2021 Summer Reading Challenge: Phantom Lady (1942) Cornell Woolrich
Phantom Lady (1942) Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish)
Centipede Press, 2013 edition
Originally published by J.B. Lippincott Co.
Paperback, 320 pages
Cornell Woolrich hammered out such a large quantity of novels and stories during in the 1940s that he frequently used the legally-registered pen name William Irish for some of them. In the midst of an otherwise unconnected series of “black” novels, such as The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), Black Alibi (1942), The Black Angel (1943), and The Black Path of Fear (1944), Woolrich published Phantom Lady using his William Irish persona. Like much of his work, Phantom Lady focuses on a desperate man in a desperate situation with no hope of deliverance. Following the path of many writers of pulp, detective, and crime fiction, Woolrich constructs the world of his tales with desperation, despair, and a helplessness which seems to draw the reader from one bad situation to the next, each leading to a narrower space than the previous one until there’s no place to hide.
New York businessman Scott Henderson decides he’s going to make one last attempt to save his rocky marriage. After purchasing two tickets to a show, Scott comes home to find his wife totally uninterested, leading to yet another argument. Angered at this rebuff, Scott determines to go on the town by himself. At a local bar, he meets an attractive woman with an unusual hat and asks her to join him for the show, no questions asked, no names used.
After the show, Scott parts ways with the woman and returns home to find his wife’s dead body, strangled with one of Scott’s own ties. When the police arrive, Scott tells them he wasn’t at home, but spent the evening at various places around town with a woman he can’t name or describe, except for her hat. As he retraces his steps for the detectives, Scott is shocked to learn that everybody - the bartender, the taxi driver, or anyone at the theatre - insists Scott was by himself that night.
No witnesses, no collaboration, no luck. In no time at all, Scott is convicted for murder and finds himself on death row with no one to help him. Until…
I won’t disclose what happens next other than to say that if you’ve watched the Robert Siodmak film Phantom Lady, produced by Joan Harrison, you know that Scott’s secretary Kansas (Ella Raines) takes it upon herself to clear her boss’s name. In her book Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock (2020), Christina Lane states that Harrison “devised a twist that would move the crime story at the book’s heart from the male protagonist’s point of view to that of his secretary, a girl Friday turned detective.” (p. 139) Without giving too much away, the book, while entertaining, provides Scott with a different type of outside help. Woolrich’s novel depends largely upon unlikely situations, coincidences, and often flat-out hard-to-swallow plot points, yet those elements do not necessarily keep the novel from losing its status as a page-turner.
Told in the third person by various narrators, Woolrich’s Phantom Lady is structured according to the nearness of Scott’s execution date with chapter headings such as “The Hundred and Forty-Ninth Day Before the Execution,” and “The Third Day Before the Execution.” This practice gets somewhat tiresome, but it does add a level of blatant suspense. As always, Woolrich’s strengths lie in the increasing level of dread in his characters as they come to the realization that all the cards, not just some of them, are stacked against them. That pervasive overwhelming sense of anxiety and helplessness is certainly on display here, but the structure of the tale, combined with its largely unbelievable nature, serve to deliver a palpable feeling of disappointment.
Joan Harrison’s ideas to change the book (with scriptwriter Bernard C. Schoenfeld) make for a much more satisfying story, yet one that Universal Pictures wasn’t thrilled about at the time. The suits at Universal said to Harrison, “If you feel so strongly about it, why not produce it yourself?” So she did. You can see the results for yourself on the Blu-ray from Arrow.
Phantom Lady is certainly not my favorite Cornell Woolrich reading experience. Although the reason given as to why and when Woolrich chose to use the William Irish pen name is usually because the writer thought people wouldn’t believe the same guy was writing all those stories, you have to wonder why he didn’t choose the William Irish moniker for another novel and not this one. Perhaps my longer relationship (and enjoyment) of the film adaptation is at least partially responsible for my disappointment with the novel, but I can’t help thinking that Joan Harrison was right to insist on the changes she made for the film. So I hope you enjoy Woolrich’s novel, but in this case, I’m sticking with the film.
This review is part of the 2021 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!