Rendezvous in Black – Cornell Woolrich (1948)

Remind me never to mess with Cornell Woolrich or any of his surviving relatives…  Rendezvous in Black is a tale of revenge, and it is some astoundingly dark revenge.  A bereaved man, with no idea which of five people were responsible for the careless accident that killed his fiancé, decides to get revenge on all five.  The vengeance is exacted not directly on the five suspects, but rather on the women that each loves most.

In other words, a madman goes on a rampage, killing five innocent women.  Oh, but it’s so much more than that, and Rendezvous in Black enshrines Cornell Woolrich as one of those authors for which I now have to track down absolutely everything written.  This is not the conventional mystery that I read – hell, it might not even really be a mystery – but I enjoyed it just as much as the cream of the crop out of the Golden Age.

The book is divided into five “rendezvous” chapters, each dedicated to its own thread of revenge.  In a sense, each section is a self contained short story, and as long as you understand the basic motivating factor, you could read them independently.  In fact, if there’s anything that you do this year, read “The Second Rendezvous”; it’s an absolute belter.  But don’t do just that, read them all, because there is a novel tying it all together: a tale of love taken, stolen, shattered, and torn.

Rendezvous number one is but a brief appetizer: a man mourning the loss of his wife to a sudden tetanus infection receives an anonymous note stating “Now you know what it feels like”.  The widower brushes it off, but a detective reviewing the case can’t help but suspect that the death wasn’t an accident.  That kickstarts an investigation that will run in the background of the novel, and brings the element of detective fiction into play.

That takes us to “The Second Rendezvous”, which is the true gem of the novel, and one of the most savory thirty-odd pages that I’ve read to date.  I’ll skip any details so that you can enjoy it in full, but I’d recommend obtaining a copy of Rendezvous in Black on the back of this chapter alone.  It’s the ultimate tale of revenge, and there’s a definite smug satisfaction in the exquisitely written final pages.  Woolrich could have published this on its own, dropped the microphone, and simply left it at that.

While the first two rendezvous provide a sense of continuity of setting, the rest of the stories each take place in their own little world.  Rendezvous three brings World War 2 into the mix, with a recently married soldier shipped off to join the fight in the pacific.  What happens by the end of the story is probably the tipping point that will shift the reader from siding with the killer, and starting to question whether the vengeance is going way too far.

Even with that in mind, I think you’ll find yourself cheering on the victim of “The Fourth Rendezvous” as she naively attempts to thwart the police’s best efforts to save her life.  Cornell Woolrich creates a fascinating tightrope of empathizing with both predator and prey, and it probably isn’t until rendezvous five that the absolute chilling horror breaches the structure of the narrative.

Five short stories bookended by epilogue and prologue make Rendezvous in Black a whirlwind of a read.  It’s breathless, without any opportunity for the rote footwork of investigation to set in.  I’ll be evangelizing this one going forward, and I’ll start with you: go out and get this book.  I’ve done back to back Cornell Woolrich reads at this point, and it’s taking my everything in my power to avoid a third.  A tip of the hat to JJ at The Invisible Event for turning me on to yet another excellent author, and he’s really outdone himself this time.

Did you know…

As an interesting aside, the main character of the book is named Johnny Marr, while a character from rendezvous four is named Morrissey.  Fans of 80s post-punk band The Smiths will recognize these names as being shared by guitarist (stage name) and singer (real name) respectively.  Perhaps it’s a coincidence (Johnny Marr’s wikipedia page gives an entirely different explanation for his stage name), but it feels like a whopper of one.

My edition

Do you go for a battered book with a classic vintage cover, or the more readily available 80s edition in more acceptable condition? I went for the former and didn’t regret it for a moment. As you can see in my image up top, the bottom right corner is completely missing and there’s a good chip out of the top left hand corner. Aside from that, the book (and most importantly, the spine) was in perfectly good shape for reading: and that’s what I care most about.

This 1949 Pocket Books edition sports a fine example of the classic cover art that I’m on the lookout for. It’s unabridged (wouldn’t want a single page cut from this novel), and although it’s published post-war, it features that delectable paper stock. Unfortunately, vintage Woolrich books don’t go for cheap, and I was lucky to find this tattered version for a good price.

5 thoughts on “Rendezvous in Black – Cornell Woolrich (1948)”

  1. Okay, I’m not even going to skim this review, because I already know how much you enjoyed it and I want to come to it as pure as possible, Man, we are going to have a lot of fun with Woolrich in the years ahead, aren’t we?

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      1. My 25 year obsession with Rear Window begs to disagree, but we’ll see. Sometimes it’s nice when even I’m surprised by what I choose to read…

        Like

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