“Phantom Lady” is hardly a new book, having been first published in 1942. But it is one of the most highly regarded of Cornell Woolrich’s many classic noir thrillers. Given that those thrillers include “The Bride Wore Black” — its plot lifted by Quentin Tarantino for “Kill Bill” — and the story behind the Hitchcock masterpiece “Rear Window,” that’s saying something. While Raymond Chandler writes like a street-smart angel and David Goodis (recently given the Library of America treatment) is the chronicler of existential angst, Woolrich (1903-1968) almost always focuses on the creation of relentless, unforgiving tension and suspense.
Mainly, he accomplishes this through his plotting. Sometimes, this takes the form of an ingeniously cruel idea. In one story, for instance, a group of men are given a sumptuous dinner and then told by the host that he has poisoned one of them — the murderer of his son. An antidote is placed on the table; whoever drinks it immediately reveals his guilt to all. In “Rendezvous in Black” — perhaps the finest of Woolrich’s six novels using “black” in the title — a young woman has been killed, thoughtlessly, absurdly. Her devastated fiance seeks “justice” — not by murdering the people who caused his beloved’s death, for that would be too kind, but by destroying, one by one, the person dearest to each of them. In my favorite Woolrich novel, “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (written under the pen name George Hopley), all the combined forces of law, reason and money attempt to thwart a mystic’s bizarre prediction that a New York millionaire will “at the stroke of midnight, on the seam between the fourteenth and fifteenth of June, meet death at the jaws of a lion.”