The Black Curtain

by Cornell Woolrich

Whatever this whole thing was that had happened, he knew he was about to have it explained to him. In just a few minutes now. And that was no solace.

A man wakes up to find people all around, an ambulance on the way, and no memory of the last three years of his life. As he tries to get things back on track, included the marriage he supposedly walked out on three years ago, he learns he’s being pursued by unknown parties. Scared of his missing, perhaps dangerous past, he embarks on a journey through places he might have been during the lapse and gathers information as to his previous whereabouts, such as his name used during the missing years and the nefarious deeds that have led to his current, hunted status.

While the premise of the novel is interesting, we’ve seen and read so many amnesia stories that this one’s initially more difficult to embrace. It does go to that place it needs to go in order to make a great story, so you’ve got to be patient. Near the book’s end things become truly scary, as our main character Frank has to process things he never thought he’d need to. The novel handles murder in such a matter-of-fact, almost casual way, you blink and you might miss some of the intrinsic horror. But even if you do, there are passages that will remind you you’ve stepped away from a run-of-the-mill detective story.

Only the slow dignity of his outer step was adult; inside he was a lost child moving through a scary array of goblin trees, with a lighted cigarette for protective talisman instead of crossed fingers.

The nature of the writing itself is still outstanding, providing many of the memorable one-liners we love in hard-boiled fiction, though mostly outside of dialogue, instead favoring narration and interior monologue. Such as:

He looked as if he might have been a nice guy—if he’d been somebody else.

In the end it’s an excellent read, with elements such as murder being par for the course and a lone man reaching for justice when surrounded with corruption (or in this case, confusion) that noir became so famous for. It’s not the same level of smash hit as hit first Black novel, but there’s a lot to love like the terror creeping in during the second half of the novel and the badass quotes throughout.

A freezing horror percolated through Townsend’s veins. The horror that only comes of not knowing precisely what’s going to be done to you. The terror of imagination.

4- stars

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