“Phantom Lady” is hardly a new book, having been first published in 1942. But it is one of the most highly regarded of Cornell Woolrich’s many classic noir thrillers. Given that those thrillers include “The Bride Wore Black” — its plot lifted by Quentin Tarantino for “Kill Bill” — and the story behind the Hitchcock masterpiece “Rear Window,” that’s saying something. While Raymond Chandler writes like a street-smart angel and David Goodis (recently given the Library of America treatment) is the chronicler of existential angst, Woolrich (1903-1968) almost always focuses on the creation of relentless, unforgiving tension and suspense.
Mainly, he accomplishes this through his plotting. Sometimes, this takes the form of an ingeniously cruel idea. In one story, for instance, a group of men are given a sumptuous dinner and then told by the host that he has poisoned one of them — the murderer of his son. An antidote is placed on the table; whoever drinks it immediately reveals his guilt to all. In “Rendezvous in Black” — perhaps the finest of Woolrich’s six novels using “black” in the title — a young woman has been killed, thoughtlessly, absurdly. Her devastated fiance seeks “justice” — not by murdering the people who caused his beloved’s death, for that would be too kind, but by destroying, one by one, the person dearest to each of them. In my favorite Woolrich novel, “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (written under the pen name George Hopley), all the combined forces of law, reason and money attempt to thwart a mystic’s bizarre prediction that a New York millionaire will “at the stroke of midnight, on the seam between the fourteenth and fifteenth of June, meet death at the jaws of a lion.”
As this suggests, Woolrich’s favorite technique for creating tension is the race against time. This is clearly underscored in the very chapter titles of “Phantom Lady”: The first is “The Hundred and Fiftieth Day Before the Execution: Six P.M.” Gradually, inexorably, the clock ticks down to Chapter 22: “The Hour of the Execution.” What makes the anxiety all the more unbearable is that the reader knows that Scott Henderson is innocent of his wife’s murder.
Or is he? The book opens: “The night was young, and so was he. But the night was sweet, and he was sour.” We don’t know why 32-year-old Henderson is in such a sullen mood, but only that he drops into a bar named Anselmo’s at 6:10 — the time is important — and strikes up a conversation with an otherwise nondescript young woman in a dramatic pumpkin-orange hat. He tells her that he’s got two tickets to the casino, and it would be a shame to waste them. Wary of each other, they agree that this will be just dinner and a show, nothing more. They won’t even exchange names or talk about anything personal.
Over the next six hours the two dine, sit in the front row at the theater and are seemingly noticed by a slew of people, including a taxi driver, two waiters and the singing sensation Estela Mendoza. At midnight, they return to Anselmo’s, and, at her wish, Henderson leaves the woman there and goes home.
Source : washingtonpost[dot]com