27 January 2010

Black Alibi: The Claws of Cornell Woolrich

Black Alibi (1942)
By Cornell Woolrich

My favorite Cornell Woolrich novel is 1948’s Rendezvous in Black. A few of his novels clamber to grab onto the rung right beneath it, and among them is Black Alibi. It’s one of the most powerful novels of sheer terror in the English language, and one of the prototypes for what we would call a “slasher” tale, an archetype of the serial-killer thriller. More than any of Woolrich’s other novels, Black Alibi works on a primal, animal level… appropriate, since at the center of the story is a black jaguar, a symbol of savagery and the randomness and finality of death.

Black Alibi is the middle installment of an informal trilogy with The Bride Wore Black (1940) and Rendezvous in Black (1948). All follow an identical episodic structure: an opening chapter introduces a killer right before the murdering starts; each of the following chapters focuses on the killer’s next victim, drilling the reader with tension as death closes in; the chapters conclude with mini-epilogues where law enforcement shows up to ponder the killer’s motives and modus operandi; in the finale, a trap is laid for the killer, leading to a final explanation for the events.

Black Alibi has a major difference from the other two, however. The killers in The Bride Wore Black and Rendezvous in Black are people with specific vendettas and targets. Julie Kileen pursues the men she blames for the death of her husband on their wedding day; Johnny May chases after the men responsible for his fiancée’s death, planning to murder the most important woman in each man’s life so they will forever know Johnny’s pain. But in Black Alibi, the killer is abstract, and the murders committed at random. The motives of the murderer are unknowable, and the only link between the victims is that they are all young women. The villain is a classic serial killer, one of the earliest “slashers” in horror: an implacable murderer capable of striking down anyone at any time for no reason at all.

The killer of Black Alibi is a black jaguar… or is it? This is the core concept of the novel, and a premise that immediately seized my attention when I read a blurb about the book’s plot. A black jaguar gets loose in a South American city, young girls show up viciously mauled to death. But one man thinks that the black jaguar is only the alibi for a human killer, and he tries to convince the police that they have a madman, not a raging jungle cat, to pursue.

As interesting as the jaguar/human question is for a thriller, it’s ultimately irrelevant. Regardless of the eventual reveal of human or beast (I won’t tell you which, of course), Black Alibi’s killer remains a jaguar, a symbol of an animal darkness moving through the shadows of a city, armed with rending claws and fangs. The imagery of it is too powerful to resist, even if the skeptic is right that a human is disguised under the fear of the great cat.

Black Alibi has its origin in a novella, “The Street of Jungle Death,” which Woolrich published in Strange Detective Mysteries in 1939. I’ve written a review of that short story, found in the collection Vampire’s Honeymoon. It’s a minor, silly work, but Woolrich knew he had a great idea at its center. He moved the location from Hollywood to a fictionalized version of Mexico City, where he grew up, hurled out the unbelievable coincidences and outrageous conspiracy elements, and deepened and darkened the story at every level.

The novel contains only six chapters, each one the length of a novella. Chapter I introduces the situation, and opens with a deceptively cheery scene. Woolrich novels often start with a sense of lowering doom, but Black Alibi begins with a bit of a fake. Kiki Walker, an American singer who has turned into a sensation in Ciudad Real, “the third largest city in South America,” but clearly modeled on Mexico City, plans on what she should wear when she goes out tonight for the enjoyment of the photographers and reporters. Kiki thinks about how she and her press agent have turned into such an unexpected success in a foreign country. A reader might assume that Kiki is the protagonist, but there is no true “hero” here. The central figure is about to make its entrance: “It was black, spade-shaped, ears wickedly flat, muzzle to carpet, coming in fast with an impression of zigzag undulation.”

Jerry Manning, Kiki’s press agent, has brought her a loan of a black jaguar to take with her on that night’s expedition through the fashionable Alameda. Manning’s stunts helped make Kiki in the first place, and even though the large cat frightens her, it does go so well with her new dress.

(Science break: a black jaguar is technically a melanistic jaguar, a condition that occurs in six percent of South American jaguars due to a dominant allele. Sometimes black jaguars are called black panthers, but they aren’t a separate species. Woolrich clearly knew what was doing in naming the great cat, but he would have heard about them during his childhood.)

Disaster happens, of course. At a café the jaguar panics, probably because of the flashbulbs going off around it, and sprints across the street and into an alley. The police and citizens start to hunt for it, but the cat has seemingly vanished—it never emerges from the other end of the alley, and an investigation into a boarded up chapel (Woolrich employs Catholic imagery throughout the book) shows it couldn’t have gone there either. The next day, the city starts to make light of the incident, as if it were a hoax, but Kiki immediately fires Manning, turning him into a classic Woolrich figure: penniless and lost.

