“The really clever woman is all things to all men. Like the chameleon, she takes her coloring from his ideal of her. It is her job to find out what that is.”
Men are dying all over the city. Inspector Wanger is convinced that a single killer is responsible, but these murders are unlike any he has ever encountered. For the suspect is a woman, a woman who insinuates herself into the lives of her prey before vanishing into the night. Who is she? Why does she kill? And how many more men will have to die before she is satisfied?
The Bride Wore Black is a twisting, darkly ironic serial killer tale that follows this woman on her deadly mission even as her identity and motive remain opaque until the end. Cornell Woolrich excels at this kind of “list” format, in which one character pursues a series of suspects, witnesses, or, in this case, victims. This unusual structure allows brief, vivid glimpses into lives that are alternately bleak, sentimental, or comedic. Woolrich is also practically unique in the noir universe for centering so many of his novels and short stories around women—usually highly capable women working on behalf of a male in distress. The Bride Wore Black pushes traditional gender roles even further, as the main character overtly uses her femininity as a weapon.
The plot itself is simple: one after another, men are being killed. The circumstances of their lives and deaths could not be more different, yet the reader knows (as the police do not, yet) about the anonymous woman who investigates these men, charms them, and lures them to their doom using exactly the technique most likely to appeal to each individual. In fact, this is not so much a plot as an excuse to explore the lives of the victims, character sketches that, while brief, are utterly lived-in and convincing. Every man has his fatal weakness. Most of them don’t even try to hide it. The woman easily guesses, for instance, that for a man whose walls are plastered with pin-up photographs, “they’re a sign of loneliness, not popularity. If he had many friends, he wouldn’t have to bother with pictures.”
“He’s never actually found the girl he’s looking for; there wouldn’t be so many of them up there if he had. There wouldn’t be any of them up there if he had […] Just look at them up there. Not one of them as she really is—or was, rather. Soft-focused in tulle, haloed in photographic mist, peering through a lace fan, ogling the camera in reverse through a mirror, biting a rose…” She smiled a little, not altogether unkindly. “A man and his dreams.”
Another episode, which tips from black comedy to harrowing tension on a dime, uses a young child as an unwitting weapon against his own father.
The crimes are relentless and, in their own ways, perfectly logical. This killer is a detective in reverse, using the personality of the victim and the characteristics of the crime scene to stage the murder that is most suited to a particular environment. What makes these scenes especially tense is that they are told from the perspective of potential victims; it is not always obvious which woman is the killer, nor does the reader learn why these men are being targeted. They may not even know themselves.
The danger of this kind of structure is repetition, but Woolrich has anticipated such hazards. Just as the reader is starting to get a little restless with the format, surprises start popping up, deviations from the formula that add up to form big twists over the course of the story. By the end, nothing will be clear except that events have crossed over into an uncharted territory where anything can happen and no one is what they seem.
For a while, the killer’s gender allows her to escape suspicion. Then Detective Wanger enters the picture, finding little commonalities between the murders—too many he thinks, to be a coincidence. “One thread by itself is not much good. Two crossed threads are that much stronger. Cross a few more together at the same place, and you’re beginning to get something that’ll hold weight. It’s the way nets are made.” Wanger is a wily adversary, yet some of his attitudes toward the woman he is hunting seem to demonstrate exactly why a woman might have a grudge against men. When he questions a would-be date rapist, Wanger’s sympathies are entirely with the man.
He got white around the mouth with virtuous indignation. “The little so-and-so, I’d like to give her a biff across the snout! I don’t mind a jane standing you off as long as she’s scared about it. But one thing gripes me is a jane standing you off and being fresh about it at the same time!”
Wanger could see his point perfectly. He’d been led on for some reason best known to herself by the murderous little trickster and then dished out of what he had a right to expect was coming to him. As far as Wanger’s personal feelings entered into it—and they didn’t at all—he liked this guy.
It’s a telling moment. Earlier in the novel, Woolrich makes a point of showing female characters giving each other serious warnings about the man Wanger is questioning, making it obvious that no women in his circle consider that man’s behavior acceptable. Yet here are two men, one of them a police officer, in perfect agreement that it is. This is one of the few moments the reader really gets to see inside Wanger’s head, and it’s just enough to make one wonder whether his personal feelings do enter into his fervent pursuit of this woman, maybe just a little.
Both of these characters, the female killer and the male detective, are brilliant but flawed. That they are capable of both amazing feats and dreadful mistakes is what keeps the suspense flowing until the very last page. The denouement is a head-snapping series of revelations that each change the picture entirely, all leading up to a devastating final twist.
“Here it was, night again, and nothing wonderful, nothing glamorous, was ever going to happen to him. Just cheapness. A cheap hotel room, a cheap man in his shirt sleeves, cheap gin, cheap regrets.” That is the world of Cornell Woolrich in three sentences. What is all the more remarkable is that The Bride Wore Black is Woolrich’s first crime novel, yet it so perfectly embodies his worldview. Though the execution is not always as sure-handed as in later books, it is nonetheless impossible to resist.
The seasoned mystery reader is likely to figure out the criminal’s backstory before the end, but I think the ending as a whole is far more twisty and unexpected. It certainly took me by surprise, with all the elements pleasingly dovetailing together.
The coincidences are there, in spades, and that makes suspending disbelief a bit tougher than usual. Still, only someone who’s read the best Woolrich would dare to cavil at this book, so don’t miss it if you’ve never read it.
The Bride Wore Black is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats from American Mystery Classics.
The 1968 film version, directed by Francois Truffaut, is an absolute must-see classic.