Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich
Originally published 1943
Ballantine, 1st printing, 1982
Genre: roman noir
Synopsis & Review: Alberta Murray’s husband calls her “Angel Face,” or he did. He just calls her Alberta now. She’s caught a few lies from him, too, and seen him with another woman’s powder compact. And then one day his other suit is missing. And Alberta finds his bag packed and ready to go. Instead of sinking into misery at his defection, however, Alberta suits up and goes to confront The Other Woman—only to find her dead, smothered in her boudoir, with only a matchbook cover to hint that someone else had been there. Returning home, she tries to call her husband, to warn him away from the murder scene, but is too late. The circumstances all point to Murray as the killer, and he is convicted on that circumstantial evidence, and sentenced to the chair. Convinced of his innocence, Alberta begins searching The Other Woman’s acquaintance for a name that matches that on the matchbook cover she found, a search that will take her all over New York City. In her pursuit of the killer, Alberta will travel the city’s seedy underbelly, visiting the Bowery’s flophouses, seeing firsthand the sordid world of narcotics, even working as a showgirl in a mobster-owned club. None of the lives she insinuates herself into will be the same once she’s done with them, and as Alberta hunts, leaving shattered lives in her wake, so too does she change, into something rich and strange. One of my favorite Woolrich stories was the long out of print “Murder in Wax,” in large part due to the moral ambiguity of said story’s Angel Face, a most unreliable narratrix. I was delighted that The Black Angel reprised and fleshed out the “Murder in Wax” plot. Angel Face was one of Woolrich’s earliest Avenging Angels, first seeing print in 1935 in “Murder in Wax;” his first novel in the so-called Black Series, The Bride Wore Black featured one again with great success as Julie Killeen. The Black Angel (and “Murder in Wax”) reverses the scenario of The Bride Wore Black, however, with the Avenging Angel as narrator. Now the reader is privy to her thoughts and motivations, and will be sympathetic to a woman protecting her love at all costs. Alberta also differs from Julie Killeen in that, though she destroys each man she investigates, it is almost inadvertent. She only seeks the one killer; everyone else suffers collateral damage—though that does not leave them any less ruined.
As a Race the Clock novel, The Black Angel seems almost leisurely, particularly when compared to the short story, which constantly refers to its deadline and maintains a harried pace. Not that the novel is any less suspenseful for it, most notably in the two episodes exploring realms foreign to Alberta: the following Marty’s trail into the Bowery, and on Mordaunt’s journey through the cafeterias, bars, and dancehalls haunted by buyers of narcotics. New York is a city of menace, of haunting, mindless malevolence, and Woolrich’s skills are at their best here as he describes the various refuges of the lost and dehumanized.
More enthralling than Alberta’s quest to prove her husband’s innocence (for after all, the guy seems to be a philandering jerk) are the changes Alberta undergoes as she further compromises herself for his sake. Each episode finds her degraded in some new way, sinking her under the weight of her love and fidelity for a certifiable louse—that is, if she isn’t killed first. Woolrich never shies from violence, and his novel is no exception; once she begins the hunt, at all times save one Alberta is in imminent danger, as she faces down the desperate or the criminal. In the tradition of hard-boiled fiction, she passes out, awakening again reborn in the sleazy underworld as a criminal, and ready to continue her quest. By the end, there is nothing she will stop at in order to save the man she loves, regardless of his innocence.
Though it differs considerably from the O. Henry ending in “Murder in Wax,” I found The Black Angel’s ending bitterly haunting, with two of Woolrich’s most sympathetic lovers piteously caught in a mess of their own making. The final scene is one of his most poignant, for the despairing can still reason and understand while they suffer, unlike poor Johnny Marr in Rendezvous in Black. I was not expecting to like it as much as I did, since I already so enjoyed the short story, but it is now definitely one of my favorite Woolriches. If I hadn’t been interrupted by Eli’s birthday, having picked the novel up very late Thursday night, I would have finished it in one go.
Cover: Another Ballantine, it features a low-quality inset depicting Alberta on the streets of New York. It’s completely uninteresting.
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 went in. That bated breathlessness. I went into many places after that, but never again did that same thing happen that same 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 to 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.
14 May – 16 May