“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.”
As this suggests, Woolrich’s favorite technique for creating tension is the race against time. This is clearly underscored in the very chapter titles of “Phantom Lady”: The first is “The Hundred and Fiftieth Day Before the Execution: Six P.M.” Gradually, inexorably, the clock ticks down to Chapter 22: “The Hour of the Execution.” What makes the anxiety all the more unbearable is that the reader knows that Scott Henderson is innocent of his wife’s murder.
Or is he? The book opens: “The night was young, and so was he. But the night was sweet, and he was sour.” We don’t know why 32-year-old Henderson is in such a sullen mood, but only that he drops into a bar named Anselmo’s at 6:10 — the time is important — and strikes up a conversation with an otherwise nondescript young woman in a dramatic pumpkin-orange hat. He tells her that he’s got two tickets to the casino, and it would be a shame to waste them. Wary of each other, they agree that this will be just dinner and a show, nothing more. They won’t even exchange names or talk about anything personal.
Over the next six hours the two dine, sit in the front row at the theater and are seemingly noticed by a slew of people, including a taxi driver, two waiters and the singing sensation Estela Mendoza. At midnight, they return to Anselmo’s, and, at her wish, Henderson leaves the woman there and goes home.
As he opens the door to his apartment, he is immediately surrounded by three burly police officers. His wife has been strangled in their bedroom with one of his neckties.
It turns out that Henderson has fallen in love with the kind and gentle Carol Richman, but the cold, apparently evil Marcella has been refusing to give him a divorce. Still, he would never have killed her — and he can prove it. At roughly the time the murder was being committed, he was at Anselmo’s introducing himself to the woman with the orange hat. Okay, say the police, let’s check this out. Needless to say, nobody at the bar, restaurant or theater has any recollection of a woman with an orange hat. Henderson, everyone maintains, was alone.
And, as far as the law is concerned, that’s that. Without the testimony of this “phantom lady,” Henderson has no alibi. He is convicted and sentenced to death.
At which point the novel moves into high gear. Only three people believe in the doomed prisoner’s innocence: a cop named Burgess, his sweetheart and his best friend, Jack Lombard. They work desperately to find the mysterious woman, first by trying to figure out why no one seems to have seen her with Henderson.
I won’t say any more about what happens, except that there will be more deaths and a surprise ending.
This newest edition of “Phantom Lady” is published as a sumptuous hardcover by Centipede Press. You can buy the book by itself or as part of a handsome five-volume set with “I Married a Dead Man,” “Deadline at Dawn,” “Speak to Me of Death: The Collected Short Fiction of Cornell Woolrich, Volume 1” (it includes “Rear Window”) and “Dark Melody of Madness: The Supernatural Novellas of Cornell Woolrich.” This last book’s title novella is a chilling voodoo tale set in New Orleans. The same collection also contains the diabolical story of a slinky red-and-black dress that brings out the repressed desires and murderous instincts of all who wear it. Its designer gives her creation the wonderfully sexy and sinister name “I’m Dangerous Tonight.”
These Centipede editions provide a number of attractive extras: striking dust jacket art, reproductions of relevant paperback covers and movie posters, and introductions by noted authorities on crime fiction. For instance, Barry Malzberg — who, as a young man, worked as Woolrich’s agent — recalls their first meeting in a hotel lobby:
“It is September of 1967; almost exactly a year before his death. He is 64 years old, but looks 84; wattled and stiff, crushed features, watery rummy’s eyes, tense blue-veined hands curled tight on his lap. No one pays him any attention. He is a fixture in this lobby, like the lamps, the red couch, the aged bellboy crouched in a corner.”
The reclusive Woolrich actually spent much of his sad life in various hotel rooms. “Phantom Lady” is even dedicated “To Apartment 605, Hotel M — in unmitigated thankfulness (at not being in it any more).” Another book is similarly dedicated to his typewriter. For more than 40 years, Woolrich was astonishingly prolific and, as Malzberg says, “the most famous unknown writer in the world.”
Still, he was no stylist. Woolrich’s prose can often sound hyperbolic, dated or corny. In prison, Henderson describes his marriage as “just a prelim, not the main event it should have been,” then adds, “a little over a year ago, the main bout suddenly came up.” Yes, he’s talking macho with an old friend, but he’s still demeaning the woman he loves, a woman who will soon be risking her life to prove his innocence.
No matter. People don’t read Woolrich for the dazzling quality of his sentences. His is an art of darkness, the depiction of loneliness and fear and the most intense desperation. Long ago, Francis M. Nevins neatly summed up the Woolrichian ethos in the subtitle to his biography of this noir master: “First You Dream, Then You Die.”
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
By Cornell Woolrich
288 pp. $75