“It’s already too late. It’s been too late since I first met her. It’s been too late since the day I was born.“
Shy, middle-aged bachelor Louis Durand has a secret. For months now, he’s been corresponding with Julia Russell through a matrimonial agency. When she arrives in New Orleans for their wedding, however, Louis receives a big surprise. Instead of the plain, older woman he expected, Julia is a charming young beauty.
Durand falls head over heels for his new bride, but she may not be everything she seems. This couple are about to embark on a twisted journey of crime, betrayal, and, most mysterious of all, true love.
Waltz into Darkness is that old noir story of a man brought low by his love for a femme fatale. The twist here is how eagerly Durand pursues his own degradation. The woman does not necessarily seek to destroy the man. Durand is left powerless by the force of his own emotion and all he can do is hurl himself deeper into the abyss. He soon learns that crime, like love, is easier to fall into than out of.
The setting of nineteenth-century New Orleans lends a courtly veneer to these events, a daintiness which proves as false as Julia’s pink cheeks. It’s understandable that an unmarried man of the 1880s could reach the age of thirty-seven with his ideals about women still intact. At the same time, there is such a narrow range of acceptable behavior for respectable women that such minor lapses as Julia sitting with crossed legs raises questions in her husband’s mind. Women have so few rights that Julia must ask her husband for permission to open a bank account. This requires an anxious trip to the bank, a place where few ladies are permitted to venture, to spare them “the soilage implicit in the handling of money, which was still largely a masculine commodity and therefore an indelicate one for them.”
“Oh, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” She looked about her in delighted relief, almost like a child who has been dreading a visit to the dentist only to find nothing painful has befallen her.
The two men exchanged a look of condescending masculine superiority, in the face of such inexperience. Their instincts made them like women to be that way.
Durand’s efforts to protect and care for his wife only show how hemmed-in women’s lives were during this era. A gilded cage is still a cage, after all.
The sentimental romance of these early scenes goes on endlessly. Up to a certain point, the story is predictable, almost drearily so. Then an eerie Mardi Gras celebration marks a turning point, the first of several that completely overturn the reader’s expectations. The characters enter a dark universe that encompasses both the banality and terror of being “refugees without a refuge,” where each choice they make drives them closer to a dead end.
The more Durand becomes involved with Julia’s past life, the greater his obsession with trying to nail down her exact feelings about him. The irony is that it often seems there’s nothing deeper there to probe. Though Julia makes use of social norms and moral codes for her own purposes, she appears genuinely unaffected by them.
“Say I buy a new hat. Well, once it’s bought, it’s bought, and there’s no more to it. I remember I bought the hat; it’s not that I forget I’ve bought it. But I don’t necessarily brood about it, dwell on it, every minute of the live-long day.” She pounded one clenched hand into the hollow of the other. “I don’t keep saying over and over: ‘I’ve bought a hat,’ ‘I’ve bought a hat.’ Do you see? […] Take my advice and learn to look at it my way, Lou,” she went on. “You’ll find it a lot simpler. It’s not something good, and it’s not something bad; it’s—” here she made him the concession of dropping her voice a trifle, “—just something you have to be careful about, that’s all.”
For Durand, it is vitally important to determine whether she really loves him, whether she ever loved him. He needs Julia to tell him whether he’s a hero or a scoundrel. What they both fail to grasp, until it’s too late, is how different the two of them are, and how dangerous that difference may prove.
“A waltz for life,” says Julia to Louis on their wedding night. “A waltz with wings. A waltz never ending.” That idle wish comes true, more profoundly and tragically than either of them could have imagined. A dream can so easily become a nightmare when there’s no way out. “There was always tomorrow, tomorrow to make reckoning. And tomorrow, there was always tomorrow still. And meanwhile the music swelled, and the waltz whirled ever faster, giving no pause for breath.”
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 was originally published under Cornell Woolrich’s pseudonym, William Irish. It is currently out of print, but will be reissued by American Mystery Classics in January 2020.