My Book Notes: “Dilemma of the Dead Lady” aka “Wardrobe Trunk”, 1936 a s.s. by Cornell Woolrich

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Included in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps A Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Original, November, 2007. Book Format: Kindle Edition. File Size: 15373 KB. Print Length: 2489 pages. ASIN: B000XPNUHW. eISBN: 978-0-307-49416-0. “Dilemma of the Dead Lady” a novelette by Cornell Woolrich from Detective Fiction Weekly [vol. 103 #3, July 4, 1936] 852 – 892 pp.

The Instant Babe Sherman Became Desperate, He Began to Make Mistakes— Just Two Mistakes, but Either Could Cost His Life!

detective_fiction_weekly_19360704“Dilemma of the Dead Lady”, sometime known as “The Dilemma of the Dead Lady”, has had a varied life. Inspired by a cruise Cornell Woolrich took with his mother in 1931, he twists the memories into one of his most horrifying suspense stories. Although it was common for Woolrich to visit great terrors on ordinary, decent people, in this tale the central character is such a lowlife that we almost feel he deserves whatever befalls him.

After its original publication in the July 4, 1936, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly, it was retitled “Wardrobe Trunk” for its book publication in The Blue Ribbon (1946) by William Irish, Woolrich’s pseudonym. Oddly, Woolrich rewrote it as a radio play titled “Working Is for Fools,” which was never produced but did appear in the March 1964 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

My Take: Almost at the beginning of this story, Woolrich describes Babe Sherman as follows:

“He was a good-looking devil, if you cared for his type of good looks—and women usually did. Then later on, they always found out how wrong they’d been. They were only a sideline with him, anyway; they were apt to get tangled around a guy’s feet, trip him up when he least expected it. Like this little—what was her name now? He actually couldn’t remember it for a minute, and didn’t try to; he wouldn’t be using it any more now, anyway.”

When the stroy begins Babe Sherman is at his hotel’s room packing a big wardrobe trunk. He intents to return immediately to New York from France by boat. He’d used all his resources to fleece the life savings of a shop assistant of a jewellery store on Rue de la Paix and, in an oversight, had stolen a valuable string of pearls with a diamond clasp, and replaced it by a fake one.

While hiding the pearls in the heel of his shoe, there’s a knock at the door. To his surprise the young French woman shows up and soon realises how stupid she has been for having believe his false promises. This unpleasant surprise is not going to have a happy ending.

“He had never yet killed anyone, didn’t intend to even now. But death was already in the room with the two of them. She could have still saved herself, probably, by using her head, subsiding, pretending to fall in with his plans for the time being. That way she might have gotten out of there alive. But it would have been superhuman; no one in her position would have had the self-control to do it. She was only a very frightened French girl after all. They were both at a white-heat of fear and self-preservation; she lost her head completely, did the one thing that was calculated to doom her. She flung herself for the last time at the door, panic-stricken, with a hoarse cry for help. And he, equally panic-stricken, and more concerned about silencing her before she roused the house than even about keeping her in the room with him, took the shortest way of muffling her voice. The inaccurate way, the deadly way. He flung the long loop of pearls over her head from behind like a lasso, foreshortened them into a choking noose, dragged her stumbling backward. They were strung on fine platinum wire, almost unbreakable. She turned and turned, three times over, like a dislodged tenpin, whipping the thing inextricably around her throat, came up against him, coughing, clawing at herself, eyes rolling. Too late he let go, there wasn’t any slack left, the pearls were like gleaming white nail heads driven into her flesh.”

Shortly after, another knock at his door reminds him he has to hurry up if he doesn’t want to miss the train. He has no escape, hides the body in the trunk with his belongings and opens the door. The hotel’s porter helps him lower the trunk to the taxi and, not without difficulty, he manages to catch the train on time and gets on board of his boat at the last minute, bribing everyone not to put the trunk in the hold. In this manner he’s allowed to keep it in his cabin. But he is not alone. He shares it with another man, a man whom he suspects to be a New York cop. In consequence, it won’t be an easy task for him to get rid of the corpse without arousing suspicion. But fate will play him a bad trick.

In a nutshell, another entertaining noir tale by Cornell Woolrich with his peculiar sense of humour and his personal narrative style

“Dilemma of the Dead Lady” has been reviewed, among others, by “Mike Gray” at Ontos.

