It Had to Be Murder (1942)

Originally published in Dime Detective Magazine under the title “It Had to Be Murder,” later reprinted as “Rear Window,” is one of Woolrich’s most well-known short stories. It’s popularity was enhanced by Alfred Hitcock’s film adaptation, which utilized Woolrich’s original plot, but added to the world around him

The story itself maintains a hyper-focused narrative centered on the plot question. The protagonist, L. B. Jeffries is largely isolated throughout the story. That isolation drives his window peeping. Regarding the clues he sees, Jeffries says that “Only someone like me, stewing in a vacuum of total idleness, would have noticed it at all” (Woolrich 8). That idleness solves the case. That being said, Jeffries concern seems to be less about the safety of his neighbors and more about amusing himself while he is laid up. In fact, Jeffries knows very little about the people whom he watches from his window. In the book’s opening, Woolrich writes, “I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance” (Woolrich 5).

Jeffries is utterly certain that his neighbor has murdered his wife. Unlike his film counter-part, Jeffries is alone in that certainty until the very end of the story. In many ways, that includes the skepticism of the reader, but Woolrich does not keep the ambiguity up for long. For Woolrich, this isn’t a story about paranoia and skepticism, so much as a story about death. Early in the story, Jeffries’s friend Sam mentions that the sound of crickets is an omen for death (10). That death is shown to be the neighbor’s wife. The crickets are heard once again just before the story’s climax, making the reader question who will die. Jeffries? Thorwald? Jeff’s detective friend Boyne comes in to save the day, having uncovered evidence of Thorwald’s crimes.

Given that most readers will have seen Hitchcock’s film, it is impossible to completely divorce the two from each other. While the plots are very similar, the story is not quite as nuanced as the film. Stripped of Hitchcock’s additions, the story is more of a baic murder mystery than art. Still, it’s dark, interesting, and effective.

The story was possibly inspired by an incident in which a couple of girls were watching Woolrich through his window from an apartment next door (Bassett 21). Woolrich ignored them and went back to writing. Nevins calls this “another hint that writing for him had taken the place of sex” (24). The incident seems fitting, considering Woolrich’s self-professed feeling of being a bug in an upside down glass.

The real-life inspiration is a bit ironic, given that Woolrich went right back to his typewriter. Other people were rarely a concern for Woolrich, and it seems unlikely that he would have noticed a real-life murder unless it took place at his typewriter.