14 January 2009

Masterpiece: The Black Angel

The Black Angel (1943)
By Cornell Woolrich

I have shouted about the upcoming new printing of this novel since back when I heard about it in a personal email from the publisher. (I had inquired if the company planned to print more Woolrich to follow their edition of Night Has a Thousand Eyes.) By this time, you’re probably tired of having me remind you about The Black Angel, but I’m a supporter of the “Cause de Cornell”: I feel one of my purposes in life is to make certain everybody knows about this astonishing author. This long review is but the next step in my on-going crusade to promote the Literary Master of Despair.

But please don’t expect me to go back to the Woolrich well too frequently. My nerves and tolerance for utter despondency can only handle so much.

The Black Angel was first published in 1943 from Doubleday. It is the fifth full-length novel from Woolrich’s “main period” (1934–1948), when he wrote the majority of his suspense fiction. His previous novel, Phantom Lady, was published under the “William Irish” pseudonym, but all the novels in the “Black” series continued to carry Woolrich’s name on the dust jackets. (To this day, Woolrich is still known as “William Irish” in France, where he is rightfully considered a major American author. The French are always ahead of the curve.)

Woolrich reworked elements of two earlier pulp stories, “Murder in Wax” and “Face Work.” The latter story was reprinted as “Angel Face”—a phrase with key importance in The Black Angel. Like many of Woolrich’s novels, the book uses an episodic structure composed of lengthy chapters. But where the division between episodes in The Bride Wore Black, Black Alibi, and Rendezvous in Black are stark dividing lines, The Black Angel uses a first-person narration from the angel in black of the title that blurs the episodes together in a strange way.

It results in a bizarre novel, deeply emotional yet disconcerting for some readers because of its unreliable narrator. Francis M. Nevins, Woolrich’s biographer and advisor to his estate, considered this the author’s masterpiece. I don’t agree. I incline toward the nihilistic Rendezvous in Black, the horror of Black Alibi, and the unrelenting existential dread of Night Has a Thousand Eyes. But The Black Angel is a superb and unforgettable work, and shows Woolrich working at his psychological best and narratively cleverest.

What Woolrich could do better than any suspense author I have read is use the minutiae of life to create dread and suspicion in a way that every reader can understand. The Black Angel opens with our narrator, twenty-two year-old Alberta Murray, starting to realize through bits and pieces that her husband Kirk has started an affair with a singer named Mia Mercer.
A lie now and then when there was no reason for a lie. There was the evening he’d spent with one of the fellows, had a few beers too many. No harm in that. I’d told him so. I’d said, “I didn’t ask you Kirk. You’re the one telling me.” Then, only a week or so later, when his companion of that particular night happened to be up in the apartment and I laughingly referred to the incident, why did he develop such as blank, puzzled look and give such a cagey, noncommittal answer? Until Kirk gave him a little signal on the side, which I pretended not to see, that seemed to work wonders with his powers of recollection.
The evidence continues to mount, and finally Alberta, a woman who seems to have always played a passive role in her own life, decides to do something. She finds the Other Woman’s address and goes to see her . . . and in Chapter Two the beam falls. (If you understand the reference, I’m glad you like The Maltese Falcon as much as I do.)

When Alberta enters Mia Mercer’s apartment, she finds the beautiful occupant smothered under a coral sateen pillow. “Though no man was the breath of her life, one of them had taken the breath of her life away, and she was dead.” Alberta snatches away Mia’s address book, which has her husband’s name in it, and a matchbook she finds stuck in the door and flees the scene. Too late she thinks of calling Kirk to tell him not go visit Mia’s apartment. He does and the cops nab him for the murder. In Chapter Three, the court convicts Kirk of the murder and puts him on Death Row to await the electric chair. In the brief Chapter Four (“Farewell Scene”) Alberta and Kirk say their goodbyes. Kirk confesses that he was planning to break it off with Mia, and Alberta believes him. She knows he still loves her, because he again calls her “Angel Face.” “I had that much back again at least. He always called me that. That was his name for me when we were by ourselves. That was our special thing, from him to—“ An incomplete echo of the opening paragraph of the novel.

We now enter a classic Woolrich scenario, so recently seen in Phantom Lady: the race against the moment of pre-ordained death. Alberta discovers that the matchbook used to wedge open the door to allow the killer to enter Mia’s apartment has a monogrammed “M” on it, and not in the style of Mia Mercer’s monogram. Alberta takes a great leap of faith: one of the “M”s in Mia’s address book must be the actual killer. She goes to the only sympathetic cop on the force, Flood (sympathetic cops occur rarely in the Woolrich universe, and Flood’s sympathy is a meager thing) with her theory. He can do nothing about it other than to unofficially condone her search for the killer by going through the four other “M” names in Mia’s little black book.

Five appetizer chapters have passed, and the book now gets to the main course. The episodic structure is already clear to the reader, who must have noticed the unusual way the Table of Contents is set up:
Chapters Six through Ten are indented from the other chapters, and each is a man’s last name, starting with “M,” preceeded by a telephone number. The first name and number is crossed out for some reason. The last chapter is a repeat of an earlier name and number, with the addition of “Again (and hurry, operator, hurry!)” Alberta’s person-by-person quest to find the real killer now begins, and it will lead her into dangers she could never have anticipated. The murder of Mia Mercer won’t be the only crime in which the heroine will find herself entangled, and even a man who isn’t the murderer she wants to find can be deadly—physically and emotionally.

