In The Spotlight: Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Cornell Woolrich isn’t perhaps as well-known as some of his contemporaries such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Yet his work was quite influential and was the basis of several noir films of the era. It’s about time this feature included a Woolrich novel, so let’s look at one today and turn the spotlight on Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

The novel begins late one night when New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a walk by the river. He sees a young woman about to jump off a bridge and rushes to save her. He gets to her just in time and convinces her to go with him away from the bridge. He sees immediately that she’s both well-off and good looking, and there seems no reason for her to want to commit suicide. But she clearly wanted to, which makes Shawn curious. They go to an all-night restaurant where he persuades her to tell her story.

She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy and successful Harlan Reid, and aside from losing her mother at the age of two, she’s had a good life. That is, until recently, when her story takes a bizarre and darker turn. It all starts when her father takes a business trip to San Francisco. The housemaid warns her of terrible danger if he returns on the date he planned. At first Jean doesn’t take the warning seriously, but enough of her wonders if it’s true that she almost sends him a telegram asking him to change his plans.

When the plane Reid had intended to take crashes with no survivors, Jean is of course convinced that he has died. Then she finds out that he got a telegram and changed his plans. Although she didn’t contact him, someone must have done so. When he gets back home, she tells her father about what happened. Now both Reids want to know what’s behind this incident. They talk to the housemaid and at last convince her to introduce them to the man who knew about the crash before it happened. He is Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who is, as he sees it, cursed with being able to predict the future accurately.

Against his better judgement (and the maid’s warning), Reid begins to visit Tompkins regularly when he is faced with important decisions. As each of Tompkins’ predictions comes true, Reid believes in him more and more. Then comes the bombshell. Tompkins predicts Reid’s death on a certain night at midnight. Now everything changes, as Reid firmly believes that there is no way to escape his certain fate. If the prediction is correct, he’s got three more days, and Jean can no longer tolerate the stress; hence her decision to end it all.

Although he’s not fanciful, Shawn is drawn in by this story. He persuades Jean to come with him to the police department and involve his boss, who may have a better idea of what to do. When Shawn’s boss McManus hears the story, he immediately suspects that Tompkins may be trying to manipulate Reid, who is, after all, a wealthy man. So he gets a team of detectives together to look into the telegram, the other predictions, and the details of what is predicted about Reid’s death. Bit by bit, the team finds out about Tompkins’ and Reid’s backgrounds, and learns what may be behind everything.

In the meantime, Shawn does his best to protect both Reid and his daughter in order to prevent the tragedy that’s been foretold. As the time gets closer and closer, we see how each of them responds to the increasing sense of fear. We also see how McManus and his team try to uncover the truth before it’s too late.

This is a psychological study as much as it is anything else. So we see how Harlan Reid changes, even physically, as the time gets closer to his predicted death. We also see how the pressure affects his daughter. The fear of death and its inevitable approach have a strong impact. In that way, this is arguably a novel of psychological suspense, and the tension is built as the various characters react to the increasing psychological pressure.

Since there is a focus on psychology rather than on other things, the violence in the novel doesn’t ‘take the stage.’ It’s mentioned, but readers who prefer to avoid gore and a high ‘body count’ will be pleased that this novel has neither. It’s arguably a case of imagination being more powerful than actual reality.

The novel is also part police procedural. So we follow the police as they try to find out who is manipulating Reid before he’s killed. Is Tompkins also being manipulated? Is he an innocent pawn or is he a shrewd scam artist? Part of the trail leads to an itinerant circus, so the police investigate that as well. And that leads them straight into another murder investigation which may or may not be connected. As the police look into that death as well as the apparent threat to Reid’s life, we see the pragmatic reality of trying to prevent a murder.

There is an element of fatalism in the novel as well. Right from the beginning, Reid doesn’t want to believe that Tompkins’ predictions will be accurate; neither does his daughter. In fact more than once it’s clear that he’s hoping his decisions will turn out disastrously, just to prove that you can’t predict the future. The tone of the novel (it is a noir novel after all) is one of the inescapability of one’s fate; it’s a bit like watching two cars hurtling towards each other, knowing what will happen and being unable to prevent it.

That said though, readers who like prosaic solutions to their mysteries need fear not. There are questions left unanswered, but the case isn’t really solved by psychic power. It’s possibly more accurate to say that in this novel, we see the strength of psychology. The belief that someone can predict the future, especially when there is evidence that it may be true, can take a very strong hold.

Woolrich’s writing style is quite descriptive:

‘It was a short cut, a sort of branch trail, that left the main highway at about the Hughes farm and rejoined it again at mid-village. The main highway took a slight bend getting in, and this little trail ran straight. It was the string to the highway’s bow. It was tree-walled and bramble-blind and not very good, but it was the shortest line between two points.’

