90 of 93 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
At last! "Rendezvous in Black," the greatest suspense novel from the greatest suspense writer of all time, Cornell Woolrich, is back in print in a handsome trade paperback edition. Do not pass up this chance to encounter one of the most startling, emotionally rattling, and beautifully written pieces of noir in American literature. "Rendezvous in Black" is nothing short of a masterpiece: strange, horrifying, sometimes illogical, stark, achingly poetic, and ultimately devastating.
Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) was the father of noir. Originally an author of `disaffected youth' novels in the jazz era, Woolrich turned to suspense and mystery stories for the pulp magazines in the mid-thirties. In 1940 he wrote the novel "The Bride Wore Black," kicking off a hugely creative period in which he wrote eleven novels (sometimes under the pseudonyms William Irish or George Hopely) between 1940 and 1948, concluding with "I Married a Dead Man" (available in the compilation "Crime Novels: American Noir of the 30s and 40s" and also one of his best works). Woolrich then entered a long phase of writer's block, turning out a few more novels and stories before he died an alcoholic recluse. His work is deeply concerned with doom and fate, people trapped in an uncaring world, the slow loss of love, and the inevitability of death. Through it all flows his incredible sense of pacing -- he can wring you dry with "races against the clock" that make your chest pound like race car piston -- and his stunning word magic that can break your heart with just a sentence.
"Rendezvous in Black" is the second-to-last novel of his major period, and it seems to return to the plot of "The Bride Wore Black"...at least on the surface. In "The Bride Wore Black," a woman named Julie Kileen loses her husband to a bizarre accident on their wedding day. Julie then goes on a quest to track down the five men she believes are responsible for the accident, and kill them one by one after inserting herself into their lives. "Rendezvous in Black" reverses the sexes, and adds an extra twist. Johnny Marr, an anonymous, average young man, loses his fiancee a few days before their marriage in a weird, bolt-from-the-blue accident (the perfect Woolrich example of the random cruelty of the universe). Marr eventually snaps, and discovers the identities of the men he feels are responsible for the accident. He then seeks to slowly, meticulously track down each one, discover who the most important woman in the man's life is (daughter, wife, protege), and kill her, so that man will forever know the pain that he feels.
It's a grim, frightening premise. Woolrich repeats the episodic structure of "Bride": after the opening chapter introducing the main character and his quest, each chapter after that switches to the P.O.V. of the next person on Marr's `hit list.' But "Rendezvous" isn't just a rehash of "Bride." As Woolrich's biographer, Francis M. Nevins, pointed out, it is "Bride" as it should have been, written with greater emotional involvement and deeper horror and suspense. It seems as if Woolrich was trying to correct the flaws of the earlier novel.
Correct them he does: "Rendezvous in Black" opens with a long, stunning chapter, "Parting," that captures perfectly the horror of losing a loved one, and then contains one of best portraits I've ever read of a descent into insanity. It's one of Woolrich's best sustained pieces of emotional writing. Each chapter after that, Woolrich tortures us with the suspense as we meet the next target of Marr's horrid quest. Woolrich's use of suspense here is brilliant: as in Hitchcock, we know WHAT will happen, but never WHEN, HOW, or even WHO (which woman in the man's life is Marr's target?). Since we don't know what Marr looks like or what fake name he is using, we aren't even sure which man in the chapter is actually the killer! Meanwhile, the police start to string things together, and with each chapter, Woolrich screws down the suspense tighter and tighter. The second to last chapter is a massive race against death that will probably have you locked in a room reading with sweaty, shaking hands. Even though there are logic flaws in the story the size meteor craters (this is Woolrich's way of showing how universe's basic illogic and unfairness), you won't notice them. Woolrich holds you in an unbreakable spell.
Read this book. It is an American classic. You will never forget its power. And you'll encourage the publication of more Woolrich classics. Look forward to re-prints of "Black Alibi" and "Night Has a Thousand Eyes." When you discover Cornell Woolrich, you will never be the same again.
