“Death is man’s greatest gift from Nature.”
Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) began his writing career producing Jazz age novels along the lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but by 1934, in debt and unable to sell his work, he began to focus on the crime genre. Using pseudonyms, he wrote a vast number of stories and novellas for various pulp magazines before embarking on his Black Series: The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), Black Alibi (1942), The Black Angel (1943), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948). An impressive number of films have been based on his work, including a film version of The Black Angel starring one of my personal favourites, Dan Duryea. Woolrich was not a fan of the film as it was greatly altered from the source material. Not only is Woolrich a major contributor to film noir, but he is also considered one of the greatest American crime writers of his period. Lucky for us he gave up on the F. Scott Fitzgerald theme.
The story begins with 22-year-old narrator, Alberta Murray, rummaging through the cupboards only to discover that a number of items belonging to her husband, Kirk, are missing. She finds his valise locked and heavy, and jumps to the conclusion that he’s packed his bag and intends to leave her. This is not a decision based on hysteria; Alberta has deliberately ignored a number of tell-signs that her husband is having an affair. The most notable of these is a gold compact she discovered in a pocket. It was engraved to “Mia,” and a little detective work behind the scenes led Alberta to believe that the Mia who owned the compact was also the same Mia, “who looked good to stay away from,” employed by a nightclub. More detective work and Alberta tracks down Mia’s address and what appears to be a very tacky love nest with a turquoise colour scheme and monograms everywhere you look.
A few hours later, Alberta’s husband is arrested for a murder that she knows he did not commit, but according to the police, it’s an open-and-shut case. Taking an address book and a clue from the scene of the crime, Alberta decides that if she wants to save her husband from the electric chair she’ll have to do the sleuthing on her own.
The structure of the novel then follows Alberta’s investigation into four names from the address book. These are four men from Mia’s life, and since Mia wasn’t a very nice woman, so it follows that Alberta is going to have to meet lowlifes and crooks on her determined path to the truth. Alberta is called “Angel Face” by her husband which gives us a clue about what she looks like–she’s a stunner, but her beauty is the look of innocence. Underneath that look, however, she’s steel, and even though Alberta is terrified at times by those she encounters, she never once deviates from her plan to investigate the murder until she finds the truth.
The book’s biggest weakness is arguably its basic premise–Alberta’s determination to save her husband–the man who cheated on her, packed his bags and planned to split. Would most women bother with this heel? Isn’t it more plausible that Alberta would say sayonara to her cheating spouse and let Kirk fry? Or does Angel Face also have an Angel Nature? I chalked up Alberta’s decision to save her no-good husband to the idealism of youth, and, after all, Alberta’s initial reaction when she discovers that her husband is cheating is not anger but dismay. Regardless of Alberta’s decision to save Kirk, the man is still a heel and although he’s off stage for most of the book, at one point Alberta visits him in prison, and he makes a last request of her after she insists, against the odds, that he’ll be a free man soon:
He smiled as though he had his doubts. “but in case, in case I don’t, afterward, after it’s over–Angel face, you won’t let anyone else bring you flowers home at night or kick around the coffee, will you? Don’t let anyone else–I know you’re young yet–but that belongs to me.“
Ain’t that sweet? So let me get this straight– ‘Save yourself for me, honey, even though I didn’t do the same for you’….
Woolrich takes us on a tour of both the high and the lows of the city: the seedy bars, the flop houses, the nightclubs, the dope fiends, the mansions of the blue-blood rich–all the way to the lavish penthouse suite of a psychotic gangster. Here’s Alberta in a bar where she meets one of Mia’s earlier victims, the hollowed-out shell of a man.
I’d never been in a Bowery drinking place before. I’d heard the phrase “the lower depths”; I don’t remember where. I think I read it once. This was it now. The lowest depth of all, this side of the grave. There was nothing beyond this, nothing further. Nothing came after it–only death, the river. These were not human beings any more. These were shadows.
And there was one thing more pathetic than themselves, more eloquent of what had become of them. It was the hush that fell when I came in. That bated breathlessness. I went into many places after that, but never again did the same thing happen in just that way. Men in a barroom will often fall silent when a woman comes in. This was not that. This was not admiration or even covetousness. I don’t know what I would call it myself. It was the memory of someone in each man’s past, someone like me, long ago, far away, come back to mind again for a moment, before the memory darkened again and went out-forever. It was life’s last afterglow glancing off the faces of the dead as I brushed by them.
This passage also reflects the idea that while Alberta’s quest is to save her husband, it’s a quest that is, ultimately, a process of experience and maturity for Alberta for she enters a “world of jungle violence and of darkness, of strange hidden deeds in strange hidden places, of sharp-clawed treachery and fanged gratitude, where compunction and conscience are just other words for weakness and used as such.”
There’s one later passage when Alberta notes that gangsters have splashed aftershave on their faces, and she silently marvels that they are just like other men–except they operate without a moral centre. For some reason, that was one of my favourite parts of the book–perhaps because it’s just so simple. Alberta’s nickname may be Angel Face, and while she’s a decent person, when she begins her investigation and penetrates the dark universe of crime and corruption, she becomes The Black Angel–inadvertently bringing death and destruction in her wake and capable of whatever it takes. According to Woolrich’s biographer, Francis M. Nevins Jr, the dark, destructive angel is a recurring motif found in Woolrich’s work–I’m thinking The Bride Wore Black.
The Black Angel’s ending–dark, haunting and extremely troubling–makes this novel something very special in a twisted noir way. There’s a loneliness here in Alberta’s journey to the truth, and that loneliness and isolation seems to be reflected in everyone she meets. For fans of the genre, or for those who haven’t tried Woolrich, this dark tale of the forbidden world of lust, despair and madness perforated by decency and goodness is well worth catching. Moral choices are a turning point for those confronted with the opportunity to commit crime. In Alberta’s case, there’s an inversion of that common scenario, and the moral choices are made when she pledges to find the real murderer. One intriguing, lingering question remains when the book concludes. Will her life ever be so simple and innocent again?….
Review copy from the publisher via Open Road Media.