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The Women of Woolrich

December 14, 2021

Since the height of his career, the stories of Cornell Woolrich have never received so much attention. For decades after the famed crime and suspense writer’s death, much of his work had been unfairly gathering dust in out-of-print books and magazines. But the team at Renaissance Literary & Talent, including president Alan Nevins and agent Jacklyn Saferstein-Hansen, have worked tirelessly to sort out rights issues to the hundreds of stories and dozens of novels Woolrich wrote during his lifetime. Renaissance is the agency that represents the various parties that control the Woolrich estate, and they also partly serve as publisher: their robust ebook and paperback library, which boasts many of their clients’ backlist titles, also includes a vast selection of Woolrich’s work. Between their own publications and titles they’ve licensed, a wide array of Woolrich fiction is now available to readers, from the six books of the excellent Black Series to the short story “It Had to be Murder,” upon which Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 hit Rear Window is based.

Cover Design by Abigail Larson

Renaissance has gone beyond just publishing his novels and short stories individually. With rights to his many stories and early collections retrieved from previous publishers, they’ve been able to pore through the Woolrich canon and curate brand new themed short story collections for crime, suspense and noir fiction fans old and new. In the last few years, they’ve published two hugely popular multi-volume collections: Literary Noir: A Series of Suspense and An Obsession with Death and Dying.

Just in time for the holidays, they’ve released yet another fantastic collection, this one with a special flare: Women in Noir.

Women in Noir is significant not only because it showcases some of Woolrich’s most intriguing female narrators and protagonists, but because the writer was ahead of his time in his portrayal of women. While contemporaries like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler put their man’s man heroes front and centre, with women relegated to passive support, if featured at all, Woolrich found revolutionary ways to make his heroines the driving force of his stories. Three of his most famous characters, let alone female characters, are the titular Phantom Lady, The Black Angel and The Bride Wore Black from his blockbuster novels of the 1940s.

Renaissance’s new collection, 22 stories across three volumes, seeks to introduce readers to Woolrich’s lesser-known ladies. In Dangerous Dames, you meet a group of Woolrich’s baddest broads. From demure wives with hidden lives to overt femme fatales, the women in these stories are smooth, cunning, and most of all, dangerous. Sleuths & Sages features some of the savviest gals in the Woolrich catalogue. Regular women, brave and bold, take it upon themselves to solve crimes and bring justice to those less fortunate. The women of Lover’s Lament are tangled up with their lovers for better or worse. Each story explores a complex relationship and the position women are put in when their male counterpart’s crimes, or the treacherous hand of fate, are involved.

Cover Design by Abigail Larson

Aside from bringing new life to the few females of the genre, Women in Noir is also an opportunity for readers to wrestle with the mystery of Woolrich himself. While his contemporaries were focused on tales of the alpha male, why did Woolrich dedicate so many pages in his novels and short stories to compelling, powerful female characters? He was such a deeply tormented figure, so we might never have an answer, but in that fact lies a clue.

Since childhood, he led a tortured life and experienced near constant anguish, starting with his parent’s divorce. He was an alcoholic recluse leading a hidden life as a gay man. He had few romantic affairs with women, all of them meeting miserable ends, including a particularly disastrous marriage. And always looming over him, forever defining his connection to the female, was his lifelong love-hate relationship with his mother, with whom he lived most of his adult years. After her death, he deteriorated both physically and mentally, dying not long after.

Perhaps all of this made him more human, more able to relate to those marginalised and maligned by society. Whatever the case, there is no question that Woolrich’s treatment of women in his writing was as layered as the man himself. Women in Noir seeks to shed light on those layers, and introduce a new generation of crime, suspense and noir readers to the brilliance of what many critics have deemed one of the best writers of the 20th century.

Women in Noir is available on Amazon in both ebook and paperback.

Cover Design by Abigail Larson
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