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Deadline at Dawn Paperback – August 6, 2013
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One of Cornell Woolrich's most taut thrillers, Deadline at Dawn is a fantastic novel of existential angst, as two characters in a soulless city set out for redemption and a chance at a new life. With a fine introduction by Duane Swierczynski, new cover art by Matt Mahurin, and a gallery of old paperback and hardcover editions.
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Deadline at Dawn was written in the 1940s, during that incredible period when memorable novel after novel appeared. Some he wrote under the Woolrich name, others William Irish, still others George Hopely. He was so prolific he feared glutting the market. Woolrich was in essence a romantic, which is why he had originally — and with some success — set out to become the next Fitzgerald. His sense of romanticism, and wishing it could be a certain way, but knowing it often wasn’t, led to a theme running through his oeuvre. In many of Woolrich’s finest efforts, fate and destiny are forces which cannot be overcome, no matter how desperately we try. There is a rainbow at the end, but often the protagonist can’t reach it, because he or she can’t get out of the jam. Why? Because fate is laughing at him, dooming him. If Night Has a Thousand Eyes exemplified this sense of fatalism and life being out of our control, then Deadline at Dawn exemplifies the romanticism, the hope that somehow, once in a blue moon, a guy and a girl can beat the odds, fight fate and maybe win. Maybe.
Darkly romantic and deeply involving, New York City becomes a living thing, a Woolrich extension of fate working against two little people in a jam. To say that Deadline at Dawn is about a young man who has made a mistake and a cynical yet secretly soft-hearted dance hall girl who decides to help him try to fix it, is like saying Lonesome Dove is about a couple of old Texas Rangers making a cattle drive. Neither description can convey the tenderness, beauty, and heartfelt moments that stay with us long after the final page is turned. After finishing this novel, I had the same feeling as when finishing Remarque’s Three Comrades and The Night in Lisbon, that I had just read something wonderful. As in many Woolrich novels, everything takes place as a race against the clock, an effort to stave off doom for the protagonists. Also as in many Woolrich tales, we are drawn into their plight, and into their souls, so that we are aching for them to succeed, and give fate a kick in the pants.
First it’s trying to fix a moment of weakness, then get out from under a murder charge before anyone finds the body. But ultimately, it’s an exciting and moving story of two “little” people fighting a city that doesn’t care about them, has changed them in ways they don’t like, is laughing at them as they try to fix things and catch a bus back home before it’s too late. Woolrich once wrote that he didn’t think he was a very good writer, he just wrote the truth. While Night Has a Thousand Eyes is more heralded, and it is one of his brilliant works during that aforementioned stretch, I prefer to believe that it was in Deadline at Dawn that a writer who was more than just good, but great in fact, actually told the truth. A wonderful, involving read. Both a mystery and suspense story, it is about so much more. A masterpiece, from a guy who wrote a slew of them. A must read.