#818: Waltz into Darkness (1947) by Cornell Woolrich [a.p.a. by William Irish]

Waltz into Darkness

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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.

~

See also

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.

23 thoughts on “#818: Waltz into Darkness (1947) by Cornell Woolrich [a.p.a. by William Irish]

  1. I couldn’t read beyond the moment he finds her again. Perhaps I should read on… There’s a weird 80s tango film of the story.

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    • Well, I suppose that depends on your reasons for stopping — if you didn’t like the writing, or you found it too slow, or thought it too melodramatic and heavy on mood swings…nothing that follows is going to change your mind.

      It seems to have been filmed a few times, I’ve seen none of them. Sergio would be able to tell us more about all its filmic incarnations, I have no doubt, but that’s not my area of specialty, I’m afraid.

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      • With burning ears I enter the fray … the Truffaut version from the 60s is not great in my view, a step down from his very flawed version of BRIDE WORE BLACK in my view. Is Rich thinking of the Angelina Jolie version from 2001, known as ORIGINAL SIN (terrible title)? My inability take her seriously in almost anything precludes me from serious comment. But it’s a decent try at the book, if inevitably sexed up … There is a Japanese version from 1981 but have never seen it.

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  2. This sounds fascinating and I am happy to say that I already have a copy. This gets a bit of a boost up the TBR pile as a result. Thanks for the prod!

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    • I’m surprised and delighted to find myself loving this as much as I did — not all of the moody writing in this AMC range has worked for me (Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes, which I remember you rating highly, left me rather bored) but Woolrich has my type of…everything. From the small amount of his work I’ve read in the last couple of years, I think he and I are going to get on brilliantly.

      I’m alsom moderately annoyed that when I read Nightwebs as part of the Orion Crime Masterworks series I didn’t enjoy it — younger Jim has some serious questions to answer, because I could have been loving Woolrich for two decades if I’d had any taste back then 😄

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        • Ha, well I feel better knowing that, thank-you. I’ll track the collection down again at some point to five it another look with older eyes, but I’l also ease up on 19 year-old Jim and his bloody nonsense, too 🙂

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          • I would recommend the REAR WINDOW collection edited by Maxim Jakubowski instead. Though there are lots of interesting collections out there now. But the emphasis on the supernatural stories of some means the inclusion of lesser work …

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            • A lot of the novellas and short stories from the pulps are definitely in the weird / horror / supernatural category – the best known is probably “I’m Dangerous Tonight” but there are lots and lots.

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            • Huh. A collection dedicated to that, so you knew what you were getting, would be interesting, I’m sure. Shall keep an eye out, and thanks for bringing that element of his output to my attention.

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  3. You got me intrigued enough that I went out and bought up the inexpensive Woolrich/Irish vintage editions that I could find: Black Angel, And So to Death, and Phantom Lady. I still have the todo to track down a short story collection with The Mystery in Room 913, as I recall you making that sound really interesting.

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    • What gets me, and this might just be coincidence on account of the random selection I’ve read to date, is Woolrich’s range. I love Jim Thompson, and Thompson wrote a dazzling array of fatalistic stories, but even he had his tropes and touchstones. Woolrich, very much in the Thompson vein to my eye, has run a staggering pluracy of styles in Mystery in Room 913, the Darkensss at Dawn collection, and then this — trying to nail him down is like trying to nail down Stanley Ellin’s short fiction…not a comparison I make lightly!

      Hope you enjoy what you doubtless paid a total of $1.04 for; I’m pretty sure it’ll be money well spent.

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    • Oh, lawks, now I feel even worse for neglecting to mention your excellent introduction — not least because the point you make about his descriptions going on “a sentence too long” is the perfect summation of how I felt about this: everything is pushed just that little bit too far, and yet, because it’s everything, it works. Magnificently.

      I particularly appreciated how you didn’t seek to dwell on possibilities of how the uhappiness herein might have paralleled the frustrations in Woolrich’s own life — obviously the art comes from the man’s experiences, and you did a great job of showing both without forcing the issue. And I meant to say all of that in the above and it got swept away in my enthusiasm for the book itself.

      So thanks for dropping by, so that I had the chance to tell you face-to-face what a great job you did. I genuinely appreciate it.

