God, I love Cornell Woolrich.
The more Woolrich I read, the more I come to realise that his strengths lie not so much in multi-faceted characters who delight and surprise you in new ways as a novel’s events unfold, but rather in giving you someone who is almost pathological in their single-mindedness, whose situation a) rarely alters and b) is so compelling that you can’t help but be drawn along with it. The eponymous lady in The Bride Wore Black (1940) is on a far from sympathetic journey, killing a group of men in a variety of wildly inventive and suspense-filled situations, but the structure of that story is so brilliantly compelling because you get a sense of her purpose from the off and absolutely must find out how it will resolve. Equally, the series of murderous encounters in Rendezvous in Black (1948), the desperate search in Phantom Lady (1942) — Woolrich is, simply, the best hook man in the business, and once hooked you’re not getting free until he says so.
Deadline at Dawn evinces this perfectly, with an opening chapter sketching out the utterly jaded existence of dancehall girl Ruth ‘Bricky’ Coleman with a piquancy that is at once heartbreaking and fascinating in its communication of a benumbed mind and body. For such heavy material, what really impresses is Woolrich’s lightness of touch, so perfectly weighted that you feel yourself getting exhausted for her.
Why look into her face to find out what had made her this way? Why not look in the casting-offices all over town, where her ghost still lingered, poised on the chair nearest to the door? Or should have, she’d haunted them so. Why not look into the dressing room of that tawdry Jamaica roadhouse, the one job she’d actually gotten, that she had to flee from before rehearsals for its floor-show even got underway, because she’d been foolish enough to loiter behind the others at the proprietor’s suggestion?
Especially clear here is how isolated Bricky has made herself in order to survive a life which has failed to deliver on any of the ideals she came to New York with, so that even at the tender age of 22 she is already inured to the advances of men, the opportunists who dance with her every evening, and any sense of release from a nightmare life “littered with shards [of] shattered dreams, smashed hopes, busted arches”. When she meets the young Quinn Williams in the first chapter, it sets up a rendezvous that makes for a perfectly-contained short story in its own right: there are plenty of unanswered questions about Quinn — why he bought so many dance tickets when he only needed a handful, why he seems to be fearful of something or someone following him, why he’s desperate for the company of the clearly disinterested Bricky — and would be one of the masterpieces of short crime fiction if left on the note which ends the opening salvo and no more were ever known.
From the start of the second chapter on, you have to be willing to accept some unlikely events that upset the understood order of the perfect beginning, but since the alternative would to be no more time spent with Quinn and Bricky — and since that would mean missing out on this utterly magnificent book — that causes me precisely zero problems. Unaccountably, they strike up an acquaintanceship, find unexpected common ground, and a sudden link is forged between them which just might allow both of them to achieve the escape they need: he from the knowledge of a misdeed, her from the “labyrinths of concrete form from which there was no egress” that the city has come to represent. This bond is crucial to the plot, and yet Woolrich still makes his character earn it, albeit in an impressively short time.
“Pleased to meet you.” It didn’t sound as pleasant as the word-arrangement presupposed it to. It sounded like a lead quarter bouncing against a zinc counter.
Quinn, see, is in moral dire straits. He has stolen money from a wealthy man and knows in his heart of hearts that this deed will haunt him forever unless corrected. And so it is arranged that Quinn will return the money as part of the pair of them starting a clean slate, and they head back to the house from which the money was taken so that Quinn can return it before the owner returns from their night out…only to find the owner not only returned but murdered. And Quinn’s fingerprints likely everywhere.
This setup takes a little while to complete, but then Woolrich never wastes a word, never shirking from spending the appropriate amount of time to build where building is necessary. I can sum up the essential idea of Phantom Lady in a sentence, but it unfolds on the page over several chapters; I can do the same for The Bride Wore Black, but you’re arguably about halfway through that book before you realise how its structure is being utilised. The genius of Woolrich is that none of what he puts down here is redundant: we’re learning about his characters and the worlds they inhabit, we’re coming to understand why it is so important that they succeed…so that when failure of the worst kind stares them in the face we find ourselves leaning in with something akin to empathy. No-one has ever actually been in the predicament of a Woolrich protagonist, but we all understand the stakes and the horror at the core of their dilemma.
And, fuck me, can the guy ever write. I could take an example of his prose from every page and find something to rhapsodise about, but if you’re under the impression he’s heavy going then you’re ignorant of his wryness…
They’d formerly left [the stairwell] dark, and she’d dreaded having to enter it at nights. Until someone had been knifed on the stairs one night, and since then they’d left a light there at the foot. Now…you could see who knifed you, if you were to have it happen.
“A fellow can tell just by looking at someone whether they’re [sexually interested or not].”
“You’d be surprised how many of them ought to see an optician.”
…his agonies of suspense…
Her heart wasn’t just beating, it was swinging from side to side and looping around in a complete circle like a pendulum gone crazy.
…his awesome minor character beats…
He widened his mouth and showed her a space between two of his teeth. It was probably supposed to be some kind of a grin.
Is the detection-esque plot in which Bricky and Quinn attempt to find who really committed the murder unlikely as all hell, and strung together with a string of increasingly slim coincidences? Of course it is, but in a city the size of New York — and a city as determined to outfox them as Bricky has become convinced the Big Apple is — it’s actually less infuriating than a demonstration of the storyteller’s art. It gives Woolrich a chance to show how smartly he can plot, and how cleverly he can misdirect you into the assumption you’ve been running with for the last twenty pages only for it to be thrown over for a far more likely explanation. And, with these two being far from genius detectives, it shows how the desperate mind is able to come up with canny possibilities, to run with a slim chance knowing it’s a slim chance but also recognising it’s the only chance (“…it wasn’t an out-and-out impossibility…” that that has to be good enough sometimes!), adding to the spiralling sense of giddy despair that builds against the ticking clock of that eponymous deadline. Never has someone handling a loaf of bread been such a magnificently crucial part of the progression of a detective story, and it’s quotidian concerns like this that really power the whole thing along, making it feel more real because the events it describes and relies upon are so mundane.
Bolstering this is the wonderfully canny psychology utilised by our central pair in their mission, and the gold Woolrich spins from what appears to be only acres of straw when the possibilities of tracking down a killer in a city of seven million people in only a handful of hours dwindle thinner and thinner. On the credit side we also have a couple of glittering historical implications (the Second World War getting a peek in of sorts) and the wonderful moment that the gender of our unknown killer is ascertained to be male because a woman would never smoke a cigar (about which Dorothy L. Sayers would have much to say, I’m sure). Like I say, you have to accept a few unlikelihoods…but, man, if that’s the only thing required for me to be caught up like this then back up the van and pile them in. The one genuine fault I can level at it is only that one chapter break should really come a couple of pages sooner, to better sustain the uncertainty of the denouement, but the suspense of whether Quinn and Bricky will see through their plan — Woolrich has a fatalistic streak, remember — will most likely hurry you past this without a second thought; I only mention it so you don’t think I’m going soft in my old age.
Deadline at Dawn is a stumbling, vibrant tour de force of imaginative plotting that straps you in, prises your eyes open, and insists you remain seated for the duration of the rollicking nightmare that’s about to unfold in front of you. I’m submitting this for the GAD Reprint of the Year award that Kate’s running at Cross-Examining Crime, but, honestly, I don’t fancy its chances — Woolrich doesn’t have the brand recognition, and I doubt there’s enough groundswell of support for his writing these days. It’s just lovely to spend time with so adept a writer having such a brilliantly creative time for our amusement, and I hope that the American Mystery Classics — or anyone else, I’m not picky, so long as we get them in paperback — sees fit to reissue more of his stuff in the months and years to come.
Cornell Woolrich on The Invisible Event
Short story collections: