“She’d never liked the dark; I remember her telling me that many times. She’d never liked to be alone in it, either. And now she had to go there, where that was all there was, just those two things. I stood there, very still and very straight, with my eyes on her to the last.
“So she went out that way, into the black Havana night, without diamonds, without love, without dreams.”
They didn’t ask to go to Zulueta Street, but they ended up there anyway. For Bill Scott and Eve Roman, this was supposed to be the beginning of a new life together, away from her gangster husband. They thought Havana was far enough to run. They thought wrong.
When Eve is stabbed to death in the middle of a crowded bar, their love story comes to an abrupt end. A grief-stricken Scotty is framed for her murder. If he can’t clear himself, Zulueta Street will be the end of the line for him as well.
Cornell Woolrich is crime fiction’s foremost poet of the night and all that goes with it: loneliness, despair, the vast indifference of the city. His world is one of hot nights alone in a crumbling tenement as love songs from a far-off radio drift in through the open window, and of footsteps behind you in a dark side street. His characters are poor and desperate, searching the gutter for a dime to buy a moment of solace in an automat, a dance hall or, as in this case, an opium den.
The Black Path of Fear, with its uneven tone and dull male lead, is not one of his best, but that’s a very high bar to clear. There’s still a whole list of things Woolrich does better than almost anyone else (obsessed hero/heroine, tight deadlines, doom-laden atmosphere), and these strengths are showcased well here.
For a genre whose subject is death, there is one emotion noticeably missing from most mystery fiction—grief. After all, it isn’t much fun to investigate a murder that has left the survivors devastated. In Woolrich’s work, however, grief is front and center. This pervasive sense of loss drives his most frequently used plot, in which the murder or arrest of a loved one spurs the ravaged protagonist to undertake a quest that could end in their own doom. For these characters, the day they start loving someone is the day they start losing them, and the wound stays open all their lives.
That’s certainly true of Scotty and Eve. When the down-and-out Scotty returns a lost wallet to her husband, Eddie Roman, he asks for a job instead of a reward. Eddie makes a position available by firing his chauffeur on the spot, neatly demonstrating his ruthless nature. (“Give him twenty minutes to get out of there…Make it fifteen. I may want to use the car in about half an hour myself, and I don’t want to get held up.”) But as soon as Eddie’s new driver and Eddie’s wife lock eyes in the rear view mirror, they know it’s love. Scotty and Eve skip town together before the week is out. Twenty-four hours later, they’re in Havana, and Eve is dead.
“All the shine, all the glitter waned and went out of her throat and ears and wrists and fingers. She was going to send them all back to him anyway, I thought. She didn’t want them. They’d cost her too much. More than he’d ever paid over any jewelry counter for them. They used to speak to her at night from the top of the dresser and keep her awake, she told me. And even when she crammed them into a box and stuffed them away, to shut them up, she could still hear their faint whispers coming through. That was after she’d met me, when what she’d done with herself first counted. She hadn’t wanted them; she was going to get rid of them. But now they were here. And she wasn’t any more. Just the deflated white dress over there on those three chairs, so flat, so straight, so still.
“Even her perfume was still here. But she wasn’t. Everything had lasted longer than she had. Even my poor, clumsy love.”
After an exciting escape from police custody, Scotty joins forces with Midnight, a young thief mourning the death of her man. Her motive for helping him is simple: “I hate cops. Anyone that’s no friend of theirs is a friend of mine.” Together, they must scour the dark alleys of Havana’s underworld in search of Eve’s killer, meeting a colorful array of friends and foes along the way. Mostly foes.
Much of the action centers around Havana’s Chinatown, which allows for multiple layers of exoticism. Understanding neither Spanish nor Chinese, the xenophobic Scotty is trapped in a foreign country within a foreign country. He is outraged by his suspicion that everyone is playing up their ethnic identities in order to take advantage of him. However, Scotty cannot accept that he is the foreigner here and refuses to engage with either culture on even the most basic level. Meanwhile, the Cubans he meets (most of whom speak English, even if they don’t all admit it) have their own ideas about slow-witted Americans. “Anglo-Saxon indirection,” Detective Acosta complains. “You people always take the longest way around between two points.” Scotty doesn’t exactly prove them wrong.
Scotty does not make a distinctive hero, nor does Eddie Roman stand out as a villain. Luckily, Midnight has enough nerve for everyone else put together. Pushing Scotty along like a benign Lady Macbeth, she orchestrates the entire scheme to clear his name and even drags a little personality out of him along the way. As they run into one dead end after another, it seems genuinely possible that he will not make it out of Havana alive. Woolrich has no compunction about destroying his characters, physically or spiritually.
“It was like a last port of call. And the path that had led me to it through the night had been so black and so full of fear, and downgrade all the way, lower and lower, until at last it had arrived at this bottomless abyss, than which there was nothing lower.”
Or maybe they were destroyed before the story even began. In the world of Cornell Woolrich we are all born alone and die alone, some more violently than others. We all end up on Zulueta Street, whether we wanted to go there or not. The Black Path of Fear may not be a classic on the level of Phantom Lady or I Married a Dead Man, but in its modest way, it still hits all the right notes.
Woolrich doesn’t skimp on atmosphere or color as the plot rushes on. He writes about a crowded bar in a way that had me tucking my elbows in, and there’s a very atmospheric chase scene from the fugitive’s POV up a darkened stairway, lit only by the flashlights of his pursuers […] And once again we get that superb atmosphere of darkened doorways, twisted streets, and even into the bowels of an opium den, painted in fevered but fast-paced prose. And for a conclusion there’s a knock-down drag-out fight scene, and a bitter, romantic coda Chandler might have envied.
The Black Path of Fear is out of print. However, many of Cornell Woolrich’s other novels and individual short stories are available as ebooks.
A loose adaptation was filmed as The Chase in 1946. The film is in the public domain, and is available on youtube in its entirety; a remastered version is also available on Blu-ray. This incredibly strange movie parts ways with the book early on, but is worth a look on its own merits for film noir fans.