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  4. Bookmakers would loathe having to give odds on whether or not you will like a mystery novel. You don’t get on with the ones, in theory, you should do, and then love the ones which by rights you shouldn’t.
    Ah well if nothing else you keep us on our toes! (Nearly mistyped and wrote your toes, sure my brain will kick in at some point today…)
    Nonsense aside, I too didn’t think I would like Woolrich overly, as I knew his work was very bleak, but I enjoyed The Bride Wore Black a lot. The ending has a strong kick in it, but I didn’t feel that the book overwhelmed you with sadness. I think because it moves around different groups of people, (since it is a serial killer mystery) and because we have a policeman element in it, we aren’t sunk beneath any one character’s misery for too long.

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    • we aren’t sunk beneath any one character’s misery for too long

      Man, I love it when we discuss mystery fiction in these odd ways: “It’s not overwhelmingly depressing, merely exhaustingly so…” 😄

      I become more intrigued by Woolrich’s work the more I read — there’s genuine suspense in how some of his nightmares will pay off (which is, it must be said, an advantage he has over Jim Thompson), and his use of despair is, in all seriousness, incredibly rich. The way he seems to capture the descent into madness with little asides or the accrual of little slips away from security really is somethig to behold.

      And thankfully he’s ridiculously out of print in this country, so that gives me something to search for over the next twenty years…

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      • Yes sadness in fiction is an odd one. I don’t necessarily want to avoid all sadness in my reading, as that would provide rather a limited reading experience, but neither do I want to feel oppressed by a character’s fictional reading, as I find it sticks around afterwards and life is hard enough as it is without having to worry about a fictional character’s problems lol
        Yeah Woolrich isn’t the easiest to get a hold of, but I am sure you are bound to come across an entire set of his books in Oxfam at some point.

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  5. Yes, a Woolrich classic, but he is not for everyone. I have a lot of sympathy for those who don’t “get” his work. And Mike Nevins does tends to sell him a bit too hard frankly …The work is so incredibly heightened, so bound up in it’s own neurotic fatalism and paranoia and, let’s face it, the plots are so often outlandish that some will never make the leap. But I was in my teens when I started reading him and have never looked back 😁

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    • The work is so incredibly heightened, so bound up in it’s own neurotic fatalism and paranoia

      I remember reading The Hog’s Back Mystery by Crofts and finding it fascinating but thinking “Lawks, I couldn’t do too much of this in a year”. I’m like that with Woolrich right now, I think — the fatalism, the outlandish leaps in the plotting are amazing if you’re in the mood, but too many of them in too short a time might prove the undoing of my enthusiasm.

      Thankfully I’m going to have to spend ages tracking him down for the sort of money I can afford, so that will help spread the experience a little more thinly. As a counter-point to a lot of the fiction one encounters in the genre, he’s going to be marvellous .

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        • Only what I’ve reviewed on here: Mystery in Room 913, aka The Room With Something Wrong, ‘All at Once, No Alice’ in the Penzler collection, the Darkness at Dawn collection, Waltz into Darkness…that’s it.

          The American Mystery Classics collection have put out The Bride Wore Black, which I shall be acquiring once I have money for such things 🙂 but he doesn’t really crop up in secondhand bookshops much in my experience. I did see about five of his in a bookshop close to a year ago (and in great condition, too!), but I doubt they’re still there.

          Thankfully, plenty of other books to occupy me in the meantime.

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          • At one point the reprints from Ballantine (black covers with Woolrich’s name in red at the top, usually with a Nevins intro) were fairly easy to find. Mind you, having said that, I just randomly took my copy of his last great novel, I MARRIED A DEAD MAN (filmed very nicely with Barbara Stanwyck as NO MAN OF HER OWN) off the shelf and the receipt inside is from May 1997, so I am living a bit in the past here … 🙂 Whether publishing as Woolrich, Irish or Hopley, he was at his peak in the 1940s – that decade has pretty much all his best stuff, starting with BRIWDE WORE BLACK and ending with the aforementioned I MARRIED A DEAD MAN. A much later item I would recommend as an interesting addendum that is comparatively easy to get hold of, is INTO THE NIGHT, which was published two decades after Woolrich’s death and had to be completed by Lawrence Block (he wrote the opening section and the last couple of pages, not without controversy though). The intro by the latter makes it worth getting the book alone.

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