Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cornell Woolrich, Waltz Into Darkness (1947)

Ed Gorman’s endorsement got me to try this book, and from page one it was like falling hard for someone who will never love you back. You know it will all end badly, but you can’t tear yourself away.

That is in fact the plot of Woolrich’s devilish story. Louis Durand, the novel’s main character, marries a beautiful young woman who turns out to be not what he thinks she is. When she returns his love with cunning betrayal, he coldly sets about finding her to repay her unkindness at the point of a gun.

Alas, he is a sitting duck for her wiles. Desperate for her love, he forgives all when he finds her and liquidates his assets to indulge her whims for a free and easy life. Before long they are on the run from the law, leaving behind a body in a shallow grave. When the money runs out, rat poison figures unpleasantly in the final chapters, and the ending is deviously hellish.

Woolrich sets this dark tale in the 1880s, first in New Orleans and then along the Gulf Coast to Florida. The reader is lured into a world of gas-lit mystery and the masked license of Mardi Gras. Meanwhile, the story moves at a pace that is almost glacial. From the first sentence, with its mention of heaven, it is a slow-motion descent into corruption and decay—a case study in how loneliness and desire rot the soul.

All Saints Day in New Orleans, 1885
François Truffaut retold this story in Mississippi Mermaid (1969) with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve. Saturated with color and updated to the 1960s, the film begins on the tropical island of Réunion, its ambiance rich with the ominous potential for dark deeds. But it never reveals the stark and untidy grimness at the heart of Woolrich’s novel. It was remade in 2001 as Original Sin, starring Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie and set in turn of the century Cuba.

Most noir fiction takes a giggly delight in imagining a world with no moral center, but this one turns into a really bad dream you can’t wake from. It gives you the creeps long after you’ve put it down. Read as a morality tale, Waltz Into Darkness cautions against getting your heart’s desire, for love is three parts self-delusion, and nothing is ever what it seems.

Waltz Into Darkness is available at amazon, AbeBooks, and alibris. Forgotten books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Image credit:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up:
Decision at Sundown (1957)


  1. The cover artist, Larry Schwinger, did at least 11 of these dark noirish covers for Woolrich's novels in the Ballantine Mystery series. I managed to buy two of the original paintings from him including WALTZ INTO DARKNESS and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK. This was back in 1989 just before the Philadelphia Bouchercon. I believe he sold all the others also to lovers of art who like paintings that are dark, moody, and connected to Woolrich.

  2. Walker, I found a copy of this edition in the LA Public Library. It is so worn that you cannot make out the image on the cover. Would love to see the original. What are the dimensions?

  3. The paintings were very dark and even darker on the paperback covers. I only managed to buy these two from the artist because he was carrying two mortgages and needed the cash back in 1989. They were two of his favorites and he had them hanging on his living room wall in Newark. Upstairs, he had hundreds of paintings stacked against the walls, all from SF and mystery covers. I traded for a couple of these also.

    Framed the Woolrich paintings were about 18 by 20 inches and I had them hanging in my living room for about 15 years before I traded them as part of a deal for pulp art. I should have kept them since I've read so much of Woolrich but the deal was a good one.

    Here are the books with the Larry Schwinger dark, moody, noirish covers, all published by Ballantine Books in 1982-1984:

    Waltz Into Darkness(see above image)
    The Bride Wore Black
    The Black Path of Fear
    Rear Window
    The Black Angel
    Deadline at Dawn
    Rendezvous in Black
    Night Has a Thousand Eyes
    I Married a Dead Man
    The Black Curtain
    Black Alibi

  4. Wow, this sounds like an interesting book and I am anxious to read it yet feel I shouldn't!

  5. Read this one awhile back. Share your assessment. Woolrich is a fine writer... this is one of his best.

  6. I remember that artist at the Philadelphia BOUCHERCON. I should have bought a painting or two. They were stunning.

  7. I was working at a Crown Books (and a public library) when these were reaching the end of their in-print status at Ballantine, and I believe I got the rack jobber to bring in copies of at least twenty-five titles in the line for me to purchase. Sadly, my set are in my storage locker...I've had one residence in my adult life so far large enough to accommodate my library...but only one.