#912: Phantom Lady (1942) by Cornell Woolrich [a.p.a. by William Irish]

Phanton Lady

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I hadn’t intended Phantom Lady (1942) to be my next Cornell Woolrich read — that was going to be a revisit of the short story collection Nightwebs (1971) which so underwhelmed me and put me off Woolrich for two decades, only for me to fall in love with the man’s work recently — but, after his own glowing review of this title, I don’t think Ben at The Green Capsule would have forgiven me if I’d gone anywhere else. And, honestly, I’m having such a blast with Woolrich’s nightmarescapes that I was probably going to enjoy whatever I read…but, woo, can I ever see why he wanted me to read this one. So, attempting to avoid nudges, winks, and spoilers that might mar your enjoyment, here goes…

Scott Henderson, having argued with his wife before they were due to head out for the evening, stalks into a random bar and offers his wife’s place to the first single woman he sees, less interested in who she is than in simply having company for the activities he’d planned.

“We’re just companions for an evening. Two people having dinner together, seeing a show together. No names, no addresses, no irrelevant personal references and details. Just—”

The woman — “Not homely, not pretty, not tall, not small, not chic, not dowdy; not anything at all, just plain, just colorless, just a common denominator of all feminine figures everywhere. A cipher. A composite. A Gallup poll.” — agrees, and they pass a companionable evening before heading their separate ways. And then Scott Henderson returns home and finds that, in his absence, someone had murdered his wife, and there are reports of them arguing before he stormed out of the building. So, cherchez la femme, who will be able to clear Henderson’s name — or, at the very least, the staff at the establishments they visited should be able to alibi him…only, everyone they speak to either doesn’t remember Henderson or insists he was on his own. No-one saw his mysterious companion at all.

Now, Woolrich trod this ground more than once — c.f. ‘All At Once, No Alice’ (1940) — and, in reality, there is a very limited number of possible explanations, but the suspense he wrings from proceedings is magnificent to behold. The first chapter is titled ‘The Hundred and Fiftieth Day Before the Execution’, the numbers gradually, awfully reducing as the book progresses, and the press this puts on events is understandable. It itches away at the back of your head as Woolrich indulges in the Hitchcockian touches both of investing banalities with maximum import (“Haven’t you got a blue tie, Mr. Henderson?”) and of spinning out nerve-shredding sequences that become more compelling as their simplicity is laid bare — chapter 12 is agonising, and could almost stand alone as a story in its own right.

Enter Jack Lombard, summoned by Henderson to investigate these inexplicable events and…you’ll get no more about the plot from me. It falls to Lombard to find the woman if he can, and to bring some sense to the events that surround him and Henderson both, and so begins a journey through New York and into the lives of the people involved. Here we see Woolrich’s wonderful light touch with characters whose lives are richly and fully imagined, who exist within the pages long after Lombard has questioned them, learned nothing, and moved on. From the waiter who served Henderson at dinner (“The black centers of his eyes were as steady as buckshot fired deep into his face and lodged there.”) to the disinterested landlady who is able to tell them little more than which way an ex-tenant turned on the street (“Down that way, if it’s any good to you.”) when moving out (“There were three more intersecting avenues ‘down that way’. And then a marginal thoroughfare. And then a river. And then fifteen to twenty states. And then an ocean.”), even the very minor characters compel in their own way.

And when we get to spend more than a few moments with anyone, Woolrich is able to whip up delirious experiences like a night spent with a group of musicians improvising jazz in a bar basement…

The next two hours were a sort of Dante-esque Inferno… It wasn’t the music, the music was good. It was the phantasmagoria of their shadows, looming black, wavering ceiling high on the walls. It was the actuality of their faces, possessed, demonic, peering out here and there on sudden notes, then seeming to recede again. It was the gin and the marihuana cigarettes, filling the air with haze and flux. It was the wildness that got into them, that at times made her cower into a far corner or climb up on a packing case with both feet. Certain ones of them would come at her at times, individually, crowding her back, driving her before them shrinking against the wall, singling her out because she was a girl, blowing their wind instruments full into her face, deafening her, stirring her hair with them, bringing terror into her soul.

…and then pull the rug from beneath you by crushing the apparent hopelessness of Lombard’s task into just a few devastating lines (“What could a drink do? What could any number of drinks do? It couldn’t alter facts. It couldn’t turn bad news into good. It couldn’t change doom into salvation.”).

