Filed under: Killer Year Members
All this week, we’ll be recommending books that we’ve enjoyed this year.
by Marc Lecard
A centenary collection of stories by Cornell Woolrich, edited with an introduction by Francis M. Nevins. Carroll and Graf, 2004.
Give the gift of terror, anxiety and existential despair to someone you love this holiday season.
If Cornell Woolrich had survived to the current era, he could have extorted a nice little subsidy from the producers of anti- anxiety medications, who could hand out his books the way a dentist hands out hard candy.
Woolrich created a fistful of what have become noir archetypes: the race against the clock to save yourself or someone you love, the only too justified paranoia in the urban canyons of New York City, the unjustly accused man who loses everything in an instant and then has to run for his life.
A barely controlled hysteria is his most typical mood. The violence and fear, along with the sometimes preposterous plots (Woolrich was not afraid of coincidence) push the stories into the realm of hallucination.
Some of the stories (the ones Nevins calls “action whiz-bangs”) traffic in a nonstop violence that comes as a cathartic relief after the nail-biting anxiety of the noir classics. But even the pure action tales manage to suggest an indifferent if not actively malevolent universe.
The cover photo is a perfect introduction to Woolrich’s world: an evocative aerial view of New York City in 1940 that seems to ooze shadow and menace. A bleak landscape for bleak little stories.
For some reason I find all this despair really enjoyable. If it sounds like your cup of battery acid, get this book, and give it to everyone. The holiday season will never be the same.
Let me also recommend a book I’ve just finished: NIGHTMARE IN THE STREET by British noirista Derek Raymond (Serpent’s Tail, 2006). Set in Paris, the novel has some of the rich urban texture and slight claustrophobia of Simenon’s Maigret novels -but far darker and much, much more violent.
Derek Raymond–nom de noir of Robin Cook- spent much of his life living in France, and Nightmare in the Street reads as if (ably) translated from the French. Perhaps Raymond was thinking in French and translating as he went.
The main character is familiar enough—a tough, independent cop from a working-class background who could just as easily have become a criminal. (He keeps in touch with a childhood buddy who still lives the life.) This cop plays by his own rules, and inevitably runs up against a rigid bureaucracy, class prejudice, and hidden corruption. Fun stuff, but we’ve been here before.
What makes Nightmare stand out from other novels with a similar set-up is its depiction of Kleber’s (Raymond’ protagonist) descent into grief and madness. The book takes you to a place of pain, loss, and inner turmoil, of life lived on the fine edge of despair, that is not often found in any writing. The next time someone tries to make hard and fast distinctions between genre and literary fiction to you, tie them to a chair and read Nightmare in the Street to them.
That might change their thinking a little.
I had run across several references to Raymond’s seminal role in Brit noir fiction, and was eager to read him. I finally managed to get my hands on one of his books, and was not disappointed, as you can tell. Let’s hope the rest of his novels become readily available in this country.
Buy this book and read it–but try not to spill shit on it, because it will make a great gift for someone on your list. (Oh—I mean, “and buy another copy for someone you love!)”
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