About the Author: Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich (4 April 1903—25 September 1968) was an American novelist and short story writer who wrote under the names Cornell Woolrich, George Hopley and William Irish. His biographer Francis Nevins Jr. rated him the 4th best crime writer of his day behind Dashiell Hammett, Eric Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler. Like Chandler, little is known about his personal life. Woolrich was born in New York City and his parents separated when he was young. He lived for a time in Mexico with his father before returning to New York to live with his mother. Attending Columbia University, he dropped out his senior year when his first novel Cover Charge was published. He continued writing and living with his mother. After she died, he socialized on occasion in Manhattan bars with Mystery Writers of America colleagues and younger fans, but alcoholism, diabetes, and an amputated leg left him a recluse. Hopley-Woolrich throughout his writing career published 27 novels and 16 short story collections resulting in over 40 films and TV theatre episodes based on his stories. His most famous film adaptation is the movie Rear Window directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart, based on his story “It Had To Be Murder”. (Sources: The Passing Tramp; Wikipedia).

Bibliography: Cornell Woolrich’s novels written between 1940 to 1948 are considered his principal legacy. During this time, he definitively became an author of novel-length crime fiction which stand apart from his first six works, written under the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Woolrich’s best known novels are: The Bride Wore Black as William Irish (Simon and Schuster, 1940) aka Beware the Lady, Phantom Lady as William Irish (Lippincott, 1942), Black Alibi (Simon and Schuster, 1942), The Black Angel (Doubleday, 1943), Deadline at Dawn as William Irish (Lippincott, 1944), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (as George Hopley) (Farrar & Rinehart, 1945), Rendezvous in Black (Rinehart, 1948) and I Married a Dead Man (as William Irish) (Lippincott, 1948).

Short story collections: Nightwebs (1971), Darkness at Dawn (1988)

Individual stories/novellas: “Murder at the Automat” (1937), “Angel Face” aka “Face Work” (1937), “Mystery in Room 913” aka “The Room with Something Wrong” (1938), “All at Once, No Alice” (1940), “It Had to be Murder” aka “Rear Window” (1942) and “The Penny-a-Worder” (1958).

A Cornell Woolrich bibliography can be found here.

Recommended Reading: Francis M. Nevins’ Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die is an enormous, in depth biography and critical study on Woolrich and his work. It is a very detailed look at Woolrich’s world. Nevins also edited the best of all Woolrich collections, Nightwebs, which contains important essays and bibliographies as well. It also contains Woolrich’s autobiographical story, “The Penny-a-Worder” (1958), which is a gentle self portrait of a pulp writer. (Source: Mike Grost at A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection)

“Who Was Cornell Woolrich?” by Richard Dooling

“Do People Really Know What They Think They Know About Woolridge?” by Curtis Evans

Cornell Woolrich is also covered by Marin Edwards in his book The Life of Crime (Chapter 30 Waking Nightmares Noir Fiction)

Dilemma of the Dead Lady, un relato breve de Cornell Woolrich

En el momento en que Babe Sherman se desesperó, comenzó a cometer errores: ¡solo dos errores, pero cualquiera podría costarle la vida!

“El Dilema de la Dama Muerta”, ha tenido una vida variada. Inspirado en un crucero que Cornell Woolrich realizó con su madre en 1931, transforma los recuerdos en una de sus historias de suspense más aterradoras. Aunque era común que Woolrich infundiera grandes terrores en la gente común y decente, en este cuento el personaje central es un canalla tan despreciable que casi sentimos que se merece lo que le suceda.

Después de su publicación original en la edición del 4 de julio de 1936 de Detective Fiction Weekly, se le cambió el título a “Wardrobe Trunk” para su publicación en la colección de relatos The Blue Ribbon (1946) de William Irish, el seudónimo de Woolrich. Curiosamente, Woolrich lo reescribió como una obra de radio titulada “Working Is for Fools”, que nunca se realizó pero apareció en la edición de marzo de 1964 de Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

My Take: Casi al comienzo de esta historia, Woolrich describe a Babe Sherman, de la siguiente manera:

“Era un demonio apuesto, si te importaba su buena apariencia, y las mujeres generalmente lo hacían. Luego, más tarde, siempre descubren lo equivocadas que han estado. Esta era sólo una actividad secundaria para él, de todos modos; eran propensas a enredarse en los pies de un hombre, haciéndolo tropezar cuando menos lo esperaba. Como esta pequeña… ¿cómo se llamaba ahora? De hecho, no pudo recordarlo ni por un instante, y tampoco lo intentó; de todos modos, ya no la usaría más.”

Cuando comienza la historia Babe Sherman se encuentra en la habitación de su hotel empaquetando un gran baúl. Intenta regresar inmediatamente a Nueva York desde Francia en barco. Había usado todos sus recursos para estafar los ahorros de toda una vida de una dependienta de una joyería en la Rue de la Paix y, en un descuido, había robado un valioso collar de perlas con un cierre de diamantes, y lo había reemplazado por uno falso.

Mientras esconde las perlas en el tacón de su zapato, llaman a la puerta. Para su sorpresa, la joven francesa aparece y pronto se da cuenta de lo estúpida que ha sido por haber creído sus falsas promesas. Esta desagradable sorpresa no va a tener un final feliz.

“Nunca había matado a nadie, ni siquiera tenía la intención de hacerlo ahora. Pero la muerte ya estaba en la habitación con los dos. Todavía podría haberse salvado, probablemente, usando su cabeza, cediendo, fingiendo estar de acuerdo con sus planes de momento. De esa manera podría haber escapado viva de allí. Pero hubiera sido sobrehumano; nadie en su situación habría tenido el autocontrol para hacerlo. Después de todo, solo era una chica francesa muy asustada. Ambos estaban pálidos de miedo y con instinto de superviviencia; perdió la cabeza por completo, hizo lo único que podía condenarla. Arremetió por última vez contra la puerta, presa del pánico, con un ronco grito de socorro. Y él, igualmente presa del pánco, y más preocupado por silenciarla antes de que despertara a toda la casa que por mantenerla con él en la habitación, eligió el camino más corto para amortiguar su voz. El camino inexacto, el camino mortal. Lanzó el largo collar de perlas sobre su cabeza desde atrás como si fuera un lazo, y acortándolo como una soga asfixiante, la arrastró hacia atrás. Las perlas estaban ensartadas en un fino alambre de platino, casi irrompible. Ella giró y volvió a girarse, tres veces más, como si fuera unos boliches desplazados, la cadena azotándole  irremediablemente alrededor de su garganta, se acercó contra él, tosiendo, arañándose a sí misma, con los ojos en blanco. La soltó demasiado tarde, ya sin holgura en la cadena, las perlas parecían relucientes cabezas de clavos blancos clavados en su carne”.

Poco después, otra llamada a su puerta le recuerda que tiene que darse prisa si no quiere perder el tren. No tiene escapatoria, esconde el cuerpo en el baúl con sus pertenencias y abre la puerta. El portero del hotel le ayuda a bajar el baúl al taxi y, no sin dificultad, consigue llegar a tiempo al tren y se sube a su barco en el último momento, sobornando a todos para que no pongan el baúl en la bodega. De esta manera se le permite guardarlo en su camarote. Pero él no está solo. Lo comparte con otro hombre, un hombre del que sospecha que es un policía de Nueva York. En consecuencia, no le resultará fácil deshacerse del cadáver sin despertar sospechas. Pero el destino le jugará una mala pasada.

En definitiva, otro entretenido cuento noir de Cornell Woolrich con su peculiar sentido del humor y su personal estilo narrativo.

Sobre el autor: Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich (4 de abril de 1903 – 25 de septiembre de 1968) fue un escritor de novelas y relatos estadounidense que escribió bajo los nombres de Cornell Woolrich, George Hopley y William Irish. Su biógrafo Francis Nevins Jr. lo calificó como el cuarto mejor escritor policiaco de su época detrás de Dashiell Hammett, Eric Stanley Gardner y Raymond Chandler. Al igual que Chandler, se sabe poco sobre su vida personal. Woolrich nació en la ciudad de Nueva York y sus padres se separaron cuando él era joven. Vivió un tiempo en México con su padre antes de regresar a Nueva York para vivir con su madre. Asistiendo a la Universidad de Columbia, abandonó su último año cuando se publicó su primera novela Cover Charge. Continuó escribiendo y viviendo con su madre. Después de que ella muriera, socializó en bares de Manhattan con colegas de Mystery Writers of America y fanáticos más jóvenes, pero el alcoholismo, la diabetes y una pierna amputada lo dejaron recluido. Hopley-Woolrich a lo largo de su carrera como escritor publicó 27 novelas y 16 colecciones de cuentos que dieron como resultado más de 40 películas y episodios teatralizados para la televisivo basados ​​en sus historias. Su adaptación cinematográfica más famosa es la película Rear Window dirigida por Alfred Hitchcock y protagonizada por James Stewart, basada en su historia “It Had To Be Murder”. (Fuentes:  The Passing Tramp; Wikipedia).

Prólogo de Rodolfo Walsh aobre la obra de William Irish

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