Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Angel

In August I examined the influential film noir Phantom Lady, which was part of the 1944 wave of stylish crime films that established noir as the new mode of murder-dramas, even if the term film noir was still years from general use. Because Phantom Lady was adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich, the most important literary noir author and one of my personal favorite writers, I followed up with a post about the 1943 book. After that, it was impossible to stop me from moving forward to Woolrich’s next novel, which would also be turned into a classic film noir a few years later: The Black Angel.

The Black Angel was published in 1943, the same year as Phantom Lady. It’s the fifth novel from Woolrich’s “main period” (1934–1948), when he wrote the majority of his suspense fiction. It has a plot with similarities to Phantom Lady, but it also corrects a number of the errors of that book to create a more personal and desperate story with less need for a long explanation clogging up the last twenty pages. Woolrich took the Carol Richman chapters from Phantom Lady and imagined what a story about rescuing a man from Death Row might look like if told from her perspective. 

The novel reworks two pulp stories, “Murder in Wax” (Dime Detective, 1 March 1935) and “Face Work” (Black Mask, October 1937). The latter story was reprinted as “Angel Face,” a key phrase in The Black Angel that appears in other places in Woolrich’s fiction. Like many Woolrich novels, the book uses an episodic structure 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 the first-person narration from the titular angel to blur the episodes together. This creates a deeply emotional story, but one some readers find disconcerting because of its unreliable narrator. 

Francis M. Nevins, Woolrich’s biographer and annoying armchair psychoanalyst, considered The Black Angel to be the author’s masterpiece. 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 still among Woolrich’s finest books and shows him working at his psychological keenest and narratively cleverest. It occurs in a perfect noir universe that mixes crime, romantic despair, and bleak urban landscape. No wonder it made such a fine film, even with significant story deviations.

What Woolrich could do better than any suspense author I’ve read is use the minutiae of life to create dread and suspicion in a way any reader can empathize with. The Black Angel opens with the narrator, twenty-two year-old Alberta Murray, realizing through the accumulation of bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence that her husband Kirk is having an affair with 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.’ ”

The evidence for the affair continues to mount until Alberta, a woman who seems to have always played a passive role in her own life, decides to take action. She finds the Other Woman’s address and goes to see her—and in Chapter Two the Noir Moment hits, the “falling beam” Sam Spade talked about in The Maltese Falcon.

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 Mia’s address book, which has Kirk’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 to visit Mia’s apartment. He does and the cops collar him there for murder, similar to the second chapter of Phantom Lady; but now the reader is on the outside of the event, looking at it from the view of the woman left behind.

In Chapter Three, the court convicts Kirk of the murder and puts him on Death Row to await the electric chair. In the brief fourth chapter (“Farewell Scene”) Alberta and Kirk say their goodbyes. Kirk confesses 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 novel’s opening paragraph.

We now enter a classic Woolrich scenario: a race against a moment of preordained 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 deduces that one of the “M” names in Mia’s address book must be the real killer and she has a map to find him. 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. Flood can do nothing about it other than unofficially condone her search for the true killer by going through the four other “M” names in Mia’s black book and hope she can get the murderer to confess. 

Five appetizer chapters have passed, and the book gets to the main course. The episodic structure is already clear readers who noticed the unusual construction of the Table of Contents:

Chapters Six through Ten are indented from the other chapters, and each is a man’s last name preceded by a telephone number. For some reason, first name and number is crossed out. The last chapter is a repeat of an earlier name and number, with the addition of “Again (and hurry, operator, hurry!)” As with the countdown chapter headings in Phantom Lady, this is an ingenious way of generating suspense in readers before they reach the first paragraph. That “Announcement of Widowhood” chapter title certainly has a great hook to it.

Alberta’s man-by-man quest to find the killer and save Kirk from execution leads her into dangers she could never have anticipated. The murder of Mia Mercer isn’t the only crime dealing she’ll find herself ensnared in. Even a man who isn’t the murderer can be dangerous—physically and emotionally. As readers follow Alberta, the questions always linger: “What if she’s wrong? What if her emotional turmoil has caused her to go completely astray and miss an obvious sign?”

