Fright by Cornell Woolrich (originally George Hopley)
Originally published 1950
Hard Case Crime, 1st printing, 2007
Genre: noir, crime
Synopsis & Review: Prescott Marshall is on the verge of marrying his ideal woman: beautiful, wealthy, and above all, socially well connected. He has a fine job in New York, the greatest city in the world, and has everything to look forward to. Until he commits an indiscretion shortly before his wedding, an indiscretion who returns to haunt him until he can take it no longer. After the murder, Prescott Marshall is a marked man, a hunted man, a desperate man who will do anything to hide his shame.
I was excited to get my grubby little hands on this one, the first new Woolrich I’ve read in a long time (new to me, that is). After my introduction to Woolrich by Johnny Marr’s Murder Can Be Fun ‘zine in ninth grade, I became a devotee, seeking out collections and out-of-print novels in the Hawaii State Library System, and eventually beginning my own collection with the Ballantine reprints of the 80s. And Fright was entirely satisfactory. It’s a little different from the usual Woolrich in that it’s a period piece, set in 1915, but I don’t feel that doing so was a gimmick, since Prescott constantly refers to social changes at the time–though upon reflection, it does seem somewhat anachronistic, when considering the end. Prescott’s grim struggle to protect Marjorie and himself from the consequences of his actions is fascinating, a view of an otherwise ordinary man–if a somewhat selfish one–made monstrous. And that is where Woolrich has always excelled, in highlighting the possibilities for evil in even the most banal persons. Particularly touching is the way Prescott slowly murders his marriage due to the anxiety and guilt that are suffocating him.
As with all of Woolrich’s work (except perhaps for the other notable period novel, Waltz into Darkness), the pace is relentless; I read Fright in one sitting. It also features one of the bleak coincidental twist ending for which Woolrich was well-known, the endings that highlight the tragedy of circumstance that has just passed. It’s not the greatest Woolrich, but it is definitely a must for any fan of noir.
Cover: Hated it. Is it supposed to be humorously referential to the days of pulp covers misrepresenting the novels inside? Because in that case, it would have been superb for a reprint of Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece. It doesn’t refer at all to the novel inside, and it’s also just not very good.
Then he strode foward to rejoin her. He stopped just short of the doorway, for an instant only, before going in to her. His expression was taut and grim with impending purpose, and it didn’t suit the face he was about to show her. He put his free hand up to it, and drew his hand slowly downward across it. The way you do when you’re wiping somehting off. Only instead of wiping something off, his hand left something behind it.
A smile. A carefree, lighthearted, totally lying smile.