Cornell Woolrich: Murder at the Automat

“You talk like a layman.  You’ve been on the squad long enough by now to know how damnably unescapable little habits are, how impossible it is to shake them off, once formed. The public at large thinks detective work is something miraculous like pulling rabbits out of a silk-hat. They don’t realize that no adult is a free agent–that they’re tied hand and foot by tiny, harmless little habits, and held helpless.”
Murder at the Automat, a short story by Cornell Woolrich

“Very few photographs of Woolrich exist, but an interesting verbal portrait appears in Chapter 5 of I Wake Up Screaming, a novel by Steve Fisher who was a pulpwriter contemporary of Woolrich. ‘He had red hair and thin white skin and red eyebrows and blue eyes. He looked sick. He looked like a corpse. His clothes didn’t fit him… He was frail, grey-faced and bitter. He was possessed with a macabre humor. His voice was nasal. You’d think he was crying. He might have had T.B. He looked like he couldn’t stand up in a wind.’ The character’s name is Cornell.”
-From the introduction to the collection Nightwebs, written by Francis M. Nevins, Jr.

Automat falls into “impossible crime” genre.  A man is killed at an automat by a pre-wrapped poisoned sandwich.  The others at the table didn’t do it.  The sandwich packers didn’t do it.  No one could have done it.  At least, that’s how it seems.

What I like about Woolrich’s story is that we have this one detective, Nelson, trying to figure this impossible crime out, while his captain and his partner beat the sense out of the most “likely” witness to get a confession. Woolrich tosses us into a world where justice doesn’t mean a damn thing, just get a confession and that’s good enough. His hero turns against the system in order to protect it in what seems like an ongoing theme in the writer’s pulp work: paranoia.

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