The Dilemma of the Dead Lady – Cornell Woolrich (1936)

1.

Babe Sherman, “a good looking devil,” is packing his steamer trunk for a boat ride home from France.  He used his looks to fleece a woman out out her life savings earned at the largest jewelry store on Rue McClanahan de la Paix.  He also managed to pull a switcheroo with a string of pearls at her store, swapping out a $75,000 [1] string with a diamond clasp for a cheapo string.

He is hiding the pearls in a secret compart-ment in his shoe heel when there is a knock at his door.  A woman’s voice says, “Let me in, Bebe, [2] it’s me!”  He opens the door and she wonders why he’s dressed and packing a trunk.  He says he’s just going on a business trip, but she spots his ticket to the US.  The get into a tussle about the money he stole from her — one of them tussles that undoes the tiny screws on a shoe heel — and the pearls spill out.

Knowing he can’t let her leave, “he flung the long loop of pearls over her head from behind like a lasso.”  C’mon, how freakin’ long is this string of pearls?  Is it one o’ them 6 foot strings like flappers wore?  If so, how tall are his heels that he hid them in?  What are they, from the Tom Cruise collection?

So, he strangles her with the string of pearls.  It says they are on “a platinum wire” but that seems a little far-fetched.  Babe laments that she is “Dead.  Strangled by a thing of beauty, a thing meant to give pleasure” just like the woman in Florida who choked to death giving a blow job.  Ironically, a pearl necklace might have saved the Florida woman’s life.  But I digress.

2.

As always seems to happen, the porter knocks on his door while a dead woman is on the floor.  Christ, it’s like they have ESP.  Babe quickly realizes the only way out is to take the corpse with him in the steamer trunk.  He unpacks some of the hotel towels, robes and ashtrays, then “dragged her over, sat her up in the middle of it, folded her legs up against her out of the way, and pushed the two upright halves closed over her.”  He slaps a label on the trunk indicating it is to be delivered to his cabin, not put in the hold, and opens the door.

Babe and the porter take the trunk downstairs in an old cage elevator.  There seems to be a concern whether the elevator will take the weight.  So no one has ever ridden down from the 3rd floor with their luggage [3] before?

The elevator lands safely, and the porter takes the trunk to a taxi.  Babe wants the trunk stowed inside, but the driver wants it “tied on in back, on the top, or even at the side.”  How does that side storage work?  Finally a 2.5 X fare persuades the driver to put the trunk in the back seat.  At the train station, Babe tries to book a private compartment, but is forced to share one with a Yank.

3.

Babe insists the trunk be stowed in the hall outside his cabin, but the conductor says it is against the rules.  Babe flashes a few francs and persuades him.  Finally, after the train is in motion, he swings the trunk into it.  Babe discovers his compartment mate is a cop.

When they arrive at the ship, a familiar scene plays out.  The ship steward says the trunk is too large for a cabin and must be stowed in the hold.  The cop says, “Listen, I’m in there with him . . . put it where the guy wants it to go.”

4.

So the huge trunk goes into the cabin.  Babe figures he is going to have to resolve this situation in 2 days because the Frenchwoman is going to start stinking up the joint like a Frenchman.

His first move is to try to switch cabins.  That seems possible until the steward realizes who he is.  Suddenly nothing is available.  He suspects the cop got to the steward.

The cop ups the game by purposely spilling liquid shoe polish on Babe’s white shirt.  He has no way to retrieve a shirt from the trunk and can’t go to the dining-car dressed like that since he isn’t from Florida.[4]

The rest is very episodic, much like Woolrich’s earlier story in this anthology Two Murders, One Crime.  Fortunately, he is great at this kind of story.  Both stories turn into a rambling comedic pas de deux between a cop an a killer.  Both would have made great episodes of AHP.  Chandler might be the great stylist in this collection, but for pure entertainment, Woolrich is my favorite.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] $1.3 million in today’s dollars.
  • [2] His name is Babe, but the woman calls him Bebe.  OK, that’s French for baby, but it’s a strange choice by the author since it just looks like a typo.
  • [3] I never really looked at that word before.  You lug it around; it is literally your luggage.  I wonder which word came first.
  • [4] I am stilled scarred by a 50 year old guy I saw at lunch today wearing a wife-beater.  It wasn’t a 4-star restaurant, but have a little class, dude.
  • First published in the July 1936 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly.
  • Also that month: It got up to 114 degrees in Wisconsin.  Bloody global warming!