Friday, October 02, 2009

The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich

Woolrich, Cornell. The Black Angel. New York: Pegasus Books. 2008.
(The book was originally published in 1948)

Warning: spoilers. (However, I am hoping no one will be all that inclined to read this one because, well, you know, "So many books, so little time." Why waste that time on such fare? That means spoilers shouldn't matter too much.)

May I start by saying I wanted to like this one, which was this month's choice for the Connecticut mystery book discussion group? I like noir. This one was described as "classic noir." Woolrich wrote The Rear Window, a book I've never read but a movie I love. Okay, permission granted or not, I guess I did start by saying that. Now I will tell you what my reaction was: meh. And if this one hadn't had a plot that kept me going, it would have been "double meh." Mind you, I'm not talking here about the sort of plot that acts as a magnetic field, that has me falling hopelessly into a book before I know what has happened to me, one in which I become one of the characters and -- heart pounding -- wonder how the hell we're going to get out of this one alive. No, I'm talking here about the kind of plot that keeps me reading because I am so amazed by everything this completely unrealistic woman is doing and can't wait to find out what absurd thing she is going to do next.

Alberta Murray has three months (that seem more like three years to me, what with all her affairs and career changes and all) to find a killer. She is a young woman so green that

I reached blindly all along the upper-case cupboards until I'd located and toppled down that bottle of ceremonial gin of his. I didn't know very much -- yet -- about the procedure of using it. That was his province, not mine. He was very good at fixing it with things like mint and lemon, but I didn't want cordiality now; I wanted courage. I let out a little into the jigger glass and gulped it down. I thought some plaster had fallen off the ceiling and hit me on the chest for a minute. (p. 7)

We're not talking Nancy Drew here. We're talking Heidi. Yet, if I tell you that by the end of the book, she has done such things as gone to a strange, repulsive doctor's house by herself, at night, when she knew he was going to be alone; has helped distribute illegal substances (or, at least distributed legal substances illegally. It's not quite clear); has been a dancer in a sleazy nightclub; and has been given a rock of an engagement ring, although already married, would you believe me? I don't blame you. I don't believe me, and I read the book.

Normally, I'm the sort who thinks any empathetic person -- male or female -- can write any character. Thus when asked, "Can a man write a believable female character?" my answer is usually "yes." (All right, a qualified "yes" -- you know me too well -- but still.) Anyway, just because some men can write believable female characters does not mean all can. Judging by this book, Woolrich was one of those who could not.

I know. I know. There are those of you out there who are going to say to me, "This is a mystery. This is noir. Why are you expecting realism?" But that's my point. A good mystery has me believing the completely unbelievable. I'm not distracted by the fact that a character is completely inconsistent and unpredictable. A well-written book will have me believing that humans can fly or that anyone who wants to can happen upon a specific tree trunk that is the doorway to another world.

In fairness to the book, I have to admit that it did grab me in the beginning. I fell into it for the first eighty pages or so. But then I kept reading, and as I kept reading, I began to doubt everything I read, so that I found myself wondering how I could ever have believed the main premise of the story. I mean, call me a 21st-century woman, but really. If I'd discovered my husband was cheating on me, had spent a day realizing he was all packed and ready to run off with the other woman, and then the cops showed up at my door with him, accusing him of murder (and why did they do that? Why did they bring him home before taking him to the station? They could easily have come alone to search for his packed suitcase), I'd be saying,

"Lock him up and throw away the key," and be thanking my lucky stars, because he'd be somewhere I couldn't get to him, the lying, cheating bastard, to wind up on death row myself.

But no. She's overwhelmed by joy to see him. He sobs to her, once he's been sentenced to death, that he made a mistake. He didn't mean it. He wasn't going to go through with it.

All right, he's been neglecting her forever, and now he's reformed. She's completely convinced -- he's "come back to her." And instead of "lock him up and throw away the key," it's "I love you so much, honey, I'll do anything to prove your innocence," including, you know, illegally delivering drugs (and didn't she oh-so-conveniently not only not get murdered when that went wrong, but also so easily got the charges against her dropped?) and dancing in nightclubs. Oh, and did I mention, seducing another man and courting him for weeks (despite only having three months before her husband would be strapped to the electric chair)?

