Rendezvous in Black by Cornell Woolrich
Originally published 1948
Ballantine, 1st printing, 1982
Genre: roman noir
Synopsis & Review: A quiet night in a small Midwestern town. A boy and girl in love, mere weeks before their wedding. And a terrible freak accident. Without his girl, Johnny Marr is adrift in an ocean of uncaring strangers, passively waiting for her return. When pushed out of his intertia, however, Johnny Marr vows to them pay. The people responsible for the death of his girl will suffer along with him, by losing the people they most love.
A fascinating reprisal of Woolrich’s Avenging Angel theme, Rendezvous in Black casts a male in the role occupied by Julie Killeen in The Bride Wore Black, and demonstrates his mastery of the genre. This is one of his best, with a relentless pace that makes it difficult–if not impossible–to put down. Most startling and fascinating is Johnny Marr’s transformation from piteous victim into monstrous golem. Readers will experience a shocking and disorienting emotional 180, and find themselves rooting against Johnny and for the detective Cameron, hoping against hope that just one of Johnny’s innocent victims will survive. Tension builds gradually from a dead start in the pathos of Johnny’s personal tragedy. The first interlude, or rendezvous sees no Johnny, but the introduction of Cameron. We even come into it after the death, which appears entirely accidental. The second rendezvous, while interesting in its own right (seeming like the plot to yet another Woolrich story), also fulfills our expectations, with a fairly ugly perpetrator, a sordid situation, and a punishment that seems suited to the crime. And then in the heart-wrenching third rendezvous, Johnny proves himself a sadist, mercilessly tormenting his victims in a cruelly inventive fashion. By the fourth rendezvous, readers are in a fever to know how Johnny will next appear. And the final rendezvous features a knuckle-biting race against the clock in Woolrich’s always excellent style.
Adding to the suspense is the way Johnny assumes a different role in each rendezvous, leaving readers guessing how he’ll appear. As in many of his works, there are plenty of plot holes and too convenient devices, but it all comes together in a riveting suspense story. Woolrich works every last nerve in Rendezvous in Black, and Johnny is terrifying even as an off-stage presence. Which is perhaps one of the novel’s greatest strengths. A highly recommended Woolrich.
Cover: I’m biased, for I’ve been collecting the Ballantine re-issues since high school. I like the touch of having Woolrich’s name in neon on every cover, as well as the black box format. The inset illustration features a faceless man at a gravesite, a fine example of the story, but one flaw of the Ballantine covers is their faulty illustration placement; it is often crooked, or off-center.
For she was sitting as if her head were bowed with grief; as if crushed by an affliction that did not cry out or make a scene. Her elbow wa son the table beside her, and her hand was on her face, concealing her eyes, in fact sheltering from view all the upper part of her face. But he could see the corner of her mouth, from where he stood; it peered out. And though the constricting furrow that pulled the edge of her mouth ever so slightly awry, might have seemed to them a grimace of grief, he knew better than that what it was, for he’d seen it before this. It was a fixed, unholy smirk of ultimate vindication. The stencil of a triumph that is bitter, but savory just the same. The ghost smile of an exquisite revenge.
13 May – 14 May