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CORNELL WOOLRICH (1903-1968)

Cornell Woolrich would have served well as a character in one of his own sombre, enigmatic, and somehow slightly bent stories, which he wrote under the pseudonym William Irish. Born Cornell George Hopley – Woolrich, this son of a civil – engineer father and socialite mother spent part of his boyhood in Latin America, obtaining a collection of cartridges that Mexican revolutionaries had fired at one another and watching his parents' marriage fall apart. He studied literature and creative writing at Columbia University, wrote two romantic novels, went to Hollywood as a scriptwriter, and married a film producer's daughter.

His new wife left him in a matter of weeks, fuelling speculation that Woolrich was homosexual. The central woman in his life seems to have been his mother. He remained devoted to her until she died in 1957. After that, he wrote relatively little, drank more, rarely emerged from his hotel suite, and ignored the rapid decline of his health (including gangrene, until amputation of a leg was needed). Despite the fame his work had brought him, only a handful of mourners attended his funeral.

The fame was well deserved. Woolrich imbued detective fiction with a dark and ironic fatalism. He used psychology and the strangeness of the human subconscious in new ways, filling his pages with the often self-induced travails of desperate people. He possessed a remarkable ability to take an ordinary character into an uneasy and threatening situation, and to sustain a dark atmosphere of suspense even in situations where the action is slow and deliberate, or observed from a distance.

He also demonstrated a proclivity for unusual plots. If the plot of «Rear Window» no longer seems unusual, it was highly inventive in Woolrich's day. «Rear Window» was made into an immensely successful movie starring Jimmy Stewart, after which the plot was used and abused by numerous imitators. The immobility of the narrator and his sense of foreboding are not uncommon in the author's work. Woolrich's manipulation of these elements makes this story a prime example of the author's ability to build a threatening air of tension for both the character and the reader.


The Footprint in the Sky | The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories | Rear Window