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
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