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University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

The Black Curtain

cover image By: Woolrich, Cornell (male)
Publisher: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. (208)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 836: PS3515 .O6455 B53 1941b
Contributor: R. Brandt


Era: 1940s Author as on Cover: Cornell Woolrich Geographic Locale: unidentified city (perhaps New York City) and a village named New Jericho Date of Publication: 1941  |  Original Date: 1941 Setting: urban and rural Motives: murder, adultery

Plot Summary

The novel opens on May 10, 1941, as part of a moldering building falls on a man as he walks along a crowded city street. The blow restores Frank Townsend's memory after three and a half years' amnesia, and he begins the slow process of getting to know his wife again and picking up the threads of his former existence. However, there is a phantom from Townsend's interim identity that is out to destroy him, and soon Townsend becomes obsessed with finding out who and what he was during the lost years. He finds love, hate, and a murder charge waiting for him behind the curtain. (from Pronzini, Bill and Marcia Muller. 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction NY: Arbor House, 1986.

Major Characters

Frank Townsend/Daniel Nearing adult male, medium height, light brown hair, light brown eyes, small blue anchor tattoo on left wrist; businessman/handyman

Bill Diedrich adult male, squat, thick-set, straw colored hair

Alma Diedrich adult female; widow of Harry Diedrich

Harry S. Diedrich adult male

Ruth Dillon nickname "Ruthie", adult female, brown eyes, slim medium height, brown hair, housemaid

Emil Diedrich adult male, paralyzed invalid

Virginia Morrison Townsend adult female, long-limbed, small mouth, Frank Townsend's wife

E.J. Ames adult male, sturdily-built, below medium height, gray eyes, dark brows; police constable



Level of Violence

when Constable Ames first discovers Nearing/Townsend in New York, he chases him and attempts to smash a subway train window with his gun butt. Later, when Townsend's presence at the Diedrich house is discovered, he is attacked by Bill and Alma Diedrich, knocked out and tied up in a chair.


all of the sexual activity is strictly implied. When Townsend reunites with his wife after a 3-year absence, they barely touch each other, let alone engage in any sexual activity. After he meets Ruth Dillon (who is clearly in love with his Dan Nearing identity), they kiss in the dark and spend the night together. However, no other sexual acitvity is described. Harry Diedrich is murdered by his brother and wife. Their motive is never clearly explained. Presumably they wanted him out of the way so that they could be together, implying an adulterous relationship.

Gender Roles

traditional; gender roles do not play a significant part in this novel.


none evident

Alcohol/Drug Abuse


Law Enforcement

E.J. Ames is the police constable of New Jericho, investigating the murder of local resident Harry Diedrich. He trails Dan Nearing, the suspected killer, to New York, where he discovers Frank Townsend and begins following him. It is this fact that causes Townsend to discover his former identity. Ames is called in at the end of the novel by Townsend, and arrests Alma Diedrich for the murder of her fusband. He also fills Townsend in on the details he was unable to discover himself.

Subject Headings

Amnesia/ Murder

Psychological Elements

The "black curtain" of the title is the amnesia that Townsend suffers. He has lost three years of his life, and must slowly and blindly trace the details of his former existence. He knows that someone is out to get him for something he did; he does not know whom he can trust. When he extracts his name and Ruth's name from her, he feels as if "he'd been pulled through a wringer."

Film Adaptations

Street of Chance, Paramount, 1942