The Bride Wore Black (1940) stands as a landmark achievement in Cornell Woolrich’s writing career. The book launched Woolrich’s most notable decade of work, signaling a significant departure from his earlier novels. Woolrich’s first foray in to hardboiled detective fiction also foreshadowed suspense techniques that modern writers still use.
In any type of fiction, the unknown creates tension. In The Bride Wore Black, Woolrich keeps the reader in the dark. The unknown is nothing new to mystery fiction. The genre is built around the unraveling of mysteries. However, this is often done by a detective who serves as a point of view for the reader. In The Bride Wore Black, the victims share the point of view. Detective Wagner makes appearances, frustrated in his attempts to solve the murders, but Woolrich keeps him at an arms-length from the reader. Wagner keeps his knowledge to himself. In modern noir fiction, writers often utilize the perspective of the criminal, but Woolrich keeps Julie Killeen at a distance, as well.
Woolrich concentrates on the victims, a class that is often forgotten in favor of the puzzle itself. Each part begins with the target and ends with his murder. We learn their quirks and weaknesses while waiting for Julie to exploit them. As Julie says about Mitchell’s photos, “Blend them all together, into one composite picture, and they tell you what he has been looking for” (Woolrich Part 2, Chapter 1). Julie has a knack for assuming the feminine roles that men expect. Woolrich often involves multiple women in each part. Readers can’t always be sure which one is Julie or when she will strike. Woolrich leaves us in a constant state of dreadful tension as he finds his calling in writing suspense. With a final twist, Woolrich upturns everything, showing that the only constants in his fictional world are confusion and death.
Ultimately the course of events cannot be changed. The thing must be played out. Nevins writes that “the action of each chapter is identical from part to part, so that we are reminded of a three-step dance, tight and formalized and unalterable, and also of unalterable destiny” (218). Themes of fate’s cruelty would mark Woolrich’s work throughout the decade, as more and more of his characters found themselves struggling against those forces and failing.