Black Alibi (1942) by Cornell Woolrich is less a mystery story than a creepy suspense tale. It all starts when a singer's press agent arranges for her to parade up and down the streets of the "third largest city south of the Panama Canal" with a "tame" black jaguar. Kiki Walker is a second-rate American singer who becomes a sensation in South America due to her unusual beauty and gorgeous red hair. But even Kiki's popularity can use a boost or two, so Jerry Manning often arranges a publicity stunt to put her name back in the papers. Of course, he wasn't really planning on causing quite the kind of excitement that resulted.
Kiki is none too sure about the cat when Manning shows up with it. “It was black, spade-shaped, ears wickedly flat, muzzle to carpet, coming in fast with an impression of zigzag undulation.” Quite honestly, it frightens her. But she is soon convinced that she'll cause quite the sensation with the sleek animal matching her dress and providing a sharp contrast to her hair. Everything goes fine until she stops at a cafe for a smoke and a drink and a photo op. Whether it is a sudden motion or the bright flash bulbs of the photographers that startles the cat makes no difference--the "tame" animal goes wild, attacking the singer before disappearing into an alley. Despite the quick response of Manning and other onlookers, they (and the police and fire department who come immediately) have no luck tracking the beast.
The good news is that Kiki isn't hurt too badly. The bad news is Manning is out of job. The singer wants nothing more to do with him after experience with the jaguar. The even worse news is after the escape of the big black cat four young women are mauled and slashed to death in what the authorities believe to be attacks by the wild animal. Manning feels responsible for the deaths and involves himself in the investigation, but he believes that a man is using the city's fear of the jaguar to cover his own murderous blood-lust. The police find his theory ludicrous at best and interfering at worst. When the final attack leaves a witness--Marjorie, a friend of the dead woman, Manning enlists her help as bait to draw out the killer. If the jaguar really is responsible, then his plan won't work. But if a human beast is at work, then the murderer may be tempted to try and eliminate the only survivor of his rampage. Marjorie's bravery will help prove once and for all whether it is a man or a beast that stalks the city.
Black Alibi seems to me to be written expressly with the possibility of a film adaptation in mind. Which, amazingly enough, is exactly what happened. Woolrich wrote this highly suspenseful novel with several scenes filled with tense psychological drama--from the apprehensive young woman sent out into the dark for coal to the beautiful girl who only wanted to meet her lover in the privacy of the graveyard to the companion-for-hire who goes back out into the night searching for last customer's generous gift to the lovely secretary and her friend on their first vacation in years. The scenes with each of these women facing the dark and the unknown in secluded areas of the city make for chilling suspense.
What little mystery there is here revolves around the question--man or beast? Whether the jaguar is responsible or not, where is it hiding? Why do the most elaborate searches produce no evidence of the big cat? If a man is involved, is he somehow keeping and manipulating the wild beast for his own bloodthirsty ends? Or is there a way that a man could mimic the horrific attacks? Woolrich writes a terrific suspense novel full of creepy night scenes and gains full marks for the horrible sense of foreboding whenever a young woman ventures out alone. For those of us that would like a bit more mystery and clues to follow up, there is a bit of a let-down. The one tiny "clue" that Manning says he recognized after the fact isn't really displayed fairly. ★★★ for a good, solid suspense novel.
With the press agent and the singer's publicity stunt, this counts for the "Entertainment World" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card and two more Bingos! Only one more square for a full card.
***The book tells us that it takes place in the "third largest city south of the Panama Canal." As far as I can tell in my attempts to track that kind of info down for South America in the 1940s, that city is probably in Brazil. That's what I'm claiming for my entry in the Travel the World Challenge.
Spoiler Begins Here
In 1943, the book was adapted for film as The Leopard Man. While I think this story would make an excellent suspense thriller onscreen, I must say the change in title and the theatrical trailer completely give the plot away. There is definitely no mystery about what the killer really is in the movie version. I haven't seen the film, but I do plan to add it to my TBW (To Be Watched) list....