Monday, 5 November 2012

Murder Always Gathers Momentum by Cornell Woolrich

Years ago Richard Paine had deferred half his wages to help his employer Ben Burroughs through hard times; but now,  after Burroughs has declared himself bankrupt and cancelled his company’s debts, he’s been left comfortably well-off, while Paine is unemployed and he and his wife face  eviction.  Paine decides it’s time to ask Burroughs for the money he owes and goes to visit him by night. Through a window he sees Burroughs opening a safe, and, not believing that the old man will honour the debt, he decides to rob him. Things go wrong and Paine is precipitated into a chain of events which lead to him escaping across the city, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. 

This is not a favourite story of mine. This story of a frightened man in desperate times has an air of doomed inevitability about it from the start; almost from the first lines we know that no good is going to come out of Richard Paine’s night journey to Burroughs’ home.

As a portrayal of a man trapped in intolerable circumstances, it’s powerful stuff.  Francis M Nevins wrote in his book Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die:  “When it comes to putting us in the skin of a frightened little guy in a miserable little apartment with a hungry wife and children and no money and no job and fear of tomorrow eating him like a cancer, Woolrich has no peers. There is more of the anguish of the thirties in stories like Murder Always Gathers Momentum than in volumes of social history.”

True, and it’s interesting that the editor of Detective Fiction Weekly decided to publish this story in a time (December 1940) when its readers had not long emerged from the Great Depression and the world was slipping back into war, a time when most would surely have preferred to read more escapist stuff than being reminded they were themselves living in such desperate times.

As social comment the story is a valid document, while as fiction, criticizing Woolrich can be likened to throwing rocks at the moon. Let’s face it, we read Woolrich for his bleak worldview. But this one’s so remorselessly downbeat, and the final lines which reveal too late that the whole mess only began because Paine and his wife didn't communicate enough, left me with a flat and disappointed feeling. The problem wasn't the Great Depression, it was just a couple who should have talked more. And people say Americans don’t understand irony?
Below is a link to a free download of  the 27th October 1949 broadcast of  Woolrich's Momentuman episode of Suspense scripted by E Jack Neuman and starring Victor Mature and Lurene Tuttle. Details differ from Woolrich's original story.

Woolrich's 'Momentum' broadcast in Suspense

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