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.

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Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982)

This anthology made it onto my radar when Cornell Woolrich’s Murder at the Automat was reviewed over at The Invisible Event.  It’s not so much that the description of the story made me swoon, but it was the mention that the story could be found in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries, and hey, anytime I learn about the existence of a locked room mystery collection I’m going to buy it.  Plus, one of the editors is Isaac Asimov.  While I’ve never been a fan, he’s the author of a supposedly solid impossible crime (I have yet to read) The Caves of Steel, and I was curious to see what he might have brought to the table.

Well, aside from the story choice, Asimov’s contribution is a three page introductory essay titled Nobody Did it.  It’s meant to set the stage by tantalizing us with an introduction to the genre of locked room mysteries, but Asimov gets tripped up and wastes one page on a philosophical point that veers into the question of how the moon came to exist.  That leaves us with little space for a few scrap mentions of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr – Carr being the one name that truly deserves a mention given the topic, and he’s not even featured in the anthology!

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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.

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Phantom Lady – William Irish (1942)

Scott Henderson is miffed that he’s been ditched by his wife on date night.  Not wanting to waste dinner reservations and tickets to a hot show, he picks up a complete stranger at the bar on a lark: they’ll enjoy a night out on the town with no expectation of making a connection or ever seeing each other again.  His companion is nice, but not especially memorable.  That proves to be a problem when Henderson returns home to find his wife murdered, the police already at the scene of the crime, and there’s some damning evidence that he’s the guilty party.

Henderson finds himself without an alibi, as he doesn’t even know the name of the woman that he was out with.  Even worse, various witnesses throughout the night – a barman, a cab driver, the wait staff at the restaurant – all testify that he was flying solo.  Sentenced to death, and with the days ticking down, Henderson spends his time behind bars while his best friend races to piece together his shattered alibi.

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