One of the things that struck me as I got into the works of Freeman Wills Crofts is how, from book to book, he always finds a way to subtly alter the nature of the plot he is writing so that he never covers the exact same ground twice. This was evidently not so much of a concern for Cornell Woolrich, who could so readily imagine so many nightmarish possibilities bristling from any setup that he often had to use the same core idea more than once just to explore the principles that struck him. ‘All At Once, No Alice’ (1937) shares a sizeable chunk of DNA with the novel Phantom Lady (1942), and today’s read Rendezvous in Black (1948) harks back to Woolrich’s criminous debut, The Bride Wore Black (1940).
Young Johnny Marr and his darling Dorothy are deeply in love and intending to spend the rest of their days together; then tragedy strikes Dorothy down in the opening chapter and Johnny is transformed in his loss into the unstoppable agent of vengeance upon those responsible for her death. That’s…it. The plot revolves around a man seeking revenge upon those who have taken away the woman he loves, and through a series of almost short story-esque vignettes we see from various perspectives — the victim, the survivor, the disinterested looker-on, Johnny himself — as Johnny finagles his way into the lives of his targets and executes those he has ear-marked for destruction.
This is, you’re quite right, the essential plot of The Bride Wore Black, with a simple gender-switch meaning that this time a male avenger is visiting himself upon female targets, occasionally by simply seducing them and thus investing certain passages with a horrible sense of the evil that is coming:
“Not a care in the world,” someone said. “I love to see a young couple enjoy themselves like that, while they can. They’ve got plenty of time for heartaches later.”
On the other side, we have the unprepossessing policeman MacLain Cameron who, much like Lew Wagner in Bride, is the only one to suspect murder at first, and then the only one to see a link between different murders and eventually convince his superiors that something far from the usual is going on even if he cannot say what:
“Just answer me two questions,” Cameron said. “How long did she suffer?”
“Ten seconds. Maybe twenty. Just at the end.”
“How long did he suffer?”
“Weeks, I guess. Rubin said so. Weeks of slow torture.”
Cameron spread his hands. “Which one of them was he really punishing?”
“This,” said the chief dismally, “is something new.”
Each vignette represents such a change of style and focus that it might be possible to overlook how brilliantly constructed they are individually. Woolrich has a real talent for bringing you into the lives and emotions of the people he portrays — a good host does not allow a lady to remain unaccompanied at his party, an Army C.O. is brought to life beautifully in a single short paragraph, the sections from Martine Jensen’s compromised perspective are agonisingly tense — so that when he completely flips tones and focus with each new chapter you’re at once wrong-footed and completely comfortable in an entirely new milieu and argot. Little moments are huge for how much they tell you, like Cameron struggling with a cigarette lighter or the thunderbolt of Hugh Strickland’s gloves, and the narrative positively shines for every glittering moment like these sprinkled liberally throughout.
And yet, for all his magnificent utilisation of suspense and exquisite prose (“When a man is awaiting death, he can flee to the ends of the earth; for he knows what death is. God gave him that knowledge.”), I’m going to suggest that this novel is barely really criminous at all. Sure, it contains a killer hunting down targets and eliminating them, and a policeman working intelligently (the ageing of the photograph is actually pretty good stuff) and grinding exceeding small to catch him, and the reader is encouraged to see both the sense and the perverted wrongness in the core scheme while not explicitly understanding how things came about until late on (though, as with Bride, you can figure out the highlights just by paying attention). There’s intelligent detection on both sides, some well-worked murder schemes, and a showdown where everything comes to a head…but I’m not sure that this book is about the crimes in the way that Bride was.
No, I’d suggest that Rendezvous in Black is actually about love: about who we love, and why and how we love them, and about how love can motivate some of the purest and most wonderful aspects of our lives and yet can also be responsible for some of the darkest corners of the human mind. Each vignette, each couple and family we encounter, has experienced love in a different way: through the security of long and happy marriage, through the excitement of a new infatuation, through loving their children more than their spouse, through solace in the arms of someone else, enforced through proximity or broken by distance, each section is really about the power of love in these lives, and how it has both strengthened and weakened those swept up in its thrall. It will tell you more about the human capacity for genuine, life-altering love than any thousand Oscar-bait movies combined, and do so while sweeping you along in wonderfully propulsive arms, and in this regard can be viewed as an absolute triumph.
I can fault it only in that someone who fills your heart with so much love should then shatter it irreparably, and for me this doesn’t devastate in the final stages as The Bride Wore Black and Phantom Lady did. The ending is good and fitting and right, but perhaps Woolrich was too caught up in the vicissitudes of shared human experience and had already exhausted himself by the time he reached the end. Maybe I was spoiled by those early, staggering reads and should embrace Woolrich’s Croftsian desire to take something old and show it in a new light…but, I dunno, it feels like this was one choice away from being another masterpiece and…well, I can’t help but wonder what might have been. One thing’s for sure, though: Woolrich is a magnificent talent who deserves praise for the waking nightmares he invoked on the page; rarely has darkness been so seductive.
Ben @ The Green Capsule: Five short stories bookended by epilogue and prologue make Rendezvous in Black a whirlwind of a read. It’s breathless, without any opportunity for the rote footwork of investigation to set in. I’ll be evangelizing this one going forward, and I’ll start with you: go out and get this book
Cornell Woolrich on The Invisible Event
Short story collections: