Rendezvous in Black (1948)

While Woolrich kicked off his hardboiled career with The Bride Wore Black (1940), his 1948 novel Rendezvous in Black shows how much he learned over the course of the decade. Nivens describes the novel as “best understood as The Bride the way it should have been” (339). The similarities between the books are striking. Both plots involve revenge for an apparently thoughtless action that caused a death. In the case of The Bride Wore Black, the vengeful widow discovers that her husband was not killed by car, but by a sniper in retaliation for his own actions. In many ways, that rendered the murders she committed as pointless violence.

Rendezvous in Black takes the same idea and reverses it. Instead of a woman, it stars a vengeful man whose love interest is killed in the opening chapter by a glass bottle thrown from plane as it passes over head. This leads to a plot that is hard for post-9/11 readers to swallow. The young man, Johnny Marr, proceeds to find jobs at every airline, from large to small, until he finds not only the exact plane that passed over at that exact moment, but the exact people who were on the plane during that specific trip.  In a time of corporate conglomerates and security screenings it can be tough to suspend disbelief. For a young man who doesn’t seem to show any particular intelligence, Marr shows an almost supernatural ability to find and kill his targets. These are not the men who were on the plane, but the women who they each love the most. This includes a couple of secret extramarital lovers. Marr even manages to find a fleeing couple when multiple jurisdictions of police are powerless to find them. At the end, he is foiled by the sort of make-up prosthesis that would make a modern Hollywood make-up artist blush, fooling not only the mourning lover, but the grieving mother.

Suspension of disbelief aside, the book does a great number of things better than The Bride Wore Black. The reader knows why the murders are happening long before the police do. We know the murderer’s identity. Most importantly, we know that the thoughtless discarding of the bottle is responsible for the girl’s death. As such, Marr is a bit more of a sympathetic psychopath. He has a legitimate, if misguided, motivation.

Ultimately, the ending is still tragic. Marr dies, fleeing from the police. None of the targets are spared. Many of the men themselves are killed, as well. Detective Cameron, successful in solving the case, is unsuccessful in saving a single life. Marr’s mission is complete long before his capture.

As a work of hardboiled literature, the book manages better than its predecessor. It contains a femme fatale in the form of one of the men’s mistresses. It showcases a bright, but sloppy detective. Men and women are destroyed by their own hubris, and death always waits ready around each corner. The book shows that Woolrich had embraced his role within his genre by the end of the decade.