Deadline at Dawn (1944) by Cornell Woolrich

Having very much enjoyed my first experience of Cornell Woolrich’s work, The Bride Wore Black (1940), I was keen to give this recent reprint a go. The book’s title might ring bells for film buffs as the novel was adapted for film in 1946.

American Mystery Classics cover for Cornell Woolrich's Deadline at Dawn.

Synopsis

‘When Quinn first meets Bricky, she’s working as a partner-for-hire at a dancehall and he’s struggling to shake the anxiety of his guilty conscience. Earlier that day, the young man took advantage of a found key and used it to rob a stranger’s home. Now, with the purloined money in his pocket, Quinn is unable to escape the memory of his wrongdoing–and not even a night spent dancing is enough to silence his nagging thoughts. When the dancehall closes, he and Bricky–linked, after many intimate hours, by a budding romance–return to the scene of the crime intending to restore the stolen fortune and begin a new life together, only to discover, upon arrival, that the owner of the property has been murdered. There’s evidence present that easily links Quinn to the crime, and he expects that, as soon as day breaks and the authorities learn of the gruesome scene, he will be arrested straight away. Which means that he and Bricky have only a few short hours to find the true killer and clear Quinn’s name for good. What begins as a romance soon turns into a nightmare, as this young couple trek through the dark underbelly of old New York in a desperate race for salvation. Twisty, turny, and breathlessly told, Deadline at Dawn is an exemplary tale from the “supreme master of suspense” (New York Times).’

Overall Thoughts

Some books take place over a day, or a week and they would be considered to have a quite short time frame. Yet Cornell’s book cuts down the time even further, with the entire story taking place over 5 hours and 25 minutes. Each chapter begins with a clock face so you can see how little time the characters have left.

David Gordon, who writes the introduction for the American Mystery Classic reprint, comments interestingly on Woolrich’s aspirations to ‘become a Jazz Age novelist like his hero F. Scott Fitzgerald’ and he notes how whilst this goal was never realised, the ‘influence’ of that writing style ‘remains in his work – in the lyricism, the choice of characters, the romantic fatalism…’ One example of this ‘influence’, noted by Gordon, is the story’s use of symbolism in the story. Like in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), where the T. J. Eckleburg billboard and the green dock light have a haunting and rippling effect, throughout Woolrich’s mystery clocks and time pervade the narrative. In particular there is one clock which provides a consistent physical presence – the Paramount Clock and the female protagonist, Bricky, has quite a strong relationship with it. She regards the clock, which she can see through the dance hall windows, as her ‘only one friend in all this town’ and she feels like it says encouraging things to her whilst she monotonously dances round and round:

‘It seemed to say those things to her every night. It never let her down. It was the only thing in the whole town that gave her a break. It was the only thing in all New York that was on her side, even if only passively. It was the only thing in all the endless world of her nights that had a heart.’

It is quite a poignant moment, as it reveals how lonely Bricky must be in New York, to find that a silent clock is her only friend. The use of time in the story, is quite a modernist preoccupation, which you can see in books such as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). However, there are other modernist tones to be found in the mystery, even from the opening paragraphs in which both protagonists are reduced to objects, functions or they are presented like machines, (something we see in films such as Charlie Chaplin’s Behind the Screen (1916)). For example, the opening line says that Quinn Williams ‘was just a pink dance-ticket to her, a used-up one at that, torn in half.’ This wonderfully encapsulates Bricky’s loathing for her job, that the men she dances with are de-humanised and reduced to their tickets and are indicated to be of little use to her, as evidenced by the reference to being ‘torn in half’ and ‘used-up.’ There is a real sense of commercialism to their interaction and Bricky’s own movements are depicted very mechanically, and there is a sense of her being routinised and like a machine that is to be operated by others. The lack of individuality in the workplace is summed up in Bricky’s phrase of calling the dance hall, ‘the mill’ which has quite industrial connotations. Even when she manages to get back to her flat, a place where she can finally be her own person and do what she wants, she finds herself too worn out and too emotionally despondent to actually do anything. The mechanical nature of her work does not leave her quite so easily. It takes a first-time thief to snap her out of the cycle she is trapped in…

Deadline at Dawn’s blend of noir and the boy/girl next door romance is an unusual strength of the book. It is the sort of thing I might have had second thoughts about, wondering if it would work or not, but to the author’s credit he pulls it off with aplomb. David Gordon writes that:

‘The world of noir is ruled by fate, whether that means the inner drives and demons of the characters, who cannot change their nature even if it kills them, or the unbearable workings of a rigged system in a corrupt society, or the narrative necessity of dream logic, forged by fear and desire … As in a fairy tale, everything has the inevitability, the interconnectedness, the meaning and potency of dreams. But for Woolrich, that dream is a nightmare from which the characters cannot awake.’

Fate, in the fictional universe Woolrich constructs, is not actually kind and can often stimulate a “I’d wish I known” or a “I’d wish I hadn’t done” response from characters. This is the case with Bricky, when she realises how their families are next door neighbours back home and how their paths did not cross until now: ‘Something hurt her a little bit, for a minute. The boy next door, and I’ve met him two thousand miles away and five years too late. The boy next door, the boy I was supposed to know and never did. ’The combination of noir fatalism mixed in with romance can be best seen in the ultimatum the pair set themselves. As Gordon outlines:

‘Each one sees the other as their last chance at redemption, their one hope of escape from this dirty town on a dawn bus back home. But to do that they will need to undo the jam that Quinn has gotten himself into and, to do that, they will have to solve a murder – without getting killed or arrested themselves.’

They decide that if they do not manage to solve the case and make the dawn bus for their hometown, then they are sunk. That their relationship will flounder and that they will never make it back home. Such fatalism has a bit of Romeo and Juliet ring to it, but it works in the story and is one you need to buy into, to get the most out of the book. Personally, I enjoyed this unusual goal and felt it provided a different source of tension and tangible deadline. It also offers a less conventional impetus to their crime solving, which you can see in Bricky’s rallying speech when they first encounter the corpse:

“Come on, we’re going back in there and see if we can figure this thing out. we’ve got to. It’s our only hope. We want to go home, you know we do. We’re fighting for our happiness, Quinn; we’re fighting for our lives. And we have until six o’clock to win our fight.”

Bricky is the driving force behind this plan, and I wondered if Quinn’s more passive behaviour at the start is due to his earlier criminal act which seems to have filled him with fatalistic apathy. A large part of the reason why Bricky, especially, thinks that they only have this night to change the direction of their lives, is because of further symbolism. This time it is the city of New York itself, which she personifies as an active enemy or vindictive monster working against their dream. I would also say the way the city “works” upon its victims, convincing them they cannot get out of the hole they’re in, is a bit like a drug addiction.

Bricky and Quinn’s relationship does not get off to a great start, as their first interaction, in the dance hall, is very prickly. This is partly due to Bricky at that point not seeing him as being different to any of the other men she has danced with. She is cynical, hardened and gives very tart responses, which is enjoyable for the reader. One of my favourites is when a guy tries to bother her outside the dance hall and Quinn asks: “Do you want me to do anything, miss?” To this she replies: “Well, don’t just stand there. What do you think this is, an audition for the Good Will Hour?”

However, this prickliness is not permanent, and I was impressed/surprised by the level of trust Bricky extends to Quinn, as he goes back into the home he burgled, to return the money, alone at first and then finds the body. There is nothing to say that he had no part in the murder, yet Bricky accepts from the get-go that it is someone else. Her anxiety is more philosophical in nature and concerned with her reactions to looking at the corpse:

‘She looked at his face, tried to reconstruct it, tried to fill it in. it was like reading a page on which the writing has already grown faded, blurred, distorted. It was like an ink-written page on which it has rained. Everything was still there yet, but everything had moved a little out of focus. The lines that had been facial characteristics were seams now. The mouth that had been either strong or weak, bitter or good humoured, was a gap now…’

I think this passage is a great example of how well Woolrich writes. He can be highly poetical, yet in a concise way, which does not affect the pacing or plot.

Bricky and Quinn’s approach to accidental sleuthing is quite cautious and is conscious of their own ignorance or limited knowledge. There is a sense of anxiety in the examination of the body, which felt in keeping and plausible with their context. What they learn builds up realistically, there are no wild deductions, they just carefully work through a scene. There is evidence of a second person having been there, but there are conflicting ideas over the gender of this person and this uncertainty is maintained well through the body of the mystery. They have to split up to follow one suspect each, I say suspect, but their initial forays into searching for suspects is centred on their hypothetical ideas of what they would do straight after committing a murder. This seems to lead to early success for both, but this soon transpires to be untrue, and their leads come to dead ends, some tragic, others comic. Their sleuthing feels thwarted, as they are making all the right moves, just not getting the right results. I would say the investigation has some pleasing red herrings of noir suspense and the mystery gets tense when their second attempts at tracking down potential leads provide far more peril and danger than they had bargained for. Fate and coincidence are part of the noirish world that Woolrich creates, and this can be seen in the solution. The characters use clues and deductions to locate suspects, but some of the blanks regarding the back story and motive for the murder are supplied by a deus ex machina, which blows the case wide open. Initially, upon seeing this I was not sure how I felt about it. It is a little convenient perhaps, but on the other hand how else would they have found out the motive in the time frame. However, all in all this was another excellent read by Woolrich and I hope American Mystery Classics reprint more of his work in the future.

Rating: 4.5/5

Source: Review Copy (American Mystery Classics)

See also: Mysteries Ahoy has reviewed this title and Jose, earlier this week, has written a blog post concerning Cornell Woolrich, which provides an overview of his work.

10 comments

  1. I think you are right to say that this premise could so easily have fallen flat. Things like the way the pair just fall into trusting each other and the clock face design could feel gimmicky but it is all executed perfectly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad to see Woolrich’s writing get praised, because his detractors are hard on his writing. He wrote a great deal and definitely had his bad moments (also undisciplined ones), but much of his prose of effective, atmospheric and memorable (in a good way).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t realise his writing style came under such criticism, but based on the two I have read, I wouldn’t have thought that an area of weakness. I appreciate though that in his canon he might have his own Postern of Fate or Passenger to Frankfurt.

      Like

  3. Wonderful review! I haven’t yet read Deadline At Dawn, but with each new review for it I’m more and more intrigued. (Phantom Lady was my next Woolrich novel in the queue, but I may yet shuffle things around and do this one first…)

    Liked by 1 person

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