This is one of Woolrich's famous "Black" books and black it is. Bleak as David Goodis gets his protagonists usually attempt to make some kind of connection to another human being. Not with with Woolrich.
I'm not going to describe the set-up here because laid it flat it is so outlandish you might think twice about reading the book. But Cornell Woolrich was nothing if not shrewd. By the time you figure out what's going on you've had a chance to prepare yourself. You've been putting it all together piece by piece so when the picture is complete you just nod and accept it.
And anyway as with most Woolrich books and stories the set-up doesn't matter all that much anyway. What makes Woolrich Woolrich is how his protagonists respond to the set-up. This novel is built on a series of richly detailed character studies of several men who have begun dying in ways that would be ironic even to them if they could step back and see it with any objectivity.
Woolrich is often compared to Poe and while I think that's fair--they are both masters of claustrophobia and obsession--I think in all Woolrich's real literary father was Guy de Mauppassant. Woolrich has de Mauppassant's fascination with society high and low for one thing, and a sly ear and eye for realistic daily life. There is a lot of Edward Hopper in Woolrich's word paintings of the Thirties and Forties. I'm not sure that Poe an equivalent interest in his own time.
This is my favorite Woolrich novel which is to say that he has told a story of such cleverness and nihilistic power you see why Woolrich is so revered. This is one of those books, one of those books that crush, and linger on long after you finish it.
The first Woolrich novel I read, and the first I owned in the impressive late '80s Ballantine re-issue series.
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