At this point when reviewing a suspense novel like The Black Angel, a critic has to decide how much he wants to reveal of the book’s secrets. Do I now act as a reviewer, or an essayist? To come to grips critically with Woolrich requires revealing his full storylines. But I wouldn’t want anyone to walk into a Woolrich novel for the first time knowing how it ends. That douses the pleasure of the author’s unpredictability. And since I do want you—O Implied Reader—to purchase this book and read it for yourself, I won’t elaborate much on what occurs in these indented chapters with men’s names. However, potential readers of The Black Angel should proceed with caution from this point on; even broad strokes describing the book’s core can reveal more than some readers might want to know.

One of these “M” names must conceal the killer that Alberta Murray needs to find, and not only find but convince or trick into confessing if she is to save her husband’s life. She starts at the first name, the crossed-off “Marty,” and starts her dangerous quest. The search chapters read as linked short stories. Their tones vary, although suspense carries through all of them. One section delves deep into the Bowery, following a downward cycle of heartbreak and loneliness that Woolrich knew all too well himself. He recognized these cheap hotels and watering-spots for transients from first-hand experience. The following chapter goes into a seedy world of street-level narcotics with harder crime elements and potential death in every shadow, and another chapter goes toward the pulpier world of mobsters and molls (a chapter that borrows the most from the short story “Face Work”).

But the greatest danger that Alberta faces is the one she would least expect: falling for one of the men who might have killed Mia. This is where Woolrich takes out the most painful of his heartbreaking tools and goes to work on the reader.

Throughout the novel, Woolrich displays his unerring ability to nail the prose poetry of despair:
There is something abysmally sad about all such group dancing late at night; it is like a publicly performed ritual to mortality, and I found it grimly melancholy over and above the grim melancholy of my own errand. A bacchanalia at fixed prices. The never-ending, never-succeeding attempt to hold pain, despair, death at bay for a little while. A little while longer.
The novel bursts with passages like this; Woolrich was at the height of his powers in crafting emotional suspense.

One of the fascinating aspects of The Black Angel is Alberta’s role as inadvertent and unconscious avenger. She cuts a swath through people’s lives, bringing destruction with her. But she isn’t the female Angel of Death that Julie Killeen is in The Bride Wore Black. We view Julie Killeen from a distance as she kills the men she believes responsible for her husband’s death, but with Alberta we must sit inside her frazzled young mind and shiver with fear and doubt—and self-deception—for the entire story. Alberta isn’t out for revenge like Julie; she only wants to rescue the man she loves. But she often ends up destroying, most apparent in the heartbreaking chapter “Marty.” Alberta seems unaware of what’s she doing, but keeps trying to justify her obsessive quest. “No, I won’t give up trying. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. I believe, and that’s all I’ve got. Don’t take it away from me, I won’t let you,” she tells Flood when he tries to pull her back from her quest after a disastrous occurrence. And so Alberta goes on into the night, to the bitter, sweet, or bittersweet end. You never know which one Woolrich will deliver, but the second option is unlikely.

This time reading through The Black Angel, I also discovered a fascination with its “Phantom Lady,” the character who appears only as a beautiful corpse in the turquoise room. Mia Mercer, the dead woman who connects these four men whose names start with “M.” What sort of woman was this who could weave through such four different lives, each one twisted and sad in its own way? Woolrich handles the “Mia” question in a subtle way, since it must come through the view of a confused woman like Alberta, but it definitely simmers behind the story.

Like all of Woolrich’s novels, The Black Angel has some continuity whoppers and logical pot-holes. There’s one in particular that should totally throw off the motivation for Alberta’s search for Mia’s killer. But the first time I read the book, I never noticed it. Not until reading Nevins’s biography of Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die, did it occur to me the logic problem that the story glibly walks past. Nevins admits he didn’t notice it the first time either. Was Woolrich aware of the error? I’m sure that if he were, he wouldn’t have changed anything. For him it was the upward build of suspense that was paramount, and he was right because—well, damn, I never noticed the problem at all until somebody pointed it out. Re-reading the novel, it still doesn’t bother me except to note it in passing. See if you detect where the flaw lies. (Don’t look too hard, because it might distract you.)

The Black Angel is one of the most perfect constructions of the noir universe that mixes crime and dread against the bleak urban landscape. No wonder it made such a fine film, even with significant changes made to it. I will address the film in a later post, since it deserves attention, but no other novel of Woolrich’s adapted as well to the big screen as The Black Angel. It’s the essence of both roman and film noir.

Why do I still place The Black Angel behind a few other of Woolrich’s novels? Blame my personal tastes for most of it. Rendezvous in Black and Night Has a Thousand Eyes are so poignantly, achingly depressing that I can feel life trying to escape from me as I read them. Black Alibi contains one of the greatest premises I’ve come across in a suspense novel, and its tension set-pieces are un-toppable. The Black Angel, brilliant as it is, can’t compete in my personal Woolrich canon with the brute force of these other books. It sits more at the same level for me as I Married a Dead Man, the last novel of Woolrich’s main period.

However, The Black Angel is now back in print, and so I’m pushing it. Not to be missed, never to be forgotten.

Errata: The cover of the book on websites, and in the image above, claim this edition has an introduction by Francis M. Nevins, who writes the intros to most modern Woolrich volumes. However, the copy I have doesn’t have either the introduction or mention of it on the front. Perhaps the introduction wasn’t ready at the time of press?

Bonus: My imagining of Éowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan, as Alberta Murray, the Black Angel…