Only a man who doesn't know women would write such a character. He's a man who assumes that all any woman would want would be to have her man back, no matter what kind of bastard he was. His fantasy female would forgive a man anything, put her life on the line for him. I hate to burst Woolrich's bubble, but I (a real life female) would be out lifting martini glasses with my girlfriends (by the way, knowing exactly how to mix a martini should I invite my friends back to my place afterwards) saying, "Screw the asshole and everyone like him."

Thus, I was nothing but annoyed with Alberta. I was annoyed with the book. I began to get incredibly annoyed with Woolrich's writing style. When I came across this passage,

"Yes mum, what'll ye be liking?" the depressing-looking figure at my elbow asked with a brogue you could cut with a knife. (p. 197)

I found myself thinking, "You did not need to add that bit about the brogue. Either use the dialect or tell us about it. Both is over-kill." I was so annoyed, I didn't even really care how it ended (and no surprises there. I kept hoping that maybe the husband would prove to be the killer after all, which would have made it at least a little more interesting, but no).

I will say one positive thing (well, besides the fact that the book grabbed me in the beginning). This book was made into a movie that is apparently considered a noir classic. Everyone knows I am movie ignorant, so I haven't seen it. However, I bet the movie works. I can imagine the dark scenes. I can imagine an Alberta who is not portrayed as being so innocent in the beginning. I can imagine the sexy scenes. I can even imagine the terror. I'm convinced it's one of those rare, rare phenomena: a book that made a better movie than the book. I need to see the movie. I'm pretty sure I'd love it. As for the book? Well, in the language of library review media: not recommended. (Uh-oh, I am afraid I've been influenced by Woolrich's overkill.)


Anonymous said...

Emily - I'm with you all the way and I wasn't even that into the first 80 pages. In fact, I put the book down well before that and didn't pick it up again until Mike had finished it.
But, towards the end, I started to wonder if Woolrich really meant the reader to support Alberta, if it really was a straight tale of good little supportive wife does anything to save husband. As you say she does some pretty unbelievable and horrible things, and two men go their deaths because of her. But she gets her husband back (at which point she realises that she doesn't love him all that much any more, and that's the price she pays). Does the end justify the means? Is she as innocent as she's painted, or is she an unreliable narrator? And then there was this line: 'There is nothing more horrid in crime than the failure to regard it as crime.' It's applied to Beulah but it could apply to Alberta, who certainly manages to layer her actions with at least a veneer of (self and reader deluding?) ethical purpose.

So I don't know. Either there are subtleties there to be teased out. Or, it's crap.

Emily Barton said...

Becky, I wish I'd thought to read it that way. It might have been more interesting. Still, I think that since he seems to have known so little about women, he should not have chosen to write in the first-person from a woman's point of view.

Pete said...

"Meh" indeed (although I've never heard of this guy so wouldn't know where to start looking even if I did want to read the book). It is Sunday afternoon here and this review was perfect for my mood. Sounds like an almost-made-it but not quite kind of book. Maybe I should wait for the movie (since classic noir works for me too).

Rebecca H. said...

I agree with you about enjoying the beginning -- I really liked the book until the end of the doctor episode. The beginning of the Mason story is when things began heading downhill for me, largely because the plot got so crazy. The writing started to feel way too rushed, and I felt jolted out of the story.

Unfortunately, I can believe that a woman would do what Alberta did; yes, I suppose that is a male fantasy, although I think distressingly large numbers of women would live up to it. But I do like Becky's point -- Alberta does such crazy stuff, would her husband really want to stay with her after all that? Yes, she saved his life, but I can see him having a hard time figuring out the person Alberta's become. The more I think about her, the crazier she becomes, which doesn't bode well for the future of their marriage!

Emily Barton said...

Pete, no, don't bother, but you might check out the movie. However, if you can get a copy of Tana French's In the Woods, I highly recommend it. A great psychological thriller.

Dorr, I like Becky's point, too, about a husband most likely not wanting to stay with a woman after all that, especially given that he didn't seem to be the most devoted husband in the first place.