The Black Angel – Cornell Woolrich (1943)

It seems like a strange coincidence that The Black Angel so neatly straddles the essence of the two Cornell Woolrich novels that I’ve read so far.  Written just a year after Phantom Lady (1942) was released under the pseudonym William Irish, The Black Angel shares the plot of a seemingly hopeless race to save an innocent man from death row.  There’s a gender reversal here, with Alberta French (aka Angel Face) struggling to dig up any clue that would prove that her husband didn’t smother his paramour to death.  All that Alberta has to go on is a personalized matchbook monogramed with the letter M, and four potential matching names from the victim’s address book.

Those four entries in the address book lead to an episodic story telling, which is where the plot intersects with Rendezvous in Black.  Alberta jumps through significant hoops to track down the individuals matching each name, and schemes herself into their lives in an effort to learn if they were involved in the murder.  That this is done serially, rather than in parallel, breaks the story into a series of novelettes, each with a very different vibe.  The comparison with Rendezvous in Black breaks down in that these aren’t tales of darkest revenge, although the title Black Angel had me thinking they would be.

Instead, we watch as Alberta embeds herself in the seedy underbelly of New York City, getting wrapped up with drunks, drug dealers, and gangsters.  She’s armed only with her looks and dogged determination.  While that works in her favor at times, it also lands her in some harrowing jams.  There are some absolutely chilling moments – a scene in a hotel room standing out in particular – and the story telling pace never lets up.

The story has a few minor flaws.  Alberta’s plight to save her husband from execution doesn’t quite hit home because we know from page one that the guy was a cheating scumbag who was planning on leaving her.  There’s also a scene where Alberta becomes a dancer at a club that feels a bit far fetched, and the whole short story containing that plot line feels like there’s too much good fortune involved.  And yet, even those scenes were fun, if not quite matching the heights of the rest of the novel.

Cornell Woolrich cements himself as one of the few authors that I’m going to have to read to completion.  The Black Angel isn’t quite as tight as Rendezvous in Black, and it lacks the shock ending of Phantom Lady, but it’s an absolute page turner.  I’m going to track down some more of his work, because I only have And So to Death and Fright left on my shelf unread.

My edition

I originally purchased the yellow Bestseller Mystery edition, which was released by Mercury Publications.  I was horrified when I realized that it was an abridged edition, and not wanting to leave a single paragraph of Woolrich’s prose on the floor, I scrambled to find another copy.  I lucked out by finding a cheap Murder Mystery Monthly edition with a stellar cover.  Yeah, the artwork’s a bit misleading, coming across as some sort of vampire horror novel, but it’s that vintage style that I love so much.  Anthony Abott’s About the Murder of a Startled Lady was released as part of this same series, as was Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles and James M Cain’s Double Indemnity.  These are really nice physical copies if you can manage to track one down.

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