The Black Path of Fear (1944) Cornell Woolrich
Ballantine Books (1982 reprint)
Mass market paperback, 160 pages
Today’s bonus feature is presented to reassure everyone that Noirvember can be celebrated in many different ways, including reading noir-stained crime fiction. For this month’s celebration of all things noir, I chose The Black Path of Fear by Cornell Woolrich, perhaps the author who has had the most novels and stories adapted into film noir movies.
Although you’ll find many recurring themes in Woolrich’s work - seedy hotels, rundown dance halls, shadowy backrooms, crowded police stations - you’ll primarily find people (usually men) in desperate situations, sometimes brought on by the Depression and sometimes by bad choices. Very bad choices.
That’s where we find Bill Scott, or Scotty, the protagonist of this novel, enjoying the night life of Havana with his lover Eve, who is not only not his wife, but someone else’s. How they got to Havana from Miami and how they slipped by Eve’s husband is something Woolrich will get to soon, but for now the couple are enjoying themselves, all the while looking over their shoulders.
But you can’t look everywhere all the time, and before Scotty knows it, he’s having his picture taken with Eve by a street photographer, then suddenly he’s holding her dead body.
People are milling around everywhere, but no one was standing near enough to stab Eve, but that’s exactly what happened. As Scotty clutches his dead lover, the police nab him - the only reasonable suspect - for the murder.
I won’t disclose how, but Scotty evades the police, desperately needing someplace to hide out and think. Knowing no one in Havana and speaking only English, Scotty finds refuge with a mysterious woman he calls Midnight, who listens to his story and might just be able to help. Why? Because, like Scotty, she once lost someone she loved and will do anything to punish the police.
In seeking to understand what happened, Midnight conducts her own interrogation, narrated by Scotty:
“What’re they after you for?” she asked suddenly, hugging herself tight around the shawl with both arms.
“They say I killed my girl,” I told her.
“They say wrong?”
“They say dead wrong.”
“That’s what you say they say. Another man took her away from you?”
“I took her away from another man.”
“Then any fool but a policeman knows, you didn’t kill her. You never kill what doesn’t belong to you, only what does.”
Scotty relates the story of how he met Eve’s husband, Eddie Roman, by finding his abandoned wallet on the street and returning it to him. Roman, a high-level mobster, is so impressed with Scott’s honesty that he hires him to be his driver. One too many trips chauffeuring Eve to her favorite destinations is enough for Scotty to fall hard and get ideas. That’s what got him in the mess he’s in.
While The Black Path of Fear is not the greatest Woolrich story, the author does create a stifling atmosphere of danger and paranoia, frequently turning some wonderful lines and phrases such as:
“Her right hand was heavy with a diamond that must have tipped over a mountain when they mined it out from under it.”
“She was just looking out at that line where the water met the sky. That imaginary line that isn’t there when you get to it but that promises so much to all of us.”
The novel is satisfying and may be of greater interest to those who have seen its screen adaptation, The Chase (1946) directed by Arthur Ripley starring Robert Cummings, Steve Cochran, Peter Lorre, and Michèle Morgan. The film departs from the book in many ways, spending more time with Scotty and Roman with less time in Havana. The film also introduces elements that are not present in the novel, some of them taking the story in weird directions that David Lynch no doubt would applaud. I always enjoy watching The Chase, but can’t help wondering how things might’ve played out had the filmmakers stuck closer to Woolrich’s novel. So if you’re not a fan of the movie, I suggest you pick up a copy of The Black Path of Fear. If you do, let me know what you think.