Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Review - Cornell Woolrich's It Had to Be Murder

Rear Window and Other Stories by Cornell Woolrich
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: 1950
Format: Paperback, 176 Pages
Rating: ★★ (Rear Window aka It Had to Be Murder only)
Out of Print

Hal Jeffries has never been one for reading. So when he's laid up in his swelteringly small apartment he doesn't have the solace of books to turn to, instead he turns to his window and the lives of his neighbors. He becomes fascinated with their routines. The young newlyweds who stay out every night who always forget to turn out the light and come rushing back five minutes later to turn it off. The young mother who tarts herself up every night after tucking her son into bed. The devoted husband who waits on his ill wife. But why he keeps her shut up in that hot apartment while the building is under construction and never calls a doctor worries Jeff. But then again, those people and their worries are all he's got. One night the husband's behaviour strikes him as odd. He surveys the surrounding apartments not in the detached way of one under strain but in the highly observant way of a man who has something to hid from those around him. Soon little things start to pile up, curtains drawn, the man sleeping in the living room but never really succumbing to dreams, his glowing cigarette a reminder of his wakefulness. When Jeff realizes that the wife is no longer in residence he calls his friend Boyne who works homicide. There was no time that the wife could have left without him seeing so it has to be murder. But after a perfunctory check, it turns out the wife left town for her health and that's the end of that. Jeff knows that's not the whole story. He sends his manservant Sam over their to investigate this Lars Thorwald. Sam also comes up empty handed. Jeff decides that perhaps Lars can be baited into confessing... just a look would be enough for Jeff. He sends an anonymous note saying he knew what he did, followed with a phone call arranging a time and a place for the "exchange." Jeff thinking that if Thorwald is willing to pay a blackmailer then it's a sure sign of his guilt. But Jeff sees Thorwald leave for the assignation with a gun and he realizes that not only has this man killed once, but he's willing to kill again to cover up his first crime. Can Jeff save himself from Thorwald and prove to Boyne that it had to be murder all along?

It's very hard to find the suspense in a forty page short story. There's not much time for character development and therefore there is no real connection to the characters. It might have been purposeful, that our look into this world of Jeff's is just as sketchy as his glimpse into the world of his neighbors, but still, what Hitchcock later brought to this story was depth. The plot is surprisingly very similar to the film, with many of the same things happening. It's just that Hitchcock was able to give a pacing and a depth that Cornell Woolrich couldn't in those few short pages. We don't even know what Jeff's injury is till the last page and never learn more than his name. How can you feel for Jeff when Thorwald becomes a threat if you know nothing of Jeff. His death would be just another death, nothing traumatic to the reader, just a fact. That is what I feel this story is, just facts laid out one after the other. Some more substantial than others and then it's over. Jeff thinks it's murder, and murder it is. You don't share his journey of discovering, you don't watch with him, you're just told the facts. Perhaps it's just the bare writing style of the times, paring it down to grim, noir details, but I like a little substance in my literature and I love Hitchcock's Rear Window, so perhaps there was no way I could fully get along with the story, but I think I've come to accept that, and we're good with each other.

2 comments:

Sounds like quite the disappointment. I do not like dry reads and this sounds like one. Some times a beloved movie does not measure up to the book ( I love I am Legend but the book is much better). Then again some times a movie based on a book is much more enjoyable. The movie Rear Window may have been better because it had more depth. Jimmy Stewart portrayed a desperate man. This book does not sound desperate just odd.

And perhaps why it is out of print? At least reading it a second time I was not as disappointed as the first, but still, just watch the movie even if you can find a copy.

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