23 April 2008

Cornell Woolrich’s “The Street of Jungle Death”

Pulp writers frequently recycled plots from their earlier stories, and often would create novels based on published shorter works. Raymond Chandler lifted whole chunks of his shorts and combined them into novels, a process he called “cannibalization.” Other writers weren’t so extreme, but re-using ideas and devices that worked once before was fair game in the days when everybody thought the old pulp stories would molder forgotten in back issues and never appear in reprints. One famous example: Robert E. Howard’s 1935 novel The Hour of the Dragon, which was written specifically for the U.K. hardback market, made generous use of ideas from the earlier Conan adventure, “The Scarlet Citadel.”

Cornell Woolrich took a few of his short stories and expanded them into novels. “Speak to Me of Death” became Night Has a Thousand Eyes. “Face Work” became The Black Angel. “Call Me Patrice” became I Married a Dead Man. And “The Street of Jungle Death” became Black Alibi. The last case is the most interesting, since the novel is a classic, and the story is… well… not.

If at first you don’t succeed, re-write it as a novel. That’s what Woolrich’s thinking must have been with “The Street of Jungle Death” (Strange Detective Mysteries, July–August 1939), where killer conception and mediocre execution would eventually lead to its re-thinking as 1942’s Black Alibi, one of my favorite Woolrich chillers. It is intriguing to see how so little changed in the structure of events between the two, yet how fundamentally different Black Alibi turned out.

The killer concept: A dangerous large cat (a leopard here, a jaguar in the novel) used for a starlet’s publicity campaign escapes into the city and consequently seems to vanish. Then the bodies of young girls, apparently the victims of maulings, start to turn up. Each girl receives a suspense sequence leading up to her death. The police think they have an escaped feline on their hands, but a sole dissenter believes a human is hiding behind the claw marks—and eventually he sets up a trap using two acquaintances of the victims.

So far, the two stories are identical. But “The Street of Jungle Death” takes place among starlets in Hollywood, where Black Alibi dwells in the mysterious landscape of a fictional South American city, Ciudad Real (which Woolrich based on Mexico City, where he grew up).

Compared to the rich textures of Black Alibi, “The Street of Jungle Death” feels rushed and often downright silly. The tinny Hollywood is artificial and not particularly claustrophobic. The finale involves the hero, police detective Dunbar, tracing out a ludicrous scheme for the killer based on the most tenuous evidence. Black Alibi throws out all the contrived motivations, and makes the killer simply a madman for whom no explanation will satisfy. This impersonalization of the menace actually makes it more poignant and horrific. The scene of the young woman trapped in the graveyard works effectively in the short, but the later re-write wrings it for three times the suspense. The little girl making a desperate run home from a late-night errand passes by fast in the short, and is a throat-clutching nightmare in the novel.

“The Street of Jungle Death” is only for the serious Woolrich completist. If you haven’t read Black Alibi yet, head to that first. This short dry-run is interesting mostly because of what it would turn into.

This is the fourth and last of the novellas in Carroll & Graf collection Vampire’s Honeymoon. I’ve now reviewed each one, so here’s a recap:
  • Vampire’s Honeymoon: Baaaaaaaaad. Woolrich at his most clichéd and uninspired.
  • Graves for the Living: The star of the collection. Outrageous but irresistible paranoia and fear.
  • I’m Dangerous Tonight: Melodramatic but with a few great moments, and intriguing for its hints of the supernatural.
  • The Street of Jungle Death: If it leads to Black Alibi, I’m all for it—even if this original isn’t that good.