Friday, 26 October 2012

Death in the Air by Cornell Woolrich (1936)

Cornell Woolrich is a familiar name to followers of horror and hard-boiled detective thrillers alike. Black Alibi (1942) was filmed by the team of Producer Val Lewton and Director Jacques Tourneur as The Leopard Man (1943), while his gruesome short story Papa Benjamin was damn-near ruined when used for a segment of the portmanteau film Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (the story featuring Roy Castle).  

Death in the Air utilizes the unusual setting of New York’s elevated railway system - to great advantage. Inspector Stephen Lively – inevitably nicknamed ‘Step Lively’ – is on his way home from work on the ‘El’, a journey that carries him down major city streets, sixty feet in the air; then the track veers off into Greenwich Street, where the surroundings change dramatically:

“The old mangy tenements closed in on both sides, narrowing into a bottleneck and all but scraping the sides of the cars as they threaded through them. There was, at the most, a distance of three yards between the outer rail of the super-structure and their fourth-floor window-ledges, and where fire-escapes protruded only half that much.
“What saved them from incessant burglarising in this way was simply that there was nothing to burglarise. They were not worth going after. Four out of five were tenantless, windows either boarded up or broken glass cavities yawning at the night. Occasionally a dimly-lighted one floated by, so close it gave those on the train startling impression of being right in the same room with those whose privacy they were cutting across in this way.”

It’s during this part of the journey that the policeman notices two people engaged in a strange dance in one of these apartments, then a little further on realises that the man he’s sharing his compartment with is dead, killed by a bullet coming from outside.

‘Step Lively’s’ nickname is an ironic one, as he’s possibly the most languid policeman employed by the force. After pulling the communication cord, he realises that the journey back to the lighted apartment from which he suspects the bullet came, will involve a tedious journey, as he'll have to first descend to street level, then climb back up again. In the event he decides simply to walk back along the elevated track. 

The languid detective’s journey back along the busy railway line, then risking his neck clambering from the line to the open window – where he finds a woman’s corpse and needs to rescue it from a blazing building while under the influence of a ‘crazy weed’ reefer that he’s unwittingly discovered in the room and started smoking, makes a riveting read.

Vintage Woolrich, first published in Detective Fiction Weekly in 1936. I found the story reprinted in Murder on the Railways edited by Peter Haining, Orion 1996

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