The Bride Wore Black (1940) by Cornell Woolrich

Today’s review contains more than one first. This is my first experience of reading a reprint from the American Mystery Classics series, and it is also my first encounter with Woolrich’s work, though I have known about him for a while. Eddie Muller writes the introduction for this reprint and he sums the novel up well:

‘Woolrich was the most noir writer in the mystery genre, as The Bride Wore Black amply proves. It contains all the requisite elements: the obsessive protagonist on a murderous quest, the latticework of dreadful coincidence, the relentless (and sometimes strangely exhilarating) spiral into madness, the denouement that twists the knife an extra turn.’

He also brings up the book’s unusual dedication to a typewriter and “CHULA”. However, I felt Muller’s tone became a bit inappropriate at his juncture:

‘His relentless use of Remington Portable No. NC69411, the incessant pounding and cajoling of its keys, was the most intimate relationship in the poor, lonely bastard’s life.’

I’m not sure if it is cultural thing, or whether it is just a me-specific issue, but I didn’t think it seemed right to describe a writer, in an introduction, as a ‘lonely bastard.’ I found it a bit off putting.

Anyways moving on to The Bride Wore Black. In a nutshell this mystery is centred on a serial killer, a woman hell-bent on revenge. Her motivations for her course of action become clearer the more deaths she accomplishes. Why are her targets only men? Is it men in general she has something against, or is there something particular about these specific men? At times her actions implicate others, though she also seems to ensure no one is wrongfully arrested for any of her crimes. Instead she creates quite the headache for the police adding ever more cases to their unsolved pile. Will they ever be able to track her down?

Overall Thoughts

I have to be honest I did not find the first 20 or so pages of this book particularly engaging. My attention definitely wandered, and it all seemed rather bleak. I even put off continuing the book for a few days, as I feared it would be rather dull and bit of a drudge.

So I was very happily surprised to find that the rest of the book did not meet this negative expectation and instead the plot suddenly became much more interesting.

Initially this is the sort of narrative in which you can’t really be sure where it is going, as just when a particular thread emerges, the text abruptly changes tack and moves on to something else. However, as these changes continue a pattern begins to formulate.

We follow the mystery woman’s murderous career as she moves from victim to victim, disappearing like a phantom once the deed has been achieved. I found that as she goes on each death becomes tenser and more sinister. The first death occurs in the blink of an eye: ‘It must have been a spark in his darkening mind for a moment that went out as he went out.’ Whereas the subsequent killings are more involving, the third is probably the most poignant. The killer is at her sneakiness in this case, in the way she inveigles her way into the life of the victim, using his own son as part of her scheme. It is also in the later deaths that we see the story teasing the reader, throwing up possible means of death, only to show they are not going to be used, only to then reveal the method the murderer has decided to adopt.

The seasoned mystery reader is likely to figure out the criminal’s backstory before the end, but I think the ending as a whole is far more twisty and unexpected. It certainly took me by surprise, with all the elements pleasingly dovetailing together.

If you like your mysteries to have mighty strong stings in their tail, then is definitely the book to place at the top of your to-be-bought list.

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (American Mystery Classics via Netgalley)

P. S. Let me know if there are any other titles by Woolrich that I should be looking out for.

28 comments

  1. Woolrich/Irish is an interesting writer. He was enormously influential, especially in Hollywood.His stories are all over film noir. Rear Window is the most famous.

    I don’t generally enjoy his books as much as I think I ought to. I Married A Dead Man is often considered his best book. I did like this one quite a bit.
    The Truffaut movie is enjoyable too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Woolrich was a strange man, and did live mostly as a recluse, with his mother. “Poor lonely bastard” in American argot is much more sympathetic than I think it is in British. It does rather fit him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did wonder if it was meant more kindly, as I know the word has different shades of meaning. All the same it did a bit informal to be used in an introduction. Guess I am used to the intros written by Martin Edwards, Curtis Evans and others of their ilk.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can’t open the link but I will take your word for it. Good to know that ilk is not a good word to use with Americans. In the UK it is a fairly neutral term for grouping things/people.

