Black Alibi

by Cornell Woolrich

“When the laws of nature conflict with indisputable evidence like this, the laws of nature go into the discard. Who is to say what they are anyway—you? I?”

Manning, a recently successful promoter, convinces Kiki, his recently successful starlet client at the top of her game, to brandish a jaguar on a leash at a restaurant as a publicity stunt. The great cat becomes agitated and causes a huge uproar, escaping in the process, and a hunt for the cat ensues. Over the next few weeks mauled corpses begin cropping up, and the frustrated police aren’t getting any closer to capturing the beast. The promoter makes a nuisance of himself by second-guessing police efforts and inserting his opinions into their investigation. As the body count rises, a lone survivor from one of the attacks is approached by Manning, and together they hatch a dangerous plan to bring an end to the killings.

The incipient maleness of the boy rose to take the emergency in its stride. That was what men, big and small, were meant for: a sudden crisis like this, a flurry of violence.

Notably, after the shocking jaguar escape, the story morphs for a few moments into the absurd hilarity of the police chasing the cat and the manager trying to explain and justify himself. (In the span of a few pages I had to put the book down twice in order to finish laughing before resuming the read.) When you’re into an intense story involving the potential deadliness of a great cat, and what follows is a little buffoonery, the swing between the two extremes seems like genius. Then the reality settles in and wipes the smile off your face. Still, in regards to the first sixty pages or so, it’s rare to see a story move from intensity to hilarity to horror, each element bold but managing to flow gracefully to the next.

Woolrich’s third ‘Black’ novel is a serious affair despite some of the early levity. The great cat takes on supernatural characteristics as it continues evading its pursuers, and the population is either completely terrified of the escaped beast or refuses to acknowledge it’s out there killing at all, believing the entire affair is some brand of macabre hoax.

The living have no time to look at death; they cannot see it even if they try.

Language use is wonderful, as is consistent with the author’s other works. Quotable phrases permeate the book, and his influence on snappy, witty noir monologue and dialogue becomes clearer with each novel under the belt.

“It will do no good. It never has from the beginning, it never will to the end of time. One can’t change the world.”

Black Alibi is an incredibly interesting story that not only hops back and forth over the line between crime thriller and horror, but contains four smaller, fleshed out stories within, each cut short when the overarching framework asserts itself. These four stories bring the terror up close and personal to the reader so the encompassing frame can present a much more vivid picture. Crime and horror fans both will find what they’re looking for here.

A breathless hush hung over everything, awaiting the arrival of the greatest killer of them all: night; remorselessly tracking down day and slaughtering it, every twenty-four hours, over and over again. The eternal murder, unpunished, unprevented.

4+

 

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