Several years ago–more than I really care to recall, really–another writer told me he was “getting older and becoming more concerned with <his> legacy.” This took me aback. I’d never given a thought to such a thing, and to this day, it’s not something I give much thought or consideration to; I still don’t, really. I mean, it’s not really up to us as writers to worry about what legacy we leave behind, is it? I have always assumed once I am dead and gone both me and my work will eventually be forgotten; and even if by some weird, bizarre chance I should have some sort of revival or discovery by some future gay mystery scholar–who cares? I mean, won’t I be dead and beyond caring about such things?
Why should I be concerned about whether I’m just as unknown after death as I was when I was alive?
I became interested in Cornell Woolrich a few years ago; I don’t remember why exactly, or how he came to my attention; I just remember ordering this book and several others over the years. Woolrich has been dead for quite some time, and isn’t really remembered very much today outside of some enthusiasts of crime fiction history. I was very surprised to find out that some of his stories and novels had been filmed; “It Had to Be Murder,” for example, became Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which is something, right? Woolrich was gay and an alcoholic–so many writers of the period were (and frankly, I think using a typewriter for writing had a lot to do with it)–and he eventually died from complications from alcoholism. I thought it would be nice to read some of his work, particularly during Pride Month.
Every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night, about one. You do that when you’re young; walk along beside the river, looking at the water, looking at the stars. Sometimes you do that even when you’re a detective, and strictly speaking, have nothing to do with stars.
He could have taken the bus, ridden home as all the others did, when he came off duty. It wasn’t even the shortest route to where he lived, this walk beside the river. It took him out of his way a little. He didn’t mind that. It sounded better when you whistled, with the water there beside you. It made the stars seem brighter, and it made you want to look at them more, when the water was there below them to catch them upside down. It made you dream better; those dreams you have in your head in your twenties. You can’t dream in a bus, with all your fellows around you.
And so–every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night, about one, a little after.
It really took me awhile to get through this one, to be honest. I started it a few years ago, and it didn’t really grab me; this time I was determined to see my way through to the end. Sickness, and other things–it’s not like the world isn’t ablaze, after all–kept me from completing it, and in all honesty, even finishing it yesterday morning forced me to start skimming. It’s a great concept, but it’s got too much filler.
The concept behind it–a man who can see the future tells a rich man he knows when he is going to die, and the effect this has on the rich man and his daughter–is quite excellent; it’s in the execution that it falters. The opening is strong enough: Shawn, a young policeman, tends to walk home along the river after his shift is over. On this particular night he comes across a trail of things–money, a compact, a lipstick, things that might have fallen out of a woman’s purse; he eventually finds the purse, and the woman it belongs to is on a bridge, ready to jump. He stops her, takes her to an all-night diner, and she tells him the sad story of how her father and she became involved with this man who can see the future and how desperate she and her father have become as the man’s other predictions come true and they become convinced her father is going to die.
But the telling of the story is over half the length of the book, and Woolrich doesn’t take it into prose; he uses the device of her desperately telling her sad tale of woe precisely the way I just described it–she’s telling him the story, and the story drags precisely for that reason: it’s passive storytelling, not active, and certainly not how I would have told it. It’s a personal preference, and Woolrich IS a very good writer; I just don’t think he should have told it so passively. The suspense and drama comes from the question of whether the man with the gift of prophecy is actually a fraud or for real; but if it’s fraud, to what end? The second half of the book moves much faster, but also has a lot of dead weight/filler as well, hence the skimming; it may just be a more dated style. I also find it kind of hard to believe that the New York police would take this story seriously enough to put up to eight men on it–and there’s a horrific scene where the cops, needing access to an apartment so they can eavesdrop on the prophet, essentially set up the woman who lives there (and has been arrested for solicitation before, but not for over six years) for solicitation so they can use her apartment–and dismiss this horrifying abuse of power and her civil rights as just and necessary; and even laugh about her being sent away for at least thirty days!
But overall, it’s a good story and well-told, if a bit slow in places. Woolrich had a way with words, for sure, and sure, I think it’s worth a read; if for no other reason than to see how writers in the past handled suspense.