22 February 2008

“Cigarette” by Cornell Woolrich

I’m already following up on the promise to post reviews of Woolrich short stories. This is the first review I wrote when I started my “Woolrich Opus Survey” two years ago, and which I will now resume. I won’t spoil the end of any of the stories, but be warned that I do talk about important plot details.

“Cigarette” was published in Detective Fiction Weekly, 11 January 1936 and was most recently reprinted in Night & Fear. This story has a moral: cigarettes can kill you, and in a Cornell Woolrich story, they definitely will.

Poor, simple Eddie Dean, errand boy to a mobster called ‘The Boss’, and another Woolrich nobody who lands in a horrific trap of bad circumstances. The Boss gives Eddie a simple assignment: Take a cigarette case filled with new cigs to a bar where the Boss’s enemy, Miller, hangs out with his cronies. Then offer Miller a cigarette—the first cigarette from the trick ejector case. That’s all. Eddie doesn’t know the cigarette contains a dose of cyanide, and not only will Miller die, but Miller’s henchmen will do the hapless Eddie in as well right afterwards. The perfect cover for the Boss, who will make sure people see him publicly somewhere else while Eddie commits the deed and gets iced for it.

But on the way to the rendezvous, Eddie kindly offers a cigarette to a man on the street desperately in need of a smoke . . . and the race against death starts. Eddie learns from the Boss’s right-hand ugly, Tommy, what that cigarette really contains. Eddie, panicked at punishment from the Boss but even more horrified at the idea that his kind action might murder someone (however accidental it appears to us), goes running off into the night trying to trace down that death stick before someone lights up. And the damned nail keeps jumping from person to person.

Woolrich could be one cruel bastard, huh? The tension runs high, especially when the implications of what he’s done hit Eddie and he tries to bash his way into the apartment of the first man who took the cigarette. The prose flows so feverishly that the whole story sweeps by. Of course, the ending is laced not only with cyanide, but blackest irony as well. This is quite a good story, especially for one of Woolrich’s earliest, but I would not rate it one of his masterpieces. It works far better than his re-write of it as “Dipped in Blood” nine years later, where an explosive fountain pen took the role of the death-dealing object.

What makes “Cigarette” stand out are the two quintessential Woolrichian themes that dominate it. First, the cigarette represents the random nature of death that stalks so many of the master’s stories. The fountain pen in the similar, but much weaker tale “Dipped in Blood” is the most obvious comparison, but also the jaguar in Black Alibi, the gun from “Into the Night,” and the dress in “I’m Dangerous Tonight.” Eddie chases death itself, death passed casually from hand to hand in the dark hours among the poor and unsuspecting of the city. The second theme is that of the lonely loser trapped in a web of circumstances. The story sides with Eddie, who is little more than a simpleton, but a decent person who only wants appreciation and survival from week to week. “He was a simple soul, asking only to stay out of jail for something he wasn’t even sure of having done, much less being able to tell what it was.” Eddie here takes on the role of the human race, which suffers even though it has no idea what it did to deserve it. But when faced with the worst of all possibilities—becoming a murderer in a mind unable to comprehend who is really at fault—Eddie’s survival instinct take over, and he launches on a desperate quest to save himself and some other lost denizen of the human race who wanders the lonely streets, only looking to bum a smoke.