New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1941
List of main characters:
The narrator, nicknamed Peg
Vicky Lynn, murdered actress
Jill Lynn, Vicky’s sister
Lanny Craig, another script writer
Robin Ray, young actor
Hurd Evans, one of the partners promoting Vicky Lynn
Johnny Wismer, agent
Ed Cornell, police detective
Wanda Hale, ex-girlfriend of Hurd Evans and Jill’s roommate after Vicky’s death
I found the book image on a blog at WordPress called FilmFlotsam. (FilmFlotsam focuses more on the film than on the novel.) The image on the front cover of the dust jacket is noir-perfect.
I was lucky enough to find a 1941 edition of I Wake up Screaming in my local library system, although it no longer had the noir-perfect dust jacket. If you can find a first edition, I would definitely recommend it. The title itself (I Wake up Screaming) is one of my favorites.
I have seen only bits and pieces of the film starring Betty Grable and Victor Mature. I do know that the book and film are a little bit different. For one thing, the narrator in the book is never named except for the nickname Peg (for Pegasus) that Jill gives him. The entire plot in the novel is told from his perspective, in first-person narration. In the film, he is Frankie Christopher.
The book takes place in the Los Angeles, California, area and also seems to cover many months, from summer through winter the following year. It references Christmas at the appropriate points in the timeline. The narrator gives what I think of as the almost mandatory “noir protagonist speech,” which in I Wake up Screaming includes a reference to Santa Claus:
. . . You can’t know. You go all your life believing in justice. That right will triumph. Then it’s all pulled out from under. When I was a kid I used to believe in Santa Claus. I think I felt something like this when they told me the truth. (page 167)
I don’t think the film mentions anything about holidays or the seasons, and it takes place in New York City. (Okay, so I Wake up Screaming is on my list of must-see movies!)
(This blog post about the novel I Wake up Screaming contains spoilers.)
The book is told in the first person, from the perspective of a screenwriter who becomes a detective out of necessity. He is hounded by a corrupt police detective, Ed Cornell, who is intent on framing him for a murder he didn’t commit. As the plot progresses, the narrator’s desperation increases. He goes on the run with the murdered actress’s sister Jill, now his girlfriend, and he just misses getting picked up by the police when they arrest Jill.
At this point, which is late into the novel, the screenwriter takes matters into his own hands and starts investigating the clues based on the little he knows. He starts out as a screenwriter, but he’s now a detective trying to avoid a murder trial and jail time, if not worse. It was satisfying to follow him as he does what he can to save himself and his girlfriend Jill from the charges the police detective is intent on bringing against both of them.
You might think that the sexual obsession that runs through the core of I Wake up Screaming would be tame by 2015 standards, but I was a bit surprised by it all the same. While reading the book, my imagination filled in all the details that are not written on the page, and Steve Fisher’s descriptions of what happened to Vicky made me squirm. Fisher made the decision to let the murderer explain what happened, which made that part of the story even creepier.
The narrator himself is something of an anti-hero. In Chapter 1, he takes Vicky out on their first date. They drink zombies, and Vicky offers to cook dinner at her apartment. Once they arrive at her place, he doesn’t waste any time:
She went into the bedroom then. After a while I followed her. She was standing in front of the mirror putting on lipstick with her little finger. She turned around, and all at once I was kissing her. I don’t know how long we stood there kissing. But she wasn’t just any girl. I knew that she was the one I’d been dreaming about.
We were very tight. She wore a soft gray dress, I remember that; and my hand started roving. It wasn’t right. I didn’t want her to think I was a cheap heel—that this was everything. She began to cry, and was sort of fighting, and crying.
Then it was all right.
Afterward, I stood at the window. . . . (page 7)
So by page 7 of the novel, the narrator has already acted the part of a heel himself. It might be the reason I wondered about his innocence in Vicky’s murder at the beginning of the story.
I Wake up Screaming also mentions class and class consciousness in a roundabout way. For example, in Chapter 10, before the narrator and Jill Lynn start a relationship and go on the run, the narrator runs into Jill on a movie lot. She’s now working as a movie extra, and she wonders why he hasn’t come to visit her. The narrator says that he will, but she doesn’t believe him:
“Honey, I’ll come up tomorrow. No, tonight. What are you doing tonight?”
“Don’t do me any favors, Peg! Or is this charity clinic night?"
“But I’d really like—”
“You’re much too kind, darling. Really! If you came to see me some nasty little columnist would write ‘What star did a burn when what scenarist let her cool her heels in the bar at Dave Chasen’s last night?’ You’re far too generous with us extras, dear. Have you no class consciousness?” (pages 98–99, emphasis added)
In Chapter 11, Wanda Hale, Jill Lynn’s roommate after Vicky Lynn’s death, gives another perspective on working movie extras:
“Something ought to be done about extras,” Wanda said. “They’ve made it a racket. One guy said we were just like migrant field workers. But if they give us a job they come around and take away half of the pay envelope. There are men that make a living that way.” . . .
“Some sweet day a John Steinbeck will come and tell about it,” said Wanda. “He’ll tell about it because it’ll make him money. But he’ll tell. The way guys are beaten up because they don’t want to give their dough to racketeers. How girls have to sleep with fat slobs to get work. How girls get pregnant and climb the hills and jump off the Hollywoodland sign.” (pages 107–108 and 108–109)
This comparison of movie extras to migrant field workers made me wonder if Steve Fisher felt the same way about screenwriters (he was one himself) and if he published anything that addressed this issue more directly. An online search didn’t yield any results, but I still wonder. I don’t doubt that Fisher was aware of the 1930s unionization movement in the United States and in the entertainment industry, and the animators’ working conditions at Walt Disney Studios prior to their strike in 1941.