Rendezvous in Black: Cornell Woolrich

“For me, she thought wryly, but without complaint, all life is a tunnel; a long, never-ending tunnel, which has no other end.”

Cornell Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black is a relentlessly bleak, cold, dark tale of revenge. Its powerful, ceaseless bleakness resides in a killer’s uncompromising mission: revenge yes, but it’s revenge involving innocents and driven by complete mercilessness.

It’s May the 31st, and Johnny Marr is waiting outside of a drugstore in the town square, as he does every night, for his long-time girlfriend Dorothy. Dorothy and Johnny have been in love since the ages of 7 and 8; they’ve always been a couple, and they cannot imagine a world in which the other does not exist. Lack of money led to them putting off their wedding for years, but now the date is planned. It will be a June wedding:

They would have been married long ago; last June, the June before, the very first June that he was a man and she was grown up girl. Why hadn’t they? What’s the one thing that always interferes, more than any other? Money. First no job at all. Then a job so small it wasn’t even big enough for one, let alone for two. 

The work-related death of Johnny Marr’s father led to a small pay-off from the railroad. It’s not much money and by the time the lawyer takes almost half, it’s even less, but it’s still enough for Johnny and Dorothy to set a date.

The book’s first pages establish several main themes: there’s the unexpected consequences of murder and how one person’s callous indifference ricochets throughout the universe. The idea of wasted time is another theme which is juxtaposed, in intriguing contrast, with timelessness. Other characters in the book struggle with the fact that they’ve ‘wasted’ time, and also time plays a huge role in the crimes. Another main theme is the powerless of the individual when faced with Big Business or dazzling wealth. The small man will always stay small and powerless because that’s the way the world is organised. Money rises up; it doesn’t trickle down. The fact that Johnny’s father was killed through negligence, has allowed a few thousand to come Johnny’s way. Yes the money was almost split 50:50 with the lawyer, but to Johnny, the money is a miracle. Finally, Johnny, an “average” man, an underdog, has managed to move ahead a little in the world and finally he can marry Dorothy.

But in this noir novel, fate intervenes and snatches Dorothy away in a freak accident. At first Johnny just hangs around in the town square, still waiting for Dorothy. A little kindness is occasionally shown to Johnny but he becomes a curiosity and then a spectacle. Finally a cop “brutally” tells Johnny to move on, and with a few pokes of the nightstick, Johnny ambles off:

Maybe the cop should have let him stand there, should have let him alone. He hadn’t been hurting anybody , until then.  

Johnny Marr, driven insane by grief, assumes various identities and finds out who is ‘responsible’ (in his mind) for Dorothy’s death. He draws up a death list. On May 31st of each year, one by one, a man whose name is on the list will lose the woman he loves the most: a wife, a mistress, a girlfriend, a daughter … it doesn’t matter to Johnny who the victims are as long as their deaths causes irreparable damage to the men left behind: they will feel the same pain that he endures.

Detective Cameron, another unassuming, almost invisible man, realizes that something isn’t right when the first death occurs. By the third, he knows he’s on the trail of a maniac who has a death list. He doesn’t know the identity of the killer; the only thing he knows for certain is that the next death will occur on the 31st.

Money only has power over the sane mind. Maniacs don’t have motives. I could call it revenge, but even that wouldn’t be correct, because where the injury has been unintentional or unknowing, revenge can be reasoned with, turned aside. About the closest I can get to it would be a revenge-mania.

Woolrich eases us into the darkness easily at first. The first murder is fait accompli, and the second murder with its unexpected consequences form their own sort of rough justice. But the subsequent crimes are malicious, evil and enacted with maximum cruelty. I’m not talking gore here–I’m talking about cold, calculated vicious retribution calculated to cause maximum suffering. The novel is particularly bleak when considering that 5 people who had nothing to do with Dorothy’s death  but who are connected with 5 men (ONE of whom MAY be responsible) will pay the ultimate price. Unlike Fate, Marr’s retribution isn’t random; it’s directed and deliberate, forming its own nihilistic ball of hate, taking aim at innocents. Nonetheless, the cosmic unfairness of Johnny’s selection and relentless pursuit mirrors Fate in a distorted, warped way.

My Modern Library copy includes a bio of Woolrich as well as a brief section describing the relationship Woolrich had with a woman that mirrors Marr’s (without all the murders):

A “sense of isolation, of pinpointed and transfixed helplessness under the stars, of being left alone, unheard, and unaided to face some final fated darkness and engulfment slowly advancing across the years towards me .. that has hung over me all my life.”

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Woolrich Cornell

12 responses to “Rendezvous in Black: Cornell Woolrich

  1. Isn’t that book cover from The Big Combo?
    They had a little festival of Woolrich noir films at Columbia University recently, but the double bill I saw was decidedly underwhelming. I liked reading him much more. This goes on my list

    https://lenfest.arts.columbia.edu/events/deadline-dawn-and-nightmare-double-feature

  2. Diggin’ this book 🤓😈!

  3. Okay, so, did YOU get the fact that his girl was beaned by a bottle from the plane? I didn’t until the end when it was spelled out. I thought she was mugged, and he was crazy, and that he associated her death with the plane. I don’t think I have been on a plane with windows that you can open since I flew to Catalina with my uncle when I was twelve or so.

    It didn’t make much difference to me: the “pleasure” of the novel is Johnny’s ghoulish revenge quest, and his obsessional state. Okay, so he HAD a “logical” reason…I tend to be careless with those details when I read this stuff.

    I went back to read the section when he comes on her body, and CW doesn’t explicitly say anything about the instrument of her death. He does imply it, but that went past me. Chalk it up to my jet-age laziness…

    This book was really fun. Is The Bride Wore Black as good?

  4. It’s been a few years since I read it. My impression was that it wasn’t quite as good as this.
    Yes I got the bottle but I had to reread bits. At first I thought she’s been in a hit and run or something similar.

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