At this point when discussing a suspense novel like The Black Angel, I have to decide how much to reveal. Do I act as a reviewer or an essayist? To come to grips critically with Woolrich requires looking at his full storylines. But I wouldn’t want anyone to walk into a Woolrich novel for the first time knowing how it ends. With Phantom Lady I chose to go ahead and tackle the entire book, but I’m going the other direction here since The Black Angel offers bigger rewards to readers who go in cold. Plus, the book is easily available in digital downloads and I want people to buy it and enjoy it for themselves. However, potential readers should proceed with caution from this point, since even broad strokes describing the book’s core can reveal more than some might want to know.

The search chapters named after the next suspect read as linked short stories. Their tones vary, although suspense carries through all of them. One delves deep into the Bowery, following a downward cycle of heartbreak and loneliness that Woolrich knew all too well. He recognized these cheap hotels and watering-spots for transients from his own experience in the early Depression. Another chapter dives into a seedy world of street-level narcotics and harder crime elements where potential death lurks in every shadow. A third chapter shifts into the pulpier world of mobsters and molls (this section borrows the most from the short story “Face Work”).

But the greatest danger Alberta faces is the one she least expects: falling for one of the men who might have killed Mia and sent Kirk to Death Row. This is where Woolrich takes out the most painful of his emotional suspense tools and goes to work on readers. Throughout the novel, the author demonstrates 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 of crafting emotional anxiety.

A fascinating aspect of The Black Angel is Alberta’s role as inadvertent avenger. She cuts a swath through people’s lives, bringing destruction with her. But she isn’t a female Angel of Death like Julie Killeen in The Bride Wore Black. We view Julie Kileen from a distance as she murders the men she believes responsible for her husband’s death. With Alberta Murray we’re trapped inside her frazzled mind. We shiver with her fear and doubt—and self-deception—for the entire tale. 

Alberta isn’t out for vengeance like Julie; she only wants to rescue the man she loves. But she often ends up ruining other people’s lives. This is most apparent in the heartbreaking first search chapter, “Marty.” Alberta seems unaware of what she’s doing, but keeps trying to justify her obsessive quest. When Flood tries to pull Alberta back from her search after a disastrous occurrence, she tells him, “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.” And so Alberta goes on into the night toward the bitter, sweet, or bittersweet end. You never know which Woolrich will deliver, but the second option is least likely.

Cornell Woolrich novels always offer more to discover with each reread. This time through The Black Angel, I discovered a fascination with its “Phantom Lady” Mia Mercer, a character who only appears physically as a beautiful corpse in a turquoise room. What sort of woman was this who wove her way through the lives of such different men, each one twisted in his sad own way? Woolrich handles the “Mia” question subtly, since it comes through the view of Alberta. But it simmers behind events as readers become more aware of how Alberta is justifying her actions.

Like most of Woolrich’s books, The Black Angel has a few plot-holes and logic-bending whoppers. There’s one in particular that should derail the motivation for Alberta’s search. Yet the first time I read the book, I failed to notice it. I didn’t see this continuity problem that the story struts past until someone else pointed it out for me. Was Woolrich aware of the error? I believe that if he were, he wouldn’t have changed it. For him, the upward build of suspense was essential, damn the logistics. And he was right, because I never noticed the logistics blunder until far later. It still doesn’t bother me except to note it in passing. See if you can detect the flaw. Or maybe don’t look for and see if it ever catches your attention. It probably won’t.

I consider The Black Angel a classic, but why do I rank it behind a few other of Woolrich’s novels? Most of it is personal taste. Rendezvous in Black and Night Has a Thousand Eyes are so poignantly, achingly depressing that I can feel life trying to escape from me when I read them. That may not be fun, but you never forget a book that can do that. Black Alibi contains one of the greatest suspense novel premises I’ve encountered, and its tension set-pieces are unbeatable. The Black Angel, brilliant as it is, can’t compete with the brute force of these other books in my personal Woolrich canon against. It’s more at the level of I Married a Dead Man, the last novel of Woolrich’s main period. Which still means it’s one of the best noir novels ever written.

The movie version arrived three years later … and I’ll be back with that in a few days.