Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich
Originally published 1942
Ballantine, 1st printing, 1982
Genre: suspense, roman noir, crime fiction
Synopsis & Review:Americans Jerry Manning and Kiki Walker have relocated to the South American city of Ciudad Real, finally meeting with success; she’s become a local entertainer of some fame, and he’s her agent/manager. To further fan the flames of the public’s interest in Kiki, Jerry brings her a tame black jaguar, insisting that she take it out on a leash for the photo opportunities. She makes a sensation at a local restaurant, but then someone startles the creature, and it escapes, terrifying the restaurant goers and making a fool of Kiki. The jaguar disappears into the city, giving rise to rumors as the local gendarmes unsuccessfully try to track it down.
As rumors about the jaguar and its possibly supernatural powers inundate Ciudad Real, teenage Teresa Delgado is forced by her mother into the darkening city to fetch charcoal. Frightened by the rumors, Teresa tries to refuse, but her mother is insistent. Teresa first tries their local bodega, but it’s just closed, so she takes a long, heavily shadowed route under the viaduct to another, managing to catch the owner and purchase the charcoal for her family. Nearly paralyzed by fear, she wends her way back through the dark passage, hunted by something almost unseen, making it to the very door of her home, where her mother ignores her terrified cries. When the door is finally opened, nothing is left of Teresa but torn flesh and blood. It seems obvious to all that Teresa was attacked by the jaguar, and police captain Robles summons Manning to the morgue to show him what his foolishness has wrought. Conchita Contreras intends to bring her novio home to meet her mother, but until she can, she meets him at the cemetery under the guise of paying respect to her deceased father. Late one evening due to her mother’s suspicions, Conchita reaches the cemetery shortly before it closes for the night, and is missed by the guard and locked inside. Panicking at the thought of spending a night amid the mausoleums and sensing a lurking danger, Conchita flees in terror, reaching the cemetery’s wall where she cries out for a stranger to help. When the man returns with a ladder a few minutes later, he finds only the tattered remnants of Conchita’s body. Though the police again ascribe the death to the escaped jaguar, Manning is not convinced, wondering why the wild creature would return to the city rather than remain in the green, treed cemetery that more closely resembles its natural habitat. But the police find not only bloody pawprints, but a jaguars claw embedded in Conchita’s throat. The matter seems closed, and efforts to catch the ravening beast are redoubled.
Clo-Clo is a lady of the evening, haunting clubs and cafes for generous men in order to support her family. After a highly profitable evening in the company of a friendly old gentleman, she makes her way home thrilled at her luck. Stopping for coffee with her comrade La Bruja, Clo-Clo asks the other girl to read her fortune in the cards. Both girls become upset, as no matter how many times La Bruja tries, an ominous card keeps surfacing over Clo-Clo. Nervous now, Clo-Clo heads for home through the dark city streets, fleeing an ill-omened encounter. She makes it home safely, but upon realizing that she lost the money for her evening’s work, Clo-Clo retraces her steps, only to meet her doom. With this third death, Robles is in trouble, and more anxious than ever to capture the jaguar. Manning finally convinces the police captain to consider a human suspect, and the two wait to see what will happen next.
American girls Sally and Marjorie are on their long-awaited vacation at last, exploring beautiful and exotic Ciudad Real. They decide to spend an evening as the locals do, dining al fresco in the Bosque, an enormous natural park like Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, despite several warnings from locals about the peril stalking the city. After dinner, the girls stroll by a lake, admiring the beautiful swans, but when their horse and carriage is frightened off by some unseen menace, the two try to return to the city streets. Hearing something following, they begin to run, and Marjorie pulls ahead, looking back to see Sally nowhere behind her. When she turns back to find her friend, there is little left of her friend but blood and the beast’s leavings.
With this fourth murder, Manning takes matters into his own hands, and seeks Marjorie out in hopes that she will help him to track the beast down for Sally’s sake. Manning also enlists Conchita’s novio Raul, who has nearly destroyed himself with drink in his grief. Together the three lay a trap, one they hope will bring out the beast in man haunting Cuidad Real.
Black Alibi differs from Woolrich’s other Black books in that it’s a fairly straightforward suspense tale, even a mystery, rather than one of his trademark “tales of love and despair.” And suspenseful it is, absolutely riddled with passages of haunting and macabre description, making it the most suspenseful Woolrich full-length novel that I’ve yet read. Woolrich’s technique here creates an unrelentingly dark and menacing atmosphere throughout the novel, without ever becoming melodramatic. As each victim is stalked down their dark paths through the city, Woolrich’s power of description reach a resounding crescendo, and their journeys become nightmarish descents into hell. Even when it seems that they may escape, Woolriche emphasizes the role of fate in driving the young women to their deaths.
The only major flaw in Black Alibi is the unlikely resolution of the murders. As is his wont, Woolrich stretches credibility too far in his efforts to neatly tie things up, and has his characters behaving irrationally. This habit is one that any Woolrich fan has already learned to ignore, and the strength of the early chapters outweighs the absurdity of the climax.
The novel is divided into six chapters, four named for the victims, and two opening and closing chapters, respectively called ‘The Alibi’ and ‘Black Alibi,’ a structure much like that of The Bride Wore Black. Like The Black Angel, Black Alibi was adapted and expanded from a short story, “The Street of Jungle Death,” which I have not yet read (xi). A Ballantine edition, the novel also featured a Nevins introduction; all the Ballantine introductions are basically identical, with small expansions in the section on the relevant novel. The intros are handy, however, as an introduction to Woolrich’s oeuvre and style. Sadly, Black Alibi remains out of print.
When I was drunk online and purchasing books a few weeks ago, I found myself bemoaning the dearth of new Cornell Woolrichs in my foreseeable future. On an impulse, I found a copy on Ebay, and paid a bit too much for it, though perhaps not enough since I liked it so well, and since it is out of print. I am very happy that I did succumb to temptation, because it’s a worthy addition to my Woolrich library–or any suspense library.
Cover: The usual Ballantine noirish neon with a framed inset depicting Teresa as she races through the dark city streets. Nicely understated, it creates a palpable sense of menace without showing too much.
With one accord they fled swiftly down one side of the long, heartlessly empty road, again one behind the other. The moment they did, the rustling resumed again behind them, quickened in turn now. It was governed by whatever they did, that was easy to see. It was the pursuer, and they were the prey. It became a crashing at times, plainly audible above their slapping footfalls and hot, frightened breaths. A succession of lopes that cleared the ground and burst headlong through the impeding foliage at each impetus. [...]
The rustling and crashing were changing direction now, drawing slowly but surely in toward them, coming diagonally toward them instead of merely keeping parallel. There were many places where the coverage was so thin they might have been able to glimpse who or what it was, but that would have meant slowing to turn their heads, and they were both too frightened and too intent on getting away. Or perhaps they realized instinctively that the sight of whatever it was might so add to their terror as to rob them of all further use of their limbs altogether.
30 June – 01 July