow I suppose. I’d see her put the child to bed, and then bend over and kiss her in a wistful sort of way. She’d shade the light off her and sit there painting her eyes and mouth. Then she’d go out. She’d never come back till the night was nearly spent—
Once I was still up, and I looked and she was sitting there motionless with her head buried in her arms. Something about it, it used to make me a little sad.
The third one down no longer offered any insight, the windows were just slits like in a medieval battlement, due to foreshortening. That brings us around to the one on the end. In that one, frontal vision came back full-depth again, since it stood at right angles to the rest, my own included, sealing up the inner hollow all these houses backed on. I could see into it, from the rounded projection of my bay window, as freely as into a doll house with its rear wall sliced away. And scaled down to about the same size.
Woolrich was gay, lived with his mother for much of his life, and was an alcoholic–but he was a fantastic writer. “It Had to Be Murder” is a terrific story, absolutely terrific–and while many of the things from the movie (particularly the Grace Kelly character) are not in the story, it’s suspenseful and scary at the same time.
I highly recommend it, and can’t wait to read more of his work.