05 October 2008

Cornell Woolrich Says “Men Must Die”

In my last post on Cornell Woolrich, I dealt with a mediocre collection of stories that had one masterpiece and some okay-to-awful work as well. I feel like delving into a classic, one that has shown up in many reprints under three different names: “Men Must Die,” “Guillotine,” and “Steps Going Up.” It originally appeared in Black Mask for August 1939 as “Men Must Die,” which I think is the most appropriate and eriee sounding of the titles, so I will stick with that. (“Guillotine” is the most popular reprint title, however.)

Two men have a rendezvous with death on the platform of the Parisian guillotine. Who will arrive first? Will it be Robert Lamont, condemned to death for a murder committed during a burglary, or will it be the public executioner, poisoned by Lamont’s lover Babette in the hope to invoke an old French law that pardons the next man for the chopping block when the executioner dies?

Yes, Woolrich made up the strange law that motivates the plot, which sounds similar to the urban legend about getting straight ‘A’s if your college roommate croaks. The organization of executions in France also seems obtuse and ungainly, with only one man permitted to perform executions, and who never gives himself any time leeway when he leaves the house to go to a beheading. (At least show up in time to have a morning cup of French roast before you chop somebody’s noggin off. You don’t want to screw it up.) And although Woolrich had visited Paris on a trip with his mother, his story’s version of France isn’t particularly Gallic. It’s much closer to Brooklyn with its slangy street-talk. But it is difficult to pay attention to these oddities in a story of such tension and exceptional pacing through a dual-time structure.

Half the story unfolds as a minute-by-minute march to the guillotine for Lamont. He counts each step as he walks toward the platform, awaiting his salvation when the executioner fails to appear. Intercut with this real-time pacing is the series of events leading up to this moment: Lamont’s crime, his capture, Babette’s plan to murder the executioner, and her clumsy and desperate attempt to poison him when she pays him a late night visit. The two strands start to weave closer together in time as the executioner, an unnamed inconspicuous man who clings to his duty as state murder with fierce dedication, tries to make it to the rendezvous with death with his own death tearing him apart. It’s masterful prose pacing, putting the text break to its best use.

What’s surprising about the story is how effectively Woolrich divides reader reaction. Lamont is a murderer, he sees Babette as nothing more than a tool, and he has no remorse. Why should we care if he escapes execution? As for the executioner, he seems a frigid and unpleasant little man, who has some four hundred deaths to his credit. The impersonal machinery of capital punishment makes itself felt throughout the story, and Woolrich puts us so deeply into Lamont’s final minutes that we can’t commit totally to wanting him dead.

So what do we want for an ending? That’s one of Woolrich’s cleverest achievements here: not only do we not know what the ending will be, we have no idea what we want it to be.