        Like

      • https://grammarist.com/words/ilk/ also notes that …

        “..the noun ilk does not necessarily have negative connotations. Derived from a Scottish term meaning the same, the word is synonymous with type and kind, and it’s usually used in phrases like of that ilk or of his/her ilk. It refers to a person’s associates or colleagues. Logically, there’s nothing inherently disparaging about this sense of ilk. It’s neutral.”

        “.. ilk in the disparaging sense is less common in edited writing than it is elsewhere, such as on unedited blogs and in web comments, and it’s still easy to find instances of ilk used in the neutral sense”

        This implies that the variety in connotation has little to nothing to do with US vs. British English.

        The latter is also consistent with the fact that both the online Cambridge Essential British English Dictionary and the Cambridge Essential American English Dictionary, as quoted by Ken, note “mainly disapproving” and that the US Merriam-Webster dictionary, as referenced by me, does not mention a negative connotation.

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  3. The canonical Woolrich are generally considered to be
    I Married A Dead Man (as Irish)
    Rendezvous in Black
    Bride Wore Black
    Waltz into Darkness
    Four Novellas of Fear

    I have read and liked the first three.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Glad this went well Kate, I am a very big fan of Woolrich but completely understand why others really don’t get on with him. PHANTOM LADY, which he published under his “William Irish” byline, is another excellent book, as is I MARRIED A DEAD MAN. He used “George Hopley” for NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, which is probably his magnum opus, and well worth tracking down if you really enjoy his work.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I read the novella ‘The Room with Something Wrong’ recommended by JJ at ‘The Invisibleevent ‘ a while ago and would recommend that and the short story ‘All at once, no Alice’ which is in Otto Penzler’s Locked Room collection. I read ‘Night has a Thousand Eyes’ a very long time ago and remember liking it. I think he was the master at creating a kind of growing anxiety and dread.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Two things Ken,
      1. WordPress often automatically places certain comments into the pending folder. Certain readers like Tomcat have their comments put into moderation all the time. Xavier’s comments also often suffer the same fate. I am not up on the technical side to know why WordPress does this sometimes and not others, but I have noticed that comments which include 1 or more links are more likely to incur this difficulty. Your comment included two links, so I suspect that is why it was put into moderation. It is wordpress’s way of avoiding spam entering post comment sections. It is not error proof.
      2. The time at which you placed your comment was after 2am in the UK. I was asleep, not as you seemed to have imagined waiting up in anticipation of further comments from yourself to then gleefully put them into moderation. Blogs are not 24 hour services. Bloggers need sleep too and overnight comments do not get responded to so quickly. 1 minute is rather a short time to give someone.

      You may also wish to bear in mind that I have not once in this conversation denied the validity of your point re. ilk. I initially did not understand as I was not aware of the American connotation. But once you explained it I happily accepted it.

      Like

      • Kate
        My apologies. I thought you had put me on moderation, the link thing had not occurred to me. I was quite surprised!
        Glad I was wrong, and again, apologies for the error.

        Merry Christmas!

        Like

      • Merry Christmas Ken!
        Yes if your comments don’t appear immediately it will be because WP has moderated you or put you in the spam folder. I wouldn’t know how to moderate anyone.

        Like

  6. “I wouldn’t know how to moderate anyone.”
    I believe there are certain settings by which one can put the comments from a particular reader in moderation, though you will never do such a thing.
    In fact, a London blogger has put me in moderation . I regard it as an insult and have said goodbye to his site.

    Like

  7. Thanks for the review, and it looks like you have a few of these Otto Penzler American classics on your TBR? I haven’t picked this one up, but it sounds like a thriller rather than puzzle…

    Liked by 1 person

      • Penzler is an enterprising guy. He started a mystery bookshop in NY decades ago (he sold me a book). Then he got into publishing and started MysteriousPress. It took off and he sold it to a big publisher. They ran it into the ground, so he bought it back! He made it successful again, and has several brands now. The trick seems to be he actually knows old mysteries.
        Stark House is another case where knowing (and loving) the books seems to be key.

        Like

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