It’s fair to say that, in the course of writing this blog over the last six years, I have become known as something of a plot fiend. Atmosphere is lovely, memorable characters are preferable, social commentary perfectly acceptable, but what drew me to classic-era detective fiction was the possibilities of plot and plenty of it. On that front, Waltz into Darkness (1947), Cornell Woolrich’s 1880s-set epic of catfishing, revenge, and much more besides should leave me cold — heavy on emotion, laden with dread, fond of repetition to hammer home obvious points…everythng that should send me running. And yet, damn, I wish this probably 120,000-word book was twice as long.
Having met by mail, and conducted a courtship thus that has resulted in an accepted proposal of marriage — Woolrich’s compact way of showing their deepening feelings is breathtakingly brilliant — merchant Louis Durand is anticipating the arrival of his fiancée Julia Russell. However, when the boat bearing her from St. Louis to New Orleans arrives, there is no sign of the woman he has been expecting. Heartbreak turns to surprise when, instead of the dowdy woman in her thirties whose photo he has come to treasure, a beautiful twenty-something blonde presents heself as Miss Julia Russell — aware that men can be swayed by looks alone, she says, she sent on a photo of her aunt because “if I gave myself every possible disadvantage at the beginning, of appearance and age and so forth, then there would be that much less danger later, of [our growing fondness] being just a passing fancy.”
Durand is, naturally, delighted, and they marry that very day and move into the house that has been built specially for them. Durand, who at the age of 37 felt he was staring down the barrel of a lonely bachelor life, is besotted with his new wife, not least on account of his tendency to fly hot-headedly into any emotional situation (“His heart, like gunpowder, instantly went up, a flash of flame in his breast, though there was no outward sign to show it had been set off…”) and then reflect and repent at tortuous leisure. This opening section in which his dreams are raised, dashed, raised again, and fulfilled beyond even his most wild imaginings are masterful in the use of quiet moments — the scrape of shoes on paving stones as they enter their home together for the first time, say — contrasted with the grandstanding burning of desire in his chest:
To love someone, is to give, and to want to give more still, no questions asked. To stop and think, then that is not to love, any more.
Small oddities in Julia’s conduct may raise their head at times — among them the moment Durand happens upon her sitting with her legs crossed (a “very real grossness, not to be understood by any later standard of manners, but only when set against its own contemporary code of universal conduct”) — but Julia is always able to explain them away, and Durand is reluctant to believe anything but the best of his beloved. There is a caustically satiric air in the menfolk knowing that they must do the thinking because the womenfolk get flustered about business matters and should be left free to buy pretty hats, and it’s all the more piquant for how deliberately blind Durand is in order not to threaten what he sees as otherwise-unobtainable happiness. And then, about a fifth of the way into book, he comes home one day and discovers that Julia has stolen his money and fled; the other shoe drops, and he is forced to finally confront the fact that he has been living a lie, and that lie is now at an end.
That was all he could keep saying. “She’s not coming back.” All the thousands of words were forgotten, the thousands it had taken him fifteen years to learn, and only four remained of his whole mother tongue: “She’s not coming back.”
Of the plot from this point I shall say no more. First Durand is distraught (“His voice seemed to come from his stomach, through rolling drums of smothered agony — that were the weeping of a grown man”) and transformed into a “haggard, dejected, beaten old man of thirty-seven” filled with the “wine of hate, fermented of the grapes of wrath” — dude, Woolrich writes misery so damn enticingly — but gathers himself together and…well. As befits Durand’s own emotional journey, the tone of the novel swings from a delirious Mardi Gras celebration into the feverish heart of Durand’s own corruption, then into something like control, before becoming not unlike what one typically finds in the works of Jim Thompson: staggering down a path as likely to have redemption at its end as annihilation.
It’s…not a happy book, but it’s difficult to look away from. Woolrich writes not so much in chapters as vignettes, some a few lines long, others running for more than 20 pages — the former enabling his highlights to sparkle, the latter building an almost unbearable suspense at times wherein every word is custom-tooled to provide the keenest impact. It might sound like a miserable time, but I was aware of a sense of stored up anticipation as certain events rolled around — it’s extremely satisfying to see how some threads play out, with Woolrich’s genius at contrast coming to the fore to lighten the darkness and to poison any mawkishness (“He’d never known a kiss could be such a gruesome thing before”). And yet Durand remains an oddly moral man throughout, too: see his agonies at having to cheat at cards, or the lengths he goes to do right by his business partner. None of this should make sense, but in Woolrich’s world it does.
Is the ending overwrought? You betcha. But at the end of a book that is already too long, too heavily atmopsheric, too reliant on the nature of man, and too full of so many aspects that should irritate me but in fact delighted, I would expect and accept nothing less. When horror and hope and fear and relief mingle so effortlessly, so gut-wrenchingly on the page, you know you’re witnessing something very special indeed. It’s to be hoped that the American Mystery Classics range add more Woolrich titles to this and The Bride Wore Black (1940), because I’d read only a handful of his short stories prior to this and now I want more. Expect as much Woolrich as I can get my hands on to feature in the future of The Invisible Event.
Laura @ Dead Yesterday: The sentimental romance of these early scenes goes on endlessly. Up to a certain point, the story is predictable, almost drearily so. Then an eerie Mardi Gras celebration marks a turning point, the first of several that completely overturn the reader’s expectations. The characters enter a dark universe that encompasses both the banality and terror of being “refugees without a refuge,” where each choice they make drives them closer to a dead end.
Cornell Woolrich on The Invisible Event
Short story collections: