Monday, 29 October 2012

The Night I Died by Cornell Woolrich (1936)

Detective Fiction Weekly
for August 8th 1936,
showing the story as an
anonymous publication

“The Point about me is that I should stay on the right side of the fence all those years, and then when I did go over, go over heart and soul like I did – all in the space of one night. In one hour, you might say.”

I’ve no idea how many noir stories pivot on the idea that a man’s life can change in an instant (usually for the worst), but I’d guess lots. Usually in these stories it’s the man’s life which changes; the woman is the one who’ll make the changes happen because she’s got into some mess, been kidnapped maybe, or is being blackmailed, so he has to rescue her or get her out of trouble. Or she’s a Machiavellian scheming bitch that any man with sense would run a mile from, but we just know he’s got such a bad case of the hots they’re going to end up swinging together.

There are some things that a man in a noir story should never do. He should never let his wife take out life insurance for him. And he should never never go home early to give her a surprise. You just know if he does that, the one in for the real surprise will be him.

So when Ben Cook goes home earlier than usual with a bag of toffees for Thelma, he probably deserves all he’ll get and, as he goes into the house, we’re not the least surprised that he hears voices.  Or that the voices are those of Thelma and a man he doesn't know. And the next thing he knows, he hears the two of them plotting his death.

With the advantage of surprise on his side, Ben takes control of the situation and Thelma’s scheme now undergoes some fundamental restructuring as Ben drops out of sight in order that the world will believe he’s dead and that that all-important insurance claim will be paid – initially, at least – to Thelma.

But we have a fair way to go before we’re at the end, and the path is likely to get a mite bloody.

This story was first published in Detective Fiction Weekly, August 8th, 1936. Happily I've been able to locate the cover of that issue at The Fiction Mags Index. And look closely at that cover. Did he really publish this story anonymously?   I read the story in Four Novellas of Fear, 2010, A J Cornell. Publications.

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