The slightly episodic structure recalls The Bride Wore Black (1940) and, here as there, much could be written about where we end up and how utterly it devastates when we arrive The role of coincidence in Woolrich’s work is undeniable, but he gets away with it because of two factors that really sing through here: firstly, just how man brilliantly the man writes (“Time, he thought, is a greater murderer than any man or woman. Time is the murderer that never gets punished.”) and secondly the thorough and careful construction of a plot that casually throws out glittering gems of brilliance — a deduction from a bar tab, an observation about a $50 bill — which allow events to progress sublimely. He knows when to push your credulity, and how to get you onside so that you’ll not resist when pushed, and rarely has a book left me staring into the middle distance as this one did…so I’m going to call it a job magnificently done.

Woolrich, it seems, does everything magnificently. The plot here contains intrigue enough for three novels, and he writes about little human experiences — the frisson of sexual attraction between two people, the faded frustrations of thwarted relationships, the tiny moments of trust and respect and care — in a way that invests them with almost titanic importance. His city lives and breathes, his people fight and lust and kill, and there’s always hope until there isn’t. By all accounts the man led an unhappy life, but by god didn’t he ever leave some masterpieces behind him.

~

Cornell Woolrich on The Invisible Event

Novels:

Short story collections:

Individual stories/novellas:

21 thoughts on “#912: Phantom Lady (1942) by Cornell Woolrich [a.p.a. by William Irish]

  1. This and The Bride Wore Black are very much twinned novels, not just because they were his first but because they share such similar essential suspense strategies. This may be my favourite of his novels in fact. The stalking of the barman is amazing, like the jazz sequence. Even made for a halfway decent movie (the first half may be the purest Woolrich on screen). First read this nearly 40 years ago and still remember the thrill. Really glad you had a good time with it.

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    • Maybe it’s my general ill feeling towards the awful state of the world as a whole at the moment, but something about Woolrich is really speaking to me right now — this makes three five-star novels in a row from him, and I have no doubt there are more to come. He reminds me of Erle Stanley Gardner in a way, except Woolrich is more fond of darker end of the human experience — the places Gardner wouldn’t go are where Woolrich seems eminently comfortable.

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      • I do know what you mean, his fatalism and morbid sense of self-destruction does seem to match a time when escapism might be seen as a bit of a bad word. Time for more Fredric brown, who did at least have a real sense of humour. And then more Carr, always more Carr. 🙂

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  2. I came across some Woolrich novels in La Feria del Libro two weeks ago and bought them just because of your woolrichness, JJ. The Bride Wore Black and Rendezvous in Black. I generally find pessimistic gritty novels unartistic, some I love, but it all depends on the authorial skills, so let’s see where Woolrich falls. If he’s anything like a night of drinks and jazz fusion, I’m gulping this motherfucker’s novels down. We’ll see.

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    • I sincerely hope you don’t regret buying them — not because I’ll feel any responsibility, but because you’ll be missing out on such a magnificent author. Let me know how you get on!

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      • I’m gonna start with Rendezvous and share my thoughts on your blog, then.
        And, JJ, I bought them new and dirt cheap because the spanish publisher overprinted like crazy, so no regrets even if I happen to dislike them. 😋

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  3. That passage about the jazz bar still stands out vividly in my mind and it’s been months since I read this. Just that quote makes me want to go out and read it again. Books like this are a solid reminder of why we have such passion for these mysteries. It really reinvigorates the enthusiasm. So glad that you read this.

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  4. Such a pleasure to see you continue down another of Woolrich’s magnificent, twisting rabbit holes. The ones like this that mirror his own solitary nocturnal excursions do seem to have a particularly deep power. It’s interesting that his dense style, once derided as florid and over the top, has emerged as timeless. And those Bantam covers can’t be beat!

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    • Yeah, there really is something timeless about what and how Woolrich wrote, isn’t there? I’m not deep enough into his oeuvre to comment on that with any insight, but it’s wonderful finding him again and being so swept up in what I find. This is three five-star reads in a row…I don’t think any author has done that before in my first three novels by them!

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  5. Speaking of nocturnal wanderers, I greatly enjoyed your speaking about Poe and your impressive debut on the latest Shedunnit. It was as fun as the book! (Though I haven’t yet been able to spot your Oulipian constraint….)

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    • Thanks! I wasn’t sure whether to post about the episode on here, but I figured a) most people follow Shedunnit anyway and b) you’re all sick of me going on about The Red Death Murders 😄

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    • Liked it? Nay, bloody loved it. There’s going to be a lot of Woolrich on this blog in future if I have any say in the matter (it must, of course, first be put to a vote by the committee who make the decision about such things…and my vote carries less and less weight these days).

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