My late barber, Mr. Kay, used to trim the ‘do of noir writer Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968), author of the story that became Rear Window, who attended nearby Columbia. Kay claimed his wife wouldn’t let him start a Woolrich book at night, because it meant he’d stay up to finish—and then stay up out of fear. Two reissues keep the nightmares coming.
The premise of 1948’s Rendezvous in Black (Modern Library, 211 pp., $12.95) is not a little ludicrous: a bottle flung out of an airplane fatally beans the beloved of Johnny Marr, driving him to seek out the passenger list from that fateful flight and to dispatch, on that fatal anniversary, the person most precious to each. But the five murder scenarios increase in knuckle-gnawing tension, the rage feels insanely pure, and the sweaty-palms set piece (blind woman in ship) will make you reach for your cover-laminator. The “Reading Group Guide” (!) fails to ask: Is the revenger’s name a bilingual pun on j’en ai marre, or a presage of Smiths’ guitarists to come?
Smokers hoping to kick butt should read “Cigarette” in Night and Fear (Carroll & Graf, 394 pp., $26), which gathers over 30 years’ worth of uncollected stories. A low-level hood, on a seemingly mundane job for his odious boss, unwittingly gives away a poison fag. The resulting hunt is a breathless example of Woolrich’s gift for the plot jolt, addictive as any tobacco.