“The Bride Wore Black” by Cornell Woolrich

Isn’t that a great cover?

Well, I started this blog a month ago to review Golden Age detective fiction and here I am four books in, and I’ve pivoted to noir. I suppose there is an argument to be made for whether or not Cornell Woolrich should be considered a Golden Age author or a more noirish, hard-boiled one. His writing style and characterizations are much more detailed and darker as is consistent with noir writing, but his plotting is pure mystery. Then again, he relies much on coincidence and there’s no way that one could figure out the “solution”, so to say, of The Bride Wore Black. Nonetheless it is an extremely well-written mystery thriller, and one of the most suspenseful and emotional mysteries I’ve ever read.

The Bride Wore Black follows an unconventional plot structure, which is definitely one of its best aspects. We start in part one, titled “Bliss”, with an introductory chapter titled “The Woman”. It follows a girl only named Julie as she seems to run away from her city home all the way to Chicago, only to get off very early on her train and get a hostel room. She has five pieces of paper, chooses one, and burns them all. Chapter two, “Bliss”, follows Mr. Ken Bliss, man-about-town about to retire that title in favor of marriage. He and his friend Corey prepare for his engagement party, with Bliss wary of a mysterious woman who has called on him at his apartment. The two finally meet at the party, where she tries to remind him of some past event before pushing him off a balcony. Cue to chapter three, “Postmortem on Bliss”, which follows Detective Lew Wanger through his attempts to figure out who the woman was, to no avail. Rinse and repeat another four times. Will Wanger figure out who this woman is and why she is killing seemingly random men before she completes her carnage?

As I said, the structure of this novel is one of its greatest strengths. It’s like reading an interconnected set of short stories, with each new story upping the tension as the murderess singles out another target and as you get closer to whatever ending is awaiting us. This was Woolrich’s first novel after years of short story writing, and it’s amazing to see how he used his knowledge of writing in the short form to create such a suspenseful novel. As the reader is introduced to a new set of characters and a new setting each time the sense of approaching fate settles again, knowing exactly who will become the next victim and hoping against everything that it will be different. And once the deed is done, watching as Wanger tries to fit the pieces together. The fifth and final section is subtitled “The Last One”, and in this part the reader becomes more agitated about whether or not the woman will be apprehended, as this is the closest Wanger will come to catching his killer. It’s an exhilarating experience.

The way Woolrich paints those characters in each section is to be applauded. He doesn’t beat around the bush, just showing us what the reader needs to know about each character, and yet he still does it in such a way that the reader becomes immediately involved with these new people, feeling their feelings and dreading the impact that the death of one of them will have on the rest, even if that reaction isn’t shown. These are characters of diverse backgrounds – men-about-town, bums, suburban families, schoolteachers, schoolgirls, recluses, artists, dilettantes, and police. Woolrich had to learn how to give quick characterization in his short stories, and he carries that ability to The Bride Wore Black with ease and skill. It especially works because of the format.

It’s hard not to get engrossed in this whydunit. As the plot progresses the mystery heightens. It’s obvious from the start that this is a woman, named Julie, who is committing the murders – no whodunit aspect to be seen. But through each ingenious murder method, each investigation, and each re-acclamation to setting, there seem to be more subtle clues as to what is truly going on. It’s not fair-play by any means, but it doesn’t need to be; that’s not what the book is about. There are small discoveries which Wanger makes that seem to be giant turns in the case. One line of investigation in the third part left me on edge the whole time. When a character from a previous part appears, it’s a revelation. And the constant twists of the final chapters are truly wild – I’m not quite too sure that I’ve read a denouement with that many plot twists before. The ending also carries a sense of being unable to change fate – things seem unfair, and there are some characters you end up feeling really bad for; but the damage is done, lives have been altered, and the past cannot be changed. What starts out as a suspenseful novel ends as a slightly depressing treatise on fate and trying to change (or avenge) the past – perhaps, having been a failed Jazz Age writer in the 1920’s, Woolrich was trying to echo the themes of The Great Gatsby.

The Bride Wore Black is definitely a unique and different kind of mystery. No paths of logic for the reader to follow, and none of the usual mysterious aspects. But anybody who reads it will be taken along for an unforgettable ride through many sides of 1930’s city life, following one woman through many different disguises and one detective trying to pick up the pieces of her crimes. Woolrich was definitely a master of the thriller, and I’m excited to read more of his work, including Deadline at Dawn which will be released this summer by American Mystery Classics, which also released the beautiful reprint of The Bride Wore Black which I read.

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