Readers who prefer straightfoward storytelling will notice this.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is the story of what happens when a terrifying possibility takes hold. The story is told from multiple perspectives, and the ending, like the endings of most noir novels, is not a cheerful one. It has a strong thread of psychological tension and features a cast of characters who may or may not be trapped in their own inevitability. But what’s your view? Have you read Night Has a Thousand Eyes? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 27 October/Tuesday 28 October – The Dying Light – Alison Jospeh

Monday 3 November/Tuesday 4 November – The Suspect – Michael Robotham

Monday 10 November/Tuesday 11 November – A Duty to the Dead – Charles Todd


Filed under Cornell Woolrich, Night Has a Thousand Eyes

32 responses to “In The Spotlight: Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes

  1. It’s certainly an interesting plot but I’m not sure about the daughter wanting to kill herself at that stage. Wouldn’t she want to stay around to see what happened and potentially protect her father? It seems to be the one questionable element in an otherwise compelling idea.

    • Interesting point, James. Woolrich portrays her as driven to desperation and unable to bear witnessing her father’s dissolution and then death. But I can see how one might wonder why she wouldn’t want to do something.

  2. I particularly enjoyed this spotlight Margot as I’m a big Woolrich fan and this may be his biggest novel, packed with his particular combination of cosmic nihilism and ingenious plotting – great stuff. Also it was turned into a pretty decent movie starring the great Edward G. Robinson as the haunted Tompkins (renamed Triton), with a script by another great Noir author, Jonathan Latimer.

  3. You’ve done it again Margot, another fascinating ‘In the Spotlight’ and one with a psychological bent which means that it will have to go on the wishlist (I’m not adding to the TBR until I mange to read a few!)

    • Cleo – Oh, I know just exactly what you mean about the TBR! Yikes! I don’t even want to think about mine! I do think you’d enjoy this one. It really is an interesting look at these characters.

  4. Clarissa Draper

    Another great psychological suspense. It would have been an awesome book to be done into a movie by Hitchcock. I want to add this one to my TBR.

    • Clarissa – Oh, I think Hitchcock could have done a fabulous job with this story! But then, I’m biased; I like his films very much. You may also want to check out Sergio’s comment above. He’s my go-to for crime films and has some great information on the film version of this novel.

  5. Thanks for this terrific review, Margot, and thanks Sergio for the heads up about the film version. I’m always on the look out for film noir viewing…

    • Angela – This is definitely an interesting example of the noir story with a fascinating psychological element. And if Sergio recommends a film, you can bank on it.

  6. tracybham

    I have never read any novels by Woolrich, and I want to. Great overview. I will put this one on my list. My husband just surprised me recently when he told me he had read Woolrich when he was younger. So he is ahead of me on that author.

  7. Great spotlight Margot – this sounds like a fantastic plot. And since Edward G Robinson is one of my favourite actors, I think I’ll see if I can track down the film… so thanks to Sergio too. 🙂

    • FictionFan – That’s teamwork for you. Working together, Sergio and I get you to add this to your wish list and have a look at the film. I call that a good day’s work… 😉

  8. Col

    Margot -I have his Bride wore Black book on the pile, so I think I’ll wait and see how I get on with that first, cheers.

  9. This sounds wonderful Margot and I’m putting it on my TBR list. Thank you.

  10. I have read a few of his books but not this one. I will look for it.

  11. This sounds great – I’ve heard of it, and read another book by Woolrich, but now I really want to read this one…

    • Moira – Oh, I’ll be really interested in what you think of this one. Among other things, I think Woolrich does a solid job of depicting the culture – and the clothes – in this story.

  12. Margot – Thanks for giving Woolrich a much deserved review. Sergio pre-empted me somewhat: Woolrich’s stories provided a rich source for noirish cinematic adaptions and the movie version of Thousand Eyes is supposed t be pretty good though I’ve not seen it.

    • Bryan – I’ve also heard that the film version of Night Has a Thousand Eyes is good. And I agree that Woolrich had a great deal of talent and was the basis for some well-known cinema adaptations. I think his work ought to be better known than it is.

  13. I’ve read most of Cornell Woolrich’s novels and short stories. He was a master of the genre. But, as you point out, there’s a lot of darkness in his work.

  14. Well, I never thought I’d be reading a Woolrich post on this blog. Nicely done piece on one of the better books that is not often talked about. This, IMO, is his masterpiece. Such a effective use of supernatural in a crime novel and some mature themes explored. Very little in the way of his love for outrageous coincidence. And speaking of coincidence — Today Patti also posted Ed Gorman’s review of FRIGHT, the other “George Hopley” book by Woolrich. Or was it not coincidence but all a clever plan on her part? ;^)

    • John – Thanks for the kind words. And you’re right; I think this is definitely an example of Woolrich at his best. In terms of character, events and resolution, it’s a fine story. I agree, too, that we don’t see an ‘overload of coincidence’ in this. It sure is interesting too that Ed and I posted on the ‘George Hopley’ books. Maybe there was just something in the air and we too and Patti all picked up on it… Or Patti is a puppet master. 😉

  15. Nicely summed up. I thoroughly enjoyed WALTZ INTO DARKNESS, and your review of this novel shows how well Woolrich was able to take a simple but plausible premise and fully explore its darker psychological dimensions.

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