Scott Henderson is miffed that he’s been ditched by his wife on date night. Not wanting to waste dinner reservations and tickets to a hot show, he picks up a complete stranger at the bar on a lark: they’ll enjoy a night out on the town with no expectation of making a connection or ever seeing each other again. His companion is nice, but not especially memorable. That proves to be a problem when Henderson returns home to find his wife murdered, the police already at the scene of the crime, and there’s some damning evidence that he’s the guilty party.
Henderson finds himself without an alibi, as he doesn’t even know the name of the woman that he was out with. Even worse, various witnesses throughout the night – a barman, a cab driver, the wait staff at the restaurant – all testify that he was flying solo. Sentenced to death, and with the days ticking down, Henderson spends his time behind bars while his best friend races to piece together his shattered alibi.
It’s honestly a great setup, and I hope that you forget most everything I just told you by the time that you read it, because watching the story unfold over the first 30 pages without any idea of where it’s going was a lot of fun. That great hook though is also a bit of an Achilles’ heel. I won’t juice up your imagination, but there are only really two practical answers to what transpired, and one of them involves a faulty narrator. And so oddly, there I was, having absolutely lapped up the first 30 pages, yet wondering if I was willing to trek 230 more to what seemed like an inevitable solution. Was I even going to get that much of a puzzle, other than tracking down some missing witness and learning why people claimed that she didn’t exist? I honestly almost did put the book down to search out something in the more conventional mystery vein. I’m so glad I didn’t, because Phantom Lady left me absolutely stunned.
I should have known that it would deliver. JJ over at The Invisible Event has been raving about how much he’s been enjoying Cornell Woolrich’s output, and I figured I’d check it out. Here we have the author under the pseudonym of William Irish, and while JJ hasn’t reviewed Phantom Lady, the other reviews have made Woolrich’s writing sound so promising.
And the writing is top notch. Here’s an author who can set a mystery in New York City without beating you over the head that it’s set in New York City. Hell, I don’t even think Woolrich mentions NYC or Manhattan. The setting seeps through in the background though, as John Lombard – Scott Henderson’s one remaining prayer – throws a Hail Mary attempt to track down the phantom lady. Lombard has almost nothing to go on, but with a tenacity that would make Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French proud, he claws his way forward; encountering failure after failure, but somehow coming out with some minute scrap to keep hope alive.
Each potential witness pursued is almost a miniature story in its own, my favorite being a bar man who is hounded to the point of insanity. There’s a tense scene at a railway station where the hunter makes an innocent error and in the flash of an eye becomes the prey.
And then after so many hard fought victories and failures, the end comes, and wham, it was not at all in the shape I was expecting. And what a relief, because the weak point of the story was that it didn’t seem like it would offer much in the way of surprise. But that’s my own fault for assuming, right?
I would go on about the ending for an hour, but unfortunately it would be too easy to ruin. There’s such a perfect book that I want to compare this to at a high level, but alas, it could lead to two way spoilers. And so I’m left the weak proclamation that Phantom Lady is must read and it won’t let you down.
In fact I was so floored by the Phantom Lady that I immediately picked up another novel by Cornell Woolrich. This might be my first back to back read by a single author since I binge read 37 John Dickson Carr novels (as one is bound to do…)
Tell me that the orange, blue, and white 1945 Pocket Book edition pictured above isn’t to die for. It might seem like an odd image, but that orange thing is a hat – the one standout trait that Scott Henderson is able to remember about the phantom lady. The cover art is a play off of the original hardback edition, but done in a slightly different style. In a first for me, I actually consider the original art to be better, and it’s much easier to realize that the white blob is meant to be a formless face in a blue hood (embarrassing I didn’t realize that until I was nearly done with the book).
The edition is unabridged (it runs a stout 260 pages), which I unfortunately can’t claim for some of the other vintage Cornell Woolrich books that I’ve managed to find at a reasonable price.