Thursday, July 30, 2020



By Harley Mazuk

I take a detective fiction class at Johns Hopkins for Old People (hereafter: “J-Hop”), most every year, and it’s been a consistently good class, due in no small part to the instructor, Melinda Kramer, a personable doctor of English from Purdue. My main complaint over the years is that Melinda expects us Old People to do too much reading. But this year Dr. Kramer has chosen her reading list from among top mystery novellas—supposedly books of around 200 pages or fewer that you can read in an afternoon. I happily signed up for this fall.

Our first short novel is The Girl in the Green Raincoat, a Tess Monaghan Novel, originally published: January 18, 2011, author: Laura Lippman, a well-regarded Maryland writer and fellow member of my Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. (Haven’t seen her at any of the local meetings yet.)

Ms. Lippman writes in an afterword of sorts, “. . . of course . . . the book . . . owes much to Rear Window . . .” referring to the popular Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. While I love Hitchcock’s films, being a writer, I thought I’d look at how Green Raincoat compares to Hitch’s source, the short story, “It Had to Be Murder,” by pulp fictionist, Cornell Woolrich.

There are similarities (and differences) between Lippman’s novel and Woolrich’s story. Woolrich, a sad (to the point of tragic), and prolific writer from the first half of the twentieth century, is often called “a master of pure suspense.” I admit, sometimes he’s a bit corny, as in his novel The Phantom Lady, in which chapter one is titled, “The Hundred and Fiftieth Day before the Execution,” chapter three is “The Hundred and Forty-Ninth Day before the Execution,” chapter six “The Ninetieth Day before the Execution,” chapter 19, “The Fifth Day before the Execution,” etc. Corny, but effective. I decided to compare “suspense” in the two works.   

The interwebs says “Suspense is a state of mental uncertainty, anxiety, of being undecided, or of being doubtful. In a dramatic work, suspense is the anticipation of the outcome of a plot or of the solution to an uncertainty, puzzle, or mystery.” In my words, suspense is anxiety about uncertainty. In The Girl in the Green Raincoat, the reader tries to figure out what Don Epstein is doing in his world, over there across the park. But our information is limited to what Tess and her helpers can find out. This builds suspense and increases our engagement in the book and particularly in the story of Epstein and his wives. Epstein’s story of dead wives and girlfriends is certainly enough to make us suspicious of him. Ms. Lippman increases our suspicion and turns the suspense and danger screws by confining our point of view to what Tess knows, and by confining Tess to bed with preeclampsia. The reader gets a sense of claustrophobia, and of being a prisoner, and a prisoner in a cage that confines, but does not protect.  

Hitchcock’s Rear Window is perhaps “iconic” from before that word became so overused. For that reason, one must read “It Had to Be Murder” carefully to be sure that the details you comprehend about the plot and the characters are actually in the text. Much of the Rear Window story exists only in the movie. For example, in the short story, the reader only knows that the protagonist, Jeffries, is laid up for some reason and can’t move about or fend for himself. We don’t find out until the last line of dialog on the last page that it’s a cast on his leg that immobilizes Jeffries.

Interestingly, this reader didn’t care how or why Jeffries was laid up. It’s very sharply done, but the author has everyone trying to figure out what exactly Thorwald is doing, not the backstory of Jeffries. As with Epstein in Green Raincoat, we know that Thorwald is acting suspicious and we desire to know what is going on, yet Woolrich, (who published  “It Had to Be Murder” in Dime Detective under his pen name “William Irish,”) has limited our information by confining our point of view to what a confined man, Jeffries, can find out. This builds suspense and deepens our engagement in the story of the Thorwalds.

I think Ms. Lippman turns up the suspense and tension in the last few chapters as she uses a Hitchcock-like technique—cross-cutting points of view, moving quickly from scene to scene, and from character to character until Tess Monaghan’s winterized sun porch is broached. As Dr. Kramer notes, Tess’s “role as observer and crime solver is turned on its head when the suspected murderer appears at the bedside, breaking through the observer’s protective ‘fourth wall,’ so to speak, and bringing the near certainty of death directly to the trapped detective. In addition to being an ironic twist on the locked room, a staple of mysteries, this is a marvelous example of ‘the biter bitten’ – being treated in the same way one has treated another, usually badly.” The twist doubles the suspense, and the fun.

Cornell Woolrich makes good use of the attractions and dangers of voyeurism and manipulates the reader by making him part of the entire voyeuristic enterprise. Then as in Green Raincoat, he turns the tables:

          “Suddenly, death was somewhere inside the house here with me. And I couldn’t move, I couldn’t get up out of this chair.”

Jeffries is discovered, trapped, and threatened by Thorwald. Though Woolrich is a master of suspense, his craft relating the action is shaky here. He describes Thorwald taking his shot, then trying to escape, but for me the picture Woolrich is painting is hard to follow in this last scene.

Of course, Woolrich’s tale was preceded by H.G. Wells’ short story, “Through a Window,” the setting of which is that of a man, convalescing from an unspecified injury, which prevents him from using his legs, who spends his waking hours looking out of a large window with a view of a nearby river. And by no small coincidence the next book up in our detective fiction class at J-Hop is Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, about a detective with a broken leg . . .