Despite the fact that Cornell Woolrich wrote a lot of novels and stories you might have heard of — Hitchcock’s Rear Window was based on a Woolrich story, and so was François Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid — he’s not as well known today as he might be. Thanks to copyright issues, most of his novels have been out of print for years. Having just finished one of them, I can definitely say that this seems like a shame.
The Bride Wore Black is as lean and twisted as the bride’s revenge itself. The book is clean and methodical: each chapter is titled after one of the bride’s intended victims. There are three movements within each chapter: Julie Killeen’s false identity (the persona she assumes to kill each man); the murder; and the post-mortem, with the complete bewilderment of the police. Neither the police nor we know why Julie is doing what she’s doing. Stretches of time lapse between each murder. Yet each one is spare, tight, without a single misstep. This calm, precise, orderly method of doing something that seems completely insane makes Julie a compelling character to follow.
This mystery subverts a number of the usual noir paradigms. For one thing, it places the femme fatale in the central role, in the place of a hero. Instead of watching the woman in the piece with masculine contempt, we watch her with empathy, and even root for her success in murdering people we know nothing about. Then, too, the murders take place either offstage or with the sparest description possible. Woolrich is not out to glorify violence or to take morbid pleasure in these murders. On the contrary, the tone is melancholy, bittersweet.
I won’t tell you why Julie does what she does, or how the police finally discover it, mostly because Woolrich withholds this information himself, almost as protection for Julie. Find out yourself. This is a truly distinctive, well-written, interesting noir novel that I didn’t want to put down.