Monday, October 31, 2011

Lost and forgotten writers

    Anyone's who's been reading for awhile knows of a writer who has been largely forgotten. They may be a favorite author, or one the reader always meant to read but, when the urge hit, found that author's works were all out of print. Sometimes the writer was obscure already, more written about than read. Sometimes the author had died without a dedicated literary executor, allowing the books to fall out of print. Sometimes the author just fell out of fashion because of prose style, or political correctness. Periodically, they drift back into print for a short time, or become faddishly cult-worthy due to a film adaptation or biopic.
     What prompts this post is an article I just read on the Associated Press about a re-discovered story by Cornell Woolrich. It's a fairly long article about a "lost" story by an author I thought was now pretty obscure. I spot-checked with a few colleagues here, and no one had heard of him.
     It will probably come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, that I have long known of Cornell Woolrich, and have several of his books in my library ~ and have read more. His hey-day was the 1940s-50s, when he was sometimes lumped in with writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett as a "hard-boiled" writer. His stories didn't often feature detectives though. He wrote of ordinary people in desperate circumstances, sometimes of their own making or, more often, just victims of fate and dark forces.
     He was so prolific at one point that he also published books as by "William Irish." At one time, his works were regularly adapted for film and television by big name directors including Alfred Hitchcock ("Rear Window") and Francois Truffaut ("The Bride Wore Black"). The last such adaptation I recall was the non-hit "Original Sin," starring Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie, based on the novel "Waltz Into Darkness." Before that, there was "Mrs. Winterbourne," starring Ricki Lake, a comedy based on the dead-serious "I Married a Dead Man."
     Woolrich's stories ended tragically about as often as they end happily. "In "The Bride Wore Black,"  the title character's husband (or fiance; I forget whether he was killed before or after the vows were exchanged) is gunned down on their wedding day. She determines that one of six people is responsible, and that the other five are either accomplices in fact or guilty by their failure to come forward. So she hunts them down, one by one. There's really no happy ending to such a story.
     Usually there is a deadline. In "The Phantom Lady," a man is arrested for the murder of his wife. His alibi is a woman he picked up in a bar, but no one else ~ not the bartender, the waiter, the cab driver or anyone in the audience of the show they see ~ remembers seeing her or her flamboyant hat. Each chapter is titled the number of days (later hours and even minutes) "Before the Execution."
     And usually there is a twist at the end. It might be that someone you thought was a good guy is really a villain, or that the goal the hero (or anti-hero) has been pursuing is not as worthy as at first it seemed.
    One story for which I have long been searching was adapted for the TV series "Thriller." It had many titles, but the episode was titled "Guillotine." It involves some invented French legal folklore that if the executioner dies on the morning that an execution is scheduled, the accused is set free. In the story, a man sentenced to death arranges for a girlfriend to seduce and poison the executioner. The executioner has been shown to be a not very sympathetic character, the prisoner's crime not revealed, so our sympathies are at first with him.  Then we learn his crime, and he seems a lot less sympathetic. The story ends with the poisoned executioner, aware of what was done to him, attempting to live long enough to complete the execution.
     Of the stories I have both read and seen adapted, the written versions are far better. Truffaut's "Bride" leaves off the last twist. "The Phantom Lady," adapted in the 1940s, reveals the killer far too early.
     I am a little mystified as to why such a long article on an obscure story by a now equally obscure writer appearing in (with all due respect) an obscure magazine. It's not even a never-published story. It was published in a magazine, but it was never re-published in book form. I don't think that makes it unique among Woolrich's works.
     I suppose the writer of the article is a fan of Woolrich, but that doesn't explain why his editors would let him write at length on a subject of not much interest to the general public.
     Perhaps the answer lies in a short paragraph late in the story that says someone is planning to republish his books, in both hard-copy and electronic editions. The author, the magazine publisher, the copyright holder are just trying to create demand. It's commerce, pure and simple. But if the books do come out, I'll be looking to fill a few holes in my collection.
     If you're curious and want to give Woolrich a try, I recommend looking for "The Bride Wore Black," "The Black Angel," "The Phantom Lady" and  "Rendezvous in Black." Then let me know what you think.


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