It’s a classic noir set-up. A happily married man gets to feeling a bit lonely in his swank Sutton Place apartment after his wife leaves town for an extended trip. He wanders upstairs to a party thrown by his friends, and there he meets Nanny Ordway, a drab but plucky sprite who strikes a vaguely paternal chord in him. A friendship, wholly nonsexual, gels between them. And then it all goes very wrong, very fast. His wife comes home, and in their bedroom the couple find Nanny’s dead body swinging from a chandelier. To Lieutenant Trant of the NYPD, to nosy neighbors and prying reporters, and perhaps even to the man’s wife, the scene suggests a suicide for which he’s morally to blame—the tragic upshot of a love affair gone sour. Which would be bad enough, but worse is his plight once Trant determines that someone strangled the girl; she didn’t kill herself, after all. A web of incriminating circumstance tightens around the man, a theatrical producer named Peter Duluth, and as he learns more and more about poor, demure Nanny, he comes to believe that she has woven that web, as if from the grave: “Nanny-spider,” he calls her. Duluth appeared in several earlier tales that cast him as a solver of urbane whodunits. But here he finds himself in Cornell Woolrich territory, a nightmare Manhattan where the routine amenities of big-city life (an all-night hamburger joint, a Bohemian bar in the Village, the tiny Murray Hill bachelor pad of an over-the-hill actor) take on a sickly sheen of doom and desperation. Quentin lacks Woolrich’s ability to construct an atmosphere of pure, frenzied claustrophobia. Yet he makes up for that flaw with a slick plot that delivers one, two, three twists of the narrative knife—really, it’s hard to count them—before freeing Duluth from the last dark strands of a spider’s handiwork.
PATRICK QUENTIN. Black Widow (1952).