Rendezvous in Black by Cornell Woolrich
I often find my Netflix watching nicely overlapping my book reading on occasion. As occasional background/foreground to my late night Pogo.com solitaire sessions to quell the renewal of my insomnia, I’ve been watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 1. Old school half-hour mini-plays of death and murder and subterfuge. Good times. This was thoroughly apropos as I began reading Cornell Woolrich, a man who often gets wrongly shunted aside by the personages of Chandler and Cain when it comes to the granddaddies of noir. Woolrich penned the novel for Rear Window, arguably Hitchcock’s finest films — at least of the several featuring the uncanny James Stewart.
Rendezvous in Black is nothing short of brilliant, if not amusingly dated and readable only as in black and white. The most telling facet of how good the story is, is that I can tell you everything that happens up front, and it’ll still kill you. Johnny Marr meets his special gal outside the drugstore every night at 8 PM. The night before they’re supposed to get married, May 31st, he comes upon a gruesome scene. A blanket draped corpse, face smashed unrecognizable, a broken bottle littering the street. You see, some gallivanting businessmen in a charter plane fresh from a fishing trip decided to wing an empty liquor bottle out the window, dooming the young lady. Marr loses it, and I mean in a big way. He instantly smashes his watch, turns back the hands to read three minutes to eight, and then decides to stand vigil outside the drugstore, convinced that his gal will be right along, and that everything will be all right. He does this for months, losing his apartment, his job, his mind. A new beat cop, swinging dick bravado and all, roughs him up, tells him his girl’s dead and to get lost before he takes him in. So Johnny leaves. And cooks up a plan.
He quickly takes jobs at all the charter plane services, checking records to find out which plane flew over. He finds a list of the five men involved, and decides to get his vengeance on them. Not by killing them, but by taking away the women in their lives that matter to them most. And that’s where Woolrich is fucking brilliant. The following five chapters follow as Johnny goes on his rampage, murdering each of the five women on May 31st. And it’s not all wives who fall under his wrath, which adds that necessary element of awesomeness.
Each incident is a like a short story unto itself, my favorite being the second rendezvous. A schlub cop dogs Marr at each turn, desperately trying to foil the plan. It’s a bit hokey, I will definitely admit, but if you read it in the context that the novel was written in the 40s, and if you give it that black and white hardboiled noir approach, it’s sure to be an instant adoration.
This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Prisco’s reviews, check out his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.