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
How could anyone not love Cornell Woolrich? He ranks right up there with James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler as one of the godfathers of pitch-black noir. Unfortunately, Woolrich's voluminous short stories and his many novels for the most part remain out of print. No excuse exists to merit such blatant disrespect. Happily, several Woolrich works have begun to reemerge to the delight of noir fans. For example, Woolrich biographer and all around noir aficionado Frances M. Nevins edited a collection of fourteen delightfully bleak stories in the recent "Night & Fear." Now we have "Rendezvous in Black" thanks to the Modern Library publishing house. We can only hope that other novellas head to store shelves soon, specifically "The Bride Wore Black" and "Night Has A Thousand Eyes." But even more fascinating than his stories is the author's life. Cornell Woolrich lived from one black depression to another. He worshipped his mother, drank incessantly, and kept his true sexuality repressed. It was an overriding fear of his mortality and the cruel randomness of the world around him, however, which fueled his desolate visions. Sad to say, but Woolrich's miseries have given generations of fans something to sing about ever since.
"Rendezvous in Black" excels as an archetype of white knuckled, totter on the edge of your seat noir, a story even better than the author's phenomenal and oft copied "I Married a Dead Man." This yarn concerns the activities of one Johnny Marr, an ecstatic young man set to marry the love of his life. When his girl, Dorothy, perishes in a freak accident involving a bottle dropped from a low flying plane, Marr's sanity melts away. The desolate young lover discovers the names of five men who bear the blame for the tragedy that destroyed his life, and he promptly embarks on a mission to wreak bloody revenge on these strangers. Marr will go after the people these men love the most in life, using any tricks he can muster in an effort to avenge his shattered life. Woolrich makes sure the reader understands exactly how far gone Marr is in the first chapter, as we see the young man continue to turn up at the couple's favorite meeting place night after night, waiting desperately for a woman who will never show up. Marr's activities assume a mindless repetition, an unremitting yet senseless hope that Dorothy will eventually appear, thus setting the tone for his single minded, relentless revenge plots later on.
A rendezvous for each of Marr's enemies, five in all, unfold with cold, methodical precision. The first rendezvous achieves the least suspense of the five, a short chapter serving as a post-mortem of Marr's first act of revenge. It is here we learn how Marr will attack his enemies (through important women in their lives), and meet the cop, Detective Cameron, who takes on the case. The second rendezvous will set your nerves on edge as an illicit affair leads to disastrous consequences, including a vengeance seeking wife and a walk to the electric chair, for the second man on Johnny's list. In the third rendezvous, a wedge driven between a man and his wife results in a murder and a suicide. As the fourth act unfolds, a conceited, secretive daughter discovers the hard way that she should have listened to Detective Cameron and her parents. The denouement, the fifth rendezvous, involves that last man on the list and his childhood love. It also tries to show that nothing, neither running to the ends of the earth nor the best laid plans, will deter fate. If you feel like you've been chewed up and spit out by the time you reach the end of the book, don't fret. This reaction is normal when reading Cornell Woolrich. It is, in fact, exactly what you want to feel.
The strength of "Rendezvous in Black" comes not from its staccato prose and descriptive metaphors, although these elements do play a large part in the success of the novel, but in Woolrich's bleak cosmology built on an unholy trinity of love turned bad, paranoia, and crushing fate. The accident that claims Dorothy, a bottle falling from the heavens, and the subsequent disasters visited upon those individuals Marr deems responsible, displays the writer's belief in a unsystematic, frequently cruel world where events unfold with ruthless certainty. Love is a good thing, or can be a good thing, but too often it morphs into something that can fuel neverending hostility and destruction. Richard Dooling, the author of the introduction to this edition of the novel, does an excellent job explicating the numerous themes in Woolrich's writings, a better job than I could possibly hope to do in a short review. But you don't need really need an introduction to see that the mindset behind the book is seriously depressing.
The number of continuity errors, implausible events, and other mistakes in "Rendezvous in Black" leap off the page. I find it impossible to believe someone could drop a bottle out of an airplane as late the 1940s, for example. Too, I kept wondering whether Johnny Marr ever aged, as a considerable period of time passes from Dorothy's demise to the end of the book. How could Johnny possibly have wooed the teenaged Madeleine if he was in his late twenties? And considering Woolrich describes Detective Cameron as a bumbler, the cop possesses a tenacity that eventually pays off in the end. None of these problems takes anything away from the sheer power of the novel. There were times I literally felt like I couldn't stand the tension anymore, and any book that can cause that sort of sensation deserves attention. If you love noir, you need to read this one immediately.