Past Jim has a lot to answer for — this haircut, for one, or that fact that I cannot forget the embarrassment of 11:48am on 4th June 1997 — but my current frustration with him is how easily and summarily he dismissed the writing of Cornell Woolrich after reading the Nightwebs (1971) collection as part of the Orion Crime Masterworks series. Had Past Jim possessed a little more discernment (or, dare I say it, maturity), I could have been loving Woolrich’s work for the last two decades instead of coming to it so late. Yes, I got here eventually, via some short stories, some novellas, and a couple of American Mystery Classics reissues, but what is life without something to lament?
The Bride Wore Black (1940) marks, I believe, Woolrich’s first foray into novel-length criminous endeavours. The setup is simplicity itself — a woman researches the backgrounds of five men in turn, inveigles her way onto their lives, kills them, and a detective must figure out the common link between these murders — and perhaps the cleverest part of this wonderful book is that Woolrich doesn’t seek to generate mystery when none exists. Even a moderately inattentive reader will figure out the fundamental principle almost immediately (the title is a big clue…), and this inverted framing is among the most brilliant decisions in a book that positively overflows with brilliance. You’re always told just enough to fill in the gaps, and yet Woolrich simultaneously generates some magnificent suspense by recapping things you’ve already seen (it’s hard to describe without sounding tedious)…it’s a difficult balance, and executed with exemplary aplomb.
With the structure’s familiarity being part of the appeal — to which the ad-libbed murder methods add a huge amount — Woolrich buys himself a lot of space to introduce finely etched characters and slightly off-centre settings that delight for their variety. The “little dab of foreshortened humanity that was Cookie”, the six year-old from whose perspective the third murder opens, is a triumph of realisation and can be added to the few believable children in Golden Age crime fiction, and his behaviour as the murder scheme unfolds around him is the perfect counter-point to the suspense the reader feels itching up their arms. The justification given to his father, the way Cookie reacts, the explanation offered to explain this…never has a scene of cosy domesticity so bridled with horrible, wonderful unease.
Equally, the gathering of artists in the fourth murder forms a background which feels solidly 20 years too prescient: the “intense young man reciting some of his own blank verse” and latching on to the beautiful audience of our killer, the fact that someone turns up with “some sort of stringed instrument” because “as bohemians they evidently wanted no part of mechanical music”…every line, every shade is expertly picked and dropped in. Just as with Miriam, who cleans the rooms in a residential hotel not in numerical order but instead using “a sort of mystic algebra known only to the innermost workings of her mind” who upon meeting our bride “knew at a glance that she did not live in the hotel, and she rose accordingly in Miriam’s esteem”. Starting over every time, with a new milieu, a new set of characters, a new world to sell to us in the minimum possible space, rather than running a series of parallel subplots, I’ve only ever seen done this brilliantly in The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester — and that’s high praise, I promise you.
Woolrich had plenty of experience turning out short stories for the pulps even at this early stage, and it shows — not just in that brevity of setup and execution, but in turns of phrase that revel in absurdist imagery…
Her attitude shrivelled him like a June bug in a match flame. He rammed his hands into his pockets with force enough to drive them in almost up to his elbows.
[T]here were a few who came just…because it was an art exhibition. They were the usual types who never missed an art exhibition, no matter whose, no matter where. A scattering of the dilettantes, or, as they would have preferred to be known, the cognoscenti, were drifting superciliously around, simply to have something to chatter about over their next party cocktails.
…and terrified humanity:
“You deal in arrests, to you it’s nothing. You can’t possibly know what goes through you, when you’re in your room, secure and contented and at peace with the world one minute, and the next someone suddenly comes for you to take you away. Takes you down through the building you live in, in front of everybody, takes you through the streets—and when they get you there you find out you’re supposed to have—to have murdered a man!”
There are here the archetypes of Noir in the fatal attraction of our murderous bride (not least the studied femme fatale effect with which she banishes the irritating Corey from the balcony early on — what a woman!), in the collage of scenes as detective Lew Wanger first investigates these murders that don’t seem like murder and tries to convince his fellow officers that a link exists despite such varied means, in the inexorable tightening of the various traps the plot lays out ahead of time for people to fall into. And yet there’s so much more here than the simple affectation and pose which can render that genre so cold (the only really Chandleresque moment coming at the expense of a rookie patrolman). If you can read the scene in which our, er, heroine(?) faces the ruination of her plans “seeing in her mind’s eye a sharp little paint-scraping knife…that was somewhere about the place” without your heart in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. Woolrich’s art is to make these people people; all of them, with no judgements and no exceptions.
Much could be, and doubtless has been, written about the reliance on coincidence in Woolrich’s work, and that undoubtedly raises its head here. Much could be, and shouldn’t be, written about the hoot of sheer delight I let out when the dominoes of the final section fell and I was left looking at the shape of his design. If a book can hit me as hard as this did twice in its closing stages, especially having been so darned entertaining in getting to those punches, I’m willing to let anything pass. This book is a masterpiece; if you haven’t bought it already, I cannot recommend it too highly; I’ll add the name Cornell Woolrich to that of Craig Rice on the list of authors the American Mystery Classics have opened my eyes to, and shall watch avidly for more to come from either of them.
Cullen Gallagher @ Pulp Serenade: By reversing the typical noir paradigm and having the femme fatale be the main character, Woolrich not only makes us sympathize with a character who is often placed in the role of the villain, but he also creates a story in which there is no place for heroes. We turn the pages not with anticipation of dread or moral outrage, but with empathy.
Curtis @ The Passing Tramp: The suspense really is terrific. Each section has superb sequences, though my top choice here would be for the middle one, section three, where Julie is determining how she will murder her latest would-be victim, Moran, who you really don’t want to see killed. The last section is almost like one of those British drawing room murder plays, it’s that tricky and darkly droll.
Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: We follow the mystery woman’s murderous career as she moves from victim to victim, disappearing like a phantom once the deed has been achieved. I found that as she goes on each death becomes tenser and more sinister… It is also in the later deaths that we see the story teasing the reader, throwing up possible means of death, only to show they are not going to be used, only to then reveal the method the murderer has decided to adopt.
Cornell Woolrich on The Invisible Event
Short story collections: