Phantom Lady: The Novel

This post discusses major plot points and the ending for the novel Phantom Lady

Author Cornell Woolrich has often been on my mind this summer. He’s a poet for isolated times, a preacher of anxiety. He also had a potent influence on my writing and was one of the catalysts for the creation of Turn Over the Moon, but that’s a subject for later. After watching the movie version of Phantom Lady (1944) last week, Woolrich’s 1942 novel pulled me back for the first time in years. Although one of his best known books and an important icon in noir—the title itself conjures visions of classic film noir—it’s an odd work I’ve never embraced as fully as many of his other novels from the same period.

Phantom Lady first appeared under the title “Phantom Alibi” as a six-part serial in Detective Fiction Magazine for 1942. Lippincott published the hardcover in August, with Woolrich using the “William Irish” pseudonym for the first time. The book was an immediate success and Woolrich sold the movie rights to Universal in October. This set up “William Irish” to develop a parallel career to Cornell Woolrich as a top suspense writer, even though anyone who looked at the serial version and saw Woolrich’s name on it would’ve known what was up.

The story of Phantom Lady is ingeniously simple to explain but wickedly difficult to execute: a man’s only alibi to save himself from the electric chair for the murder of his wife is a mystery woman he spent a few hours with, but who seems to have vanished into the maw of New York City. 

The premise is quintessential noir and Woolrich. The skills that made Woolrich a terrific writer are spread throughout. Certain passages contain exceptional tension, haunting imagery, and minor characters sketched in vivid detail. There is an extended sequence in the middle that’s at the pinnacle of the author’s craft. But I’d rank Phantom Lady lower on the scale of Woolrich’s 1940s classics. It’s an uneven performance with large chunks that distract from the emotional dagger that should stab constantly into readers’ hearts. The plot requires too much coincidence to fit together, and it loses the build of tension during a crucial late stretch. Most damaging is the coda where an explainer figure delivers a dense mass of exposition to sort the tangle the story knotted itself into.

Woolrich doesn’t delay with the tension. It’s right in the title of the Chapter 1:

Nifty trick to rope the reader. This chapter titling scheme continues throughout, which creates anxiety and is also a good shorthand for leaps in time and their implications, such as the forty-eight-day skip from a man’s arrest to the prosecution’s closing statements at his trial.

Chapter 1 is a strong opener that could stand on its own as a slice-of-nightlife tale. Scott Henderson is slouching among the good-times crowd in nighttime New York City, not partaking in the joy. “But the night was sweet, but he was sour. […] It was a shame, too, because it was all out of tune with everything around him. It was the one jarring note in the whole scene.” Scott meets the lady of the title at Anselmo’s bar, where her outrageous orange hat makes her difficult to miss. 

The chapter contains magnificent sweeps of description and sumptuous details about a night on the town between two strangers who have determined to remain strangers. Woolrich excels at using small bits to speak for the whole. But these details also create the trail of clues to follow later when locating the missing woman is the key to saving a man’s life. Nothing goes to waste in this elegant chapter, even though a thinner opening would have required less plot trickery to hash out at the end. 

Scott Henderson returns to his apartment in Chapter 2 and into the claws of a sinister cohort of police detectives. They toy with Scott before informing him that his wife Marcella has been strangled to death and he’s the prime suspect. Scott tries to clear his name with the alibi of spending the night with a woman, but the backwards trail dead-ends again and again. Scott cannot even dredge up a description of the woman. After every witness denies seeing a woman with Scott, the nightmare of what’s happening crushes him: “I’m frightened; take me back to the detention-pen, will you? Please, fellows, take me back. I want walls around me, that you can feel with your hands.”

Woolrich asks us to believe an enormous number of improbabilities leading up to Scott’s sentencing, and even takes pains to point out the flaws. Here’s the prosecuting attorney speaking to the jury about Scott’s rotten defense: “He is unable to recall the color of her eyes, or the color of her hair, or the contour of her face, or her height, or her girth, or anything else about her. Put yourselves in his place. Would you be likely to forget so completely, so devastatingly, if your lives depended on it?” 

No, I wouldn’t either. However, the novel hinges on the reader believing the phantom lady has vanished and she’s the only person who can give Scott Henderson an alibi for the time his wife was murdered. Woolrich tries many times to explain Scott’s memory blank, such as using the phantom lady’s eye-seizing orange hat as a reason he can’t recall her face, while also explaining why each person who saw her has also wiped her clean yet can remember tiny details that make it seem Scott was alone.

The weakness of the defense does provide a motive to start the second part of the book: Detective Burgess visits Scott on Death Row to tell him he’s arrived at the belated conclusion that Scott is innocent because his alibi was too sloppy to be anything but real. Burgess is a moral coward here, offering sympathy and limited help while insisting he did his job as a cop right and has nothing to feel guilty for. That’s an ideal noir character touch.

The quest for the phantom lady comprises the bulk of the novel. Burgess urges Scott to call on his close friend Jack Lombard to take up the search. Lombard flies in from his job in South America to put everything into the hunt. Burgess also coaches Scott’s girlfriend, Carol Richman, to take part. Chapters alternate between Lombard’s and Carol’s halves of the search among witnesses. The two best suspense sequences belong to Carol; unsurprisingly, they ended up the best sequences in the movie, which adapted them in perfect page-to-screen translations. 

The first grand scene is the psychological warfare Carol conducts against the barman in the longest chapter in the book. Carol, unnamed for most of the chapter, hounds the barman night after night as an inescapable shadow. “It was a terrible weapon she had found and she was using. It does not ordinarily occur to people how utterly unbearable it can be to be looked at steadily over a protracted period of time, say an hour or two or three, simply because it is a thing that never happens to then, their fortitude is not put to the test.” The writing shows the barman’s gradual breakdown leading to a murder attempt and his accidental death: “To him she was no longer a girl, something he could have buffeted senseless with one arm if he chose. To him she was nemesis.”

The jazz-cat scene, where Carol tries to coax hopped-up drummer Cliff Milburn to admit he was bribed into silence about the phantom lady, concludes in a detailed dance of escape from a potential killer. The highlight is the underground jazz jam. Unlike the movie, the book is free from the censors to let loose with the reefers. Woolrich paints the scene as a “phantasmagoria” of “faces, possessed, demonic, peering out here and there on sudden notes, then seeming to recede again.” It may seem overdone to us today when marijuana is no longer the “devil’s weed,” but it works if taken as Carol’s perception. 

Lombard’s chapters are less interesting, starting with a dead-end lead and then a short encounter with a faux blind man. Following the suspense highlight of Carol’s two chapters comes the poorest part of the book as Lombard tracks down the unusual hat through Estela Mendoza, the South American singer whose performance Scott and the phantom lady attended. There are select fine touches to this part, such as the description of Mendoza’s luxury hotel as a contrast to the squalor of the rest of Lombard’s search: “It was one of those incredible luxury-hotels, its single slender tower rising to disdainful heights above the mass of more commonplace buildings like a tilted aristocratic nose. It was a plush-and-jewelled perch on which birds of paradise flying east from the movie colony were wont to alight.” But Woolrich tries for comedy with Señorita Mendoza and her entourage, and it hits the wrong note at the wrong time and stretches on forever. It’s a strange error for Woolrich, as his orchestration of the climb of suspense through his classic-era novels is often impeccable.

Although Carol Richman is the vessel for the best parts of Phantom Lady, as a character she is nearly a phantom herself. This is a major difference between book and film. In the film, Carol is Scott Henderson’s loyal secretary who has nursed a hidden affection for him that develops into love during the runtime. In the book, she and Scott are already involved in an affair, which is the cause of his argument with his wife. But the movie does better with Carol by making her the main protagonist, rather than one of four different protagonists. She has only sporadic appearances throughout the novel, making a short debut in Chapter 3 after Scott is arrested and not resurfacing until Chapter 12, where she’s rarely referred to by name but instead as “the girl.” Readers can only connect with her on a cursory level, such as her panic during the hophead jazz jam. Woolrich may have realized this flaw, because when he wrote The Black Angel next year, he told the entire story of a woman racing to prove her lover innocent of murder from the first-person perspective of the woman.

Time to talk about the ending. The climax: great. The coda: not so great and far too long. 

The climax roars along and hits readers with two legitimate surprises. After Jack Lombard’s lead on the strange hat dries up (another difference from the movie), he hatches a desperate gamble to flush out the phantom lady by advertising that he’s buying old theater programs. Improbably, he finds her—with only hours before the switch in the Big House is pulled. The suspense tightens for a race against death that reveals that the true killer is none other than … Jack Lombard. Yes, the character who had settled into the protagonist role is the one who murdered Marcella Henderson and framed Scott. And the phantom lady is Carol Richman, whom Burgess sent in disguise to lure Lombard out. (This is when readers realize that Lombard and Carol have never met before, and Lombard didn’t even know her name.)

It’s an excellent climax. But now readers have to ask, “Why? How?” Detective Burgess is glad to spend twenty pages explaining the somersaults and backflips necessary for Lomard to have murdered Marcella and then improvise a frame-up by obliterating the phantom lady’s witness trail. It would require every planet and star to align in Lombard’s favor for this to have worked. It’s a boring, head-slapping read and a deflating way to wind down from the climax. Woolrich appears to have been aware of this, since Burgess asks Scott, and by implication the readers, “Am I boring you by rehashing this at length?” 

Perhaps Woolrich himself would answer yes, since he may not have originally wanted this ending. Later in life, he told Frederic Dannay, half of the writing duo behind the Ellery Queen pen name, that Lippincott forced him to write the explanatory chapter rather than his preference to leave most of it a mystery. Plausible, since that’s what he did in Black Alibi, published earlier that year. However, Woolrich first offered Phantom Lady to Simon & Schuster, and according to editor Lee Wright, he balked and ran with the book when she suggested he revise one paragraph. Why would he then go to a different publisher and agree to rewrite the entire last chapter? I’d like to think Woolrich was forced to write this ending, but he was capable of expository dizziness in other works.

Despite the flaws of Phantom Lady, it’s a worthwhile noir read, the same as all of Woolrich’s novels of the 1940s. After completing the book, I flipped through the pages and selected random passages, and in each one I found something remarkable: a sharp detail, a jab of sorrow, a clever construction, a poetic rhythm. Here’s one example, coming from the condemned Scott Henderson:

I’m not more afraid of dying than any other man. But I’m just as afraid of dying as any other man. It isn’t easy to die at all, but it’s even harder to die for a mistake. I’m not dying for something I’ve done, but for a mistake. And that’s the hardest way to die of all.

Even the suspense-deadening Jack Lombard chapters contain gems of Woolrich’s skill at sketching minor characters to hint at bleak stories outside the frame: the frightened little hat-maker Madge Payton living in terror of the father of her infant child; beautiful but mercenary Pierrette Douglas, whose apartment shows how she clings to displays of wealth but is near to sliding from riches; and the phantom lady herself, who remains a phantom to the end. She never returns to the stage as in the film. She stays a nameless woman in the shadows of an insane asylum, the full tragedy of why she was at Anselmo’s bar that fateful night left untold. 

Raymond Chandler’s opinion on Phantom Lady mirrors my own. In one of his letters, he said the book “has one of those artificial trick plots and is full of small but excessive demands on the Goddess of Chance.” He then called it “a swell job of writing, one that gives everything to every character, to every scene, and never, like so many of our overrated novelists, just flushes the highlight and then gets scared and runs.” Hmm, maybe I won’t travel all the way with Chandler on this—but the story concerns and pacing aside, yes, a swell job of writing.

Think I’ll reread The Black Angel now.