The last paragraph of the chapter tells us that the vanished jaguar won’t remain a joke for long:
Night brooded enigmatically over Ciudad Real, seeming to hold its breath. Three quarters of a million people, and somewhere in the midst, shadow slim, with velvet tread, and fangs for those who crossed its ill-omened path—
The next four chapters are each named after a woman, the next target of the killer loose in the city. Following the pattern of The Bride Wore Black and the future pattern of Rendezvous in Black, Woolrich shifts his point of view to the victim on the way to a meeting with death. Each of the chapters concludes with a coda where Inspector Robles and Jerry Manning clash over the identity of the killer. Inspector Robles contends that all the evidence points toward the jaguar as the killer, but Manning insists that circumstantial evidence and his own hunch suggests a human using the jaguar as a guise. Inspector Robles dismisses this as Manning’s own guilt for bringing the animal into the city; and the book balances out both arguments so that readers will wonder themselves if Manning isn’t trying to compensate.

The bulk of these chapters are masterpieces of tension and agony. Woolrich knew better than almost any suspense writer how to force the reader live in the skin of a person going almost mad with fear. He creates a physical architecture, minutely detailed, for these set pieces, and injects them with the palpable emotion of terror. If the set pieces lack the personal connection of Rendezvous in Black—the killer has no personal motive in this, the victims have no link to each other—Woolrich balances it with simple stark fear. He was the literary equivalent of Hitchcock: he makes the readers know what will happen, but not when or where, and subsequently drives them (and the characters) insane with the tension.

Of the four victim set pieces, the first two are particularly brilliant: “Teresa Delgado” and “Conchita Contreras.” The two victims are put back-to-back as a way of showing the extremes of society in Ciudad Real. Teresa Delgado is a teenage girl from an impoverished family (that lives on the appropriately named Pasaje del Diablo—Passage of the Devil) that can hardly afford to buy charcoal to heat their food. Conchita Contreras is a youthful woman from a family that is practically nobility. The killer makes no distinction about who dies, Woolrich seems to be saying. Death does not discriminate.

The Conchita Contreras chapter takes place mostly in an enormous walled cemetery, and it borders on Gothic horror; the prose makes it feel as if zombies will burst up through the grave loam any minute—and it wouldn’t feel out of place. The inscription on the gates of the cemetery is a poignant epigram for the book itself: That which is so universal as death must be a blessing. And none may escape its benediction.

Woolrich’s word-portrait of the graveyard is one of his finest pieces:
She walked rapidly down the somber avenue, through an eerie landscape fast dimming in the twilight. Eerie because it was neither natural nor human; it was that of the other world. There was a classical severity to it, a cold melancholy, that nature lacks. These cypresses, poplars, weeping willows, artfully disposed here and there, singly and in copses, they were rooted where dead human beings lay. They touched death, they sheltered it, they even lived and were nourished upon it. And scattered all about under them, through every opening in their low-hanging branches, in every space between their trunks, down every vista and at every turn, was a silent, soulless population, gleaming white in the wavering shadows. A population that seemed to be waiting for some necromantic signal in the depths of oncoming night to come to swarming, malignant life. A population of angels, phoenixes, griffins. The very marble benches here and there along the paths, they seemed to be put there not for the living to rest upon during the course of their visits, but for the use of unguessed shrouded forms flitting along these thoroughfares and lanes in silent passage late at night.

And over it all hung a violent pall of expiring light, the crepusculo, whose very name was a little death in itself. The death of day.
The chapter “Clo-Clo” is probably the least suspenseful of the victim set pieces, but the character of Clo-Clo, an ambiguous near-prostitute who crawls clubs looking for wealthy men, is the most memorable of the novel. The chapter also puts Ciudad Real on display, and Woolrich makes it live with his own memories of Mexico City. (Throughout the book, Woolrich liberally uses Spanish phrases—many obscure, but their meanings clear in context—to give an authenticity to the setting that most U.S. authors fail to achieve when writing about Central or South America.)

The eponymous sixth and final chapter lasts nearly a hundred pages and details “the trap.” Manning decides to act to catch “whatever” it is, and baits it with the help of two people close to the second and fourth victims. It’s a masterful performance, with an amazing fake-out that Woolrich executes beautifully. The Gothic horror elements return as well, with a finale in an underground Inquisitional torture chamber that must have had some inspiration from Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Woolrich manages to avoid a trap that he occasionally fell into: a prolonged coda that tries to explain everything that went before, with logic a casualty. Black Alibi explains almost nothing about its very weird last reveal—and it works. Sometimes silence and inscrutability are the best ways to look at a world that ultimately should not fit together cleanly.

Black Alibi was originally published by Simon & Schuster as part of the “Inner Sanctum Mystery” series, a tie-in with the enormously popular radio show. The book turned into one of Woolrich’s most successful, with many reprints in hardback and later paperback. Producer Val Lewton adapted it the year after its publication as Leopard Man, set in New Mexico and with a different ending, but keeping close to the book’s suspense sequences. It’s one of the best films adapted from Woolrich, and one of the high points for director Jacques Tourneur. It only loses out when compared to the savagery and bleakness of the novel (“There was one other color, on the wall on the Justicia side: as though somebody had been careless with some kind of overripe fruit”), which it simply couldn’t achieve in the 1940s and on its budget.

Black Alibi has not been in print for a number of years, even though it’s one of the classic U.S. crime novels. The time is overdue for a new edition and a new film adaptation.

By the way, I own a first edition of the novel, and it’s one of the prizes of my Woolrich collection.