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Spotlight on: Fright by Cornell Woolrich

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Fright by Cornell Woolrich Cornell Woolrich, Fright

The year is 1915 — not the most popular year in which to set a crime novel, to be sure — but the year is really unimportant, except to make the events that occur in Fright even more shocking than they would have been in 1950, when it was first published under the pseudonym George Hopley.

Preston Marshall is a lucky man. He has a job on Wall Street and a lovely fiancee, but a single drunken night leads to an event that, one week later — the week after the sinking of the Lusitania, in fact, though the two occurrences are not otherwise connected — begins his downward spiral into a life where every minute is filled with ... wait for it! ... Fright.

Author Cornell Woolrich is probably best known for writing the novella that Alfred Hitchcock turned into his classic film, Rear Window. (His work has been the basis for numerous radio, TV, and film adaptations, one of the most recent being the Angelina Jolie–Antonio Banderas potboiler Original Sin, loosely based on Waltz into Darkness with all the noir trappings intact.)

All these works share some similarities, despite their different approaches, namely protagonists who respond to the events around them far more dramatically than those events really deserve — at least at first. Marshall's reactions in Fright get him into a deeper quagmire than his original actions ever would have.

Woolrich uses this intense nature of Marshall's to keep the suspense level high. So high, in fact, that a couple of scenes — if the tension were just one notch higher — would work just as well played as comedy. But no one is laughing as the events in Fright get darker and darker still (shocking even this jaded reader; I can only imagine how they affected the 1950 audience), culminating in a tragic ending that twists all that came before (but you have to pay attention to details to pick up on its real significance).

This is a terrifically suspenseful dark crime novel from an author whose name is synonymous with noir among those who know the subgenre. Used copies of the "George Hopley" original (and, until now, only) edition of Fright can run upwards of fifty dollars, and it is great to see this Cornell Woolrich classic revived by Hard Case Crime for a much less upsetting price.

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