Woolrich was the prose poet of mid-century urban anomie. Which isn’t to say that his prose is all that poetic. In fact, it’s rather clunky, swerving from a mood of rhapsody that falls short in an attempt to sound like F. Scott Fitzgerald (an early literary idol for Woolrich) to a tough-guy argot that overshoots the mark in a bid to sound Runyonesque. Overall, it has a rough, brittle, dated feel, rather like the now-flaking pulp-magazine pages on which much of Woolrich’s work first saw print. But Woolrich had the vision of a poet—a vision pure and deeply personal, yet capable of touching a soft nerve in people who shared his lonely-in-a-crowd fatalism. Almost single-handedly, he created the genre known as noir.
The lead entry in this collection of five novella-length tales, “Rear Window” (originally published as “It Had to Be Murder”), became the basis of the classic Alfred Hitchcock film of that title, while each of the others inspired an episode of Hitchcock’s television series. “Rear Window,” despite its renown, has a relatively blithe tone that puts it at a remove from the main body of the author’s work. It is the last tale here, “Momentum,” that most thoroughly explores the archetypal Woolrich themes. Paine, the none-too-subtly named anti-hero, has no job, no money, and no prospects. He has a wife whom he cannot feed and a crummy apartment from which he faces imminent eviction. To say that he’s “down on his luck” would be to suggest falsely that he had any luck in the first place. His last hope is to collect some back-pay from an old boss of his. But once he reaches the boss’s house, one damn thing—one damning thing—follows another. He commits robbery. He commits murder. Then, to cover his tracks, he commits other murders. Here’s a passage from the saga of Paine that exemplifies Woolrich’s often awkward style, even as it captures the bleak poetry of his worldview: “Instinctively he knew he was doomed now, if he hadn’t before. There wasn’t any more of the consternation he had felt the first two times. He kept buying off time with bullets, that was all it was now. And the rate of interest kept going higher, the time limit kept shortening. There wasn’t even any time to feel sorry.” A typical Woolrich protagonist, Paine finds himself trapped in the infernal machine that is the modern city. He lacks even the dignity that comes with being a secure cog in that contraption. Instead, the grim claw of Fate has flung him mercilessly into its gears.
Woolrich set many of his stories in New York, and his work as a whole conjures up the image of that teeming, “naked” city during the Depression-shadowed 1930s and 1940s. But in the tales that make up this volume, Woolrich bleaches any trace of specificity from the cruel metropolis of his imagination. Their setting might as well be Anywhere, USA—or, more to the point, Nowhere, USA. That schematic sense of location reinforces the strange, stripped-down quality of the stories themselves. They oddly resemble both a film treatment, with little more than a bone-bare plot to hold one’s attention, and a fever dream, with a residue of unease that lingers but eludes one’s mental grasp. In between, where individual character and social truth and the other stuff of fiction usually unfold, there is nothing.