As explained in the wonderful introduction by Barry Malzberg, Cornell Woolrich’s life was not the happiest, the reclusive author living from hotel to hotel while hammering out crime fiction. Phantom Lady is even dedicated to one of Woolrich’s impermanent living spaces—“To Apartment 605, Hotel M — in unmitigated thankfulness (at not being in it any more).”—while The Bride Wore Black was dedicated to his Remington typewriter. Cornell was one of the better and more prolific crime writers of his day—the 1940s, particularly the stretch between 1940 and 1948 when he wrote most of his novels. Over thirty of his works were filmed, the most famous being Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rear Window. Yet most of his works remain out of print, available only in small print runs through specialty publishers like Centipede Press.
After having a fight with his wife, Scott Henderson fumed into New York, stormed into a bar for a few drinks, and propositioned the first woman he saw for a night on the town—ostensibly the night on the town his wife refused. Together, Henderson and this mystery woman have a fancy dinner, saw a Broadway show, and shared a cab ride home. That’s the point where Henderson’s life begins to unfurl, as he returns to find his wife strangled to death in their bedroom with his own necktie. The police are eager enough to accept his alibis… but nobody can place Henderson in town at the time of the murder. Not the bartender, not the waiter, not the doorman, not the cab driver. The discovery of Henderson’s mistress and failing marriage put him as the prime suspect, and without any evidence of his innocence, the panicked man finds himself cast in the ultimate nightmare: an innocent man rotting on death row, counting down the hours until his execution.
But Henderson is offered the slimmest ray of hope by one of the detectives on the case, having a hunch of Henderson’s innocence born from years of working similar homicides. Reaching out to the imprisoned man, he prods Henderson to find somebody, anybody, who can continue the investigation and clear his name. There are two people Henderson trusts beyond all others: his friend John Lombard, who begins the tedious task of investigating every possible angle, and Scott’s mistress Carol, who would (and will) walk into hell for him. Such is the life of Scott Henderson, condemned to die for a crime he didn’t commit, a man without hope save for his best friend, one curious detective, and the woman who’d do anything to save him. All that’s left to find is this phantom lady, a wisp in Henderson’s memory: a woman nobody knows and nobody saw, whose only defining feature Henderson can remember is her striking orange hat…
In the pantheon of noir authors, Woolrich stands as another underrated master. He didn’t have Raymond Chandler’s razor-edged street-smart prose, or David Goodis’ desperation and crushing existential angst, or the stylish gritty flair of James M. Cain. In fact, while Woolrich’s prose can be quite good, it’s often peppered with leaden phrases and forced exposition; in particular, his dialogue comes across as clunky and unnatural. The last chapter is a pure Golden Age trope, unadulterated exposition where the detective explains how every clue fell into place to reveal the murderer. I found that finale dull and tedious, as it comes after several chapters of Woolrich doing what he excelled at: creating raw, unending tension. He is relentless as he batters his characters—and by proxy, the reader—into submission, with the characters edging close to Henderson’s salvation and falling short time and time again. The chapter headers ram home the race against time, beginning with Chapter 1 (“The Hundred and Fiftieth Day Before the Execution: Six P.M.”) and continuing all the way to Chapter 22 (“The Hour of the Execution”).
Perhaps his lack of stylistic grace has contributed to Woolrich’s anonymity while Chandler and Goodis live on in the Library of America. It’s not exactly fair, as Phantom Lady ranks up there with some of noir’s best; even taking Woolrich’s technical flaws into account, he more than succeeds at penning a suspense masterpiece—the novel is brutal in all the right ways, a panicked death-spiral of fear and isolation. You suffer along with Henderson, feel the helplessness and terror of an innocent man whose life is ticking down towards an inglorious and unwarranted end. Woolrich was a master of the art of darkness, capturing loneliness and fear like few other authors of his era. Phantom Lady is intense and gripping, and if you’re into this sort of thing, it’s hard to put down without seeing it through all the way to the end. A must for fans of David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Dorothy B. Hughes, Charles Williams, and other purveyors of dark and downward spirals.
Title: Phantom Lady
Author: Cornell Woolrich
First Published Date: 1942
What I Read: Centipede Press trade paperback, 2012
Price I Paid: $12 (eBay)
MSRP: out of print