The Net by Robert M. Coates, 1941
The magic trick:
The phrase: “the night was a net”
Walter, the main character of “The Net,” is unlikeable in pretty much every imaginable way. He is creepy, obsessive, angry, violent, selfish, oblivious, and possibly insane. Other than that, hey, he’s a real nice guy!
Coates builds in a small but crucial strain of sympathy for this devil of a man, and this, for me, was the main takeaway of the story. He writes: “The night was a net, he realized, with its streets and its people walking this way and that along them; what he had to do was to find his way out without disturbing anything or anyone. I love that sentence, particularly “the night was a net” referenced in the story’s title. It’s as if this kind of tragedy could befall anyone. The guilt is stripped away from Walter a little bit. I read the story then not as an indictment of one crazy, selfish man but rather a comment on the perils of modern city life. And that’s quite a trick on Coates’s part.
Farther still, down almost to Hudson, he sighted two others, two men, dark against the light from a shop window on the corner. And now there was a girl clipping quickly along on the opposite sidewalk; it was amazing how silently they all moved, and how easy it was not